Kirk, Giannoulias tout independence from party forces

Updated 10/16/2010 7:31 PM
  • Alexi Giannoulias

    Alexi Giannoulias Bob Chwedyk

  • Mark Kirk

    Mark Kirk George LeClaire

In the race for U.S. Senate, Republican Mark Kirk and Democrat Alexi Giannoulias are out to prove they're independent from their respective party lines.

It's a campaign strategy being used across the country, as the tea party movement and others rally for an end to "establishment politicians.

But in Illinois, getting that message to resonate with voters is especially vital for Kirk and Giannoulias, who need every single independent vote they can get to break the near dead heat they've been locked in during recent months.

"The polls following them are really interesting, said Michael Mezey, a DePaul University political science professor. "It's tough for either candidate to crack 40 percent. They should be above that by now. That means you have a huge number of undecided votes out there.

How effective each candidate will be at selling his independence and netting swing votes many coming from the suburbs ultimately depends on their respective political backgrounds, and the structure of the Senate itself.

Giannoulias, the Illinois treasurer, bills himself as a Democrat, but noted in a recent interview there are a number of areas where he "fundamentally disagrees with leading Democrats, including President Barack Obama.

"Where you stand on certain positions and how you've conducted yourself in public office is up for people to determine whether you'll be independent or not, Giannoulias said.

On social issues, he points out, he supports full marriage equality for gays and lesbians. Obama has come out in support of civil unions, but not for gay marriage.

He also says lawmakers needed to do better at creating jobs in the recession.

"Almost to the exclusion of everything else, there needed to be a focus on job creating programs immediately. That needed to be a priority. We had time to pass health care, he said.

Giannoulias, who worked as a vice president in his family's now-failed bank, also disagrees with the way the bank bailout was handled.

"I know it helped avoid a great depression part two, and made sure the banking system stayed intact. But there was never any oversight, accountability, regulation, any requirement that money was lent out from big banks to small businesses and entrepreneurs … banks hoarded their capital. While they've made it out OK, the rest of the economy has been decimated, he said.

Despite these statements, Mezey points out that Giannoulias has no voting record to reference to prove that independence. Add to that the Chicago Democrat has received major fundraising help from top White House officials Michelle and Barack Obama included.

"I don't see how Giannoulias can effectively make the argument that he's independent. He's certainly endorsed by Democrats, supported by the Democrats.

I don't think there's anything he or anybody can do strategically about it, Mezey said.

Making the independent argument is seemingly easier for five-term Congressman Mark Kirk, Mezey said.

Kirk, in an editorial endorsement interview at the Daily Herald Oct. 7, brandished a chart detailing members of Congress votes' on a left to right spectrum.

He pointed out that he falls in the exact center, voting against his party to end subsidies for big oil, to cut student loan interest rates, and for stem cell research.

However, in recent months, Kirk has taken a majority of votes with his party voting against a small business lending bill, and teaching jobs legislation. He also said he wouldn't support cap and trade anti-pollution legislation though he'd previously voted for it.

Kirk, once rated as highly as 85 percent by gay rights group the Human Rights Campaign, lost the group's endorsement after voting against repealing the military's "Don't ask, Don't tell policy in May.

Responding to the criticism that he may be shifting further right since he announced his bid for Senate, he said, "that's mainly the other side. In the firestorm of a campaign, both campaigns will try to push their (opponents) to the extreme. But my voting record is pretty clear, he said.

"I think if there was one candidate that could make a claim (of independence from his party) it would be Kirk, Mezey said. "He has over his time in Congress not been a straight party line voter.

That said, he points out, the structure of the Senate with just 100 members opposed to the House's 438 gives him far less room to maneuver.

Kirk, who has established himself as a social moderate in favor of abortion rights, will likely find it difficult to completely abandon some of his moderate stances.

But on the "major issues, health care, government spending and taxes, Mezey said, "I think that he'd be voting the same as (Senate Republican leader) Mitch McConnell. ... It's much harder for Republicans to vote against party leadership in the Senate, Mezey said. "The assumption, if he were elected, is that Kirk would be a straight Republican Party voter.