||One of the nation's top political analysts, Stuart Rothenberg, dissects politics at the congressional and statewide levels.|
Stuart Rothenberg: Spotlight congressional races of the week
With the presidential primary season all but over, all eyes are turning to closely contested congressional races. CNN political analyst Stuart Rothenberg takes a look at races in Illinois and Minnesota.
ILLINOIS 10th Congressional District:
The retirement of 10-term Republican Rep. John Porter in Illinois' 10th Congressional District gives the Democrats a chance for a pick-up. But the Republicans have plenty of time to unite behind their nominee after a messy primary, and their ability to do so will, to a large extent, determine which party will win this seat in November.
Located in the extreme northeast corner of the state, the district includes Chicago's north and northwest suburbs along the wealthy North Shore. The district is split between northern Cook County and almost half of Lake County. While it is politically competitive, Republican candidates normally begin with a slight edge.
Porter, a moderate who won a special election for an open seat in 1980, never had problems in the general election. But he faced a number of primaries from challengers who felt his voting record was insufficiently conservative.
The Republican nominee who hopes to carry on the Porter tradition is Mark Kirk, Porter's former chief of staff. Kirk, 40, worked in the State Department during the Bush Administration and later served as legal counsel to the House Committee on International Relations after serving as Porter's chief of staff for six years. He served as a naval officer in Operation Desert Storm and last year's NATO operations in the Balkans.
Insiders say that Kirk is very much in "the Porter mold," and there is no doubt about the congressman's preference in seeing his aide succeed him.
But Kirk had to win a crowded, messy GOP primary to be his party's nominee. The field included Shawn Margaret Donnelly, a young lobbyist and heir to the R. R. Donnelly & Sons printing company fortune; Andrew Hochberg, the former CEO of Sportmart; Mark Damish, the president of Northbrook Village; John Cox, a wealthy, politically conservative tax attorney and CPA, and a number of other hopefuls.
Donnelly, who placed second, and Hochberg both spent heavily, but Kirk benefited from the party establishment's support. Toward the end of the race, Kirk said some unflattering things about Donnelly.
The Democratic nominee is state Rep. Lauren Beth Gash, who was unopposed for her party's nomination.
Gash, 39, and a native of New Jersey, worked for Sen. Alan Dixon (D-Illinois) before graduating from Georgetown University Law School in 1987. She moved to Chicago with her husband and children and became active in community organizations.
In 1992, Gash ousted a conservative GOP freshman from the Illinois House of Representatives, and two years later won reelection against a moderate Republican.
Gash portrays herself as a moderate who has won endorsements and support from across the ideological spectrum. She serves on the legislative advisory board of the Democratic Leadership Council and notes that she shares their philosophy. Gash has been endorsed by EMILY's List. In announcing its support, the organization cited Gash's efforts on behalf of "gun safety, children's welfare and education."
Gash's proven electability and fund-raising ability gives her an excellent leg up on the general election race. Democrats in the district and in Washington see her as a potential winner and are likely to pour resources into the race. But Kirk fits the profile of a Republican who can hold the district after Porter, and that has to make the GOP feel good about their chances. This is definitely one of the key House races to watch this year.
The Democratic race for the right to take on Minnesota's Republican Sen. Rod Grams is finally starting to come into focus. But it's been a long time coming, and it's not entirely there yet.
Polling continues to show Grams in deep, deep trouble. But Republicans remain guardedly optimistic about his chances for surviving because the Democrats don't have a well-established political figure to take him on in the fall.
The Democratic field includes: Steve Miles, a geriatric physician/ bioethics professor at the University of Minnesota; former U.S. attorney David Lillehaug, who came in second in last year's Democratic primary for attorney general; Richard Franson, a former Minneapolis city councilman and perennial candidate; wealthy trial lawyer Mike Ciresi; state Sen. Steve Kelley (from the Minneapolis suburbs); state Sen. Jerry Janezich (from the all-important Iron Range); and former Minneapolis Community Development Agency director Rebecca Yanisch.
Tim Penny, a former congressman who had a huge lead over Grams according to one published poll, has dropped out of the race.
All of the Democratic hopefuls except Ciresi and Yanisch have agreed to drop out of the race if they don't get the DFL party endorsement. That guarantees a three-way primary between the well-funded Ciresi, Yanisch, the only woman in the race, and a third (probably liberal) candidate who won the endorsement.
Ciresi isn't well known in party circles, but he has plenty of his own money to dump in the race. Yanisch also hasn't been a mover and shaker within the state party, but she is personable and articulate. Either candidate would be a headache for Grams, who continues to have campaign shake-ups and has failed to take advantage of his incumbency.
This race will continue to be a problem for the Republicans, and an excellent takeover opportunity for the Democrats.
As for other Senate contests, below is a quick rundown:
REPUBLICANS: Highly Vulnerable: Abraham (MI), Grams (MN), Roth (DE). Vulnerable: Ashcroft (MO), Chafee (RI), Gorton (WA), Santorum (PA), Florida Open.
Watch List: Burns (MT), Jeffords (VT). Safe: DeWine (OH), Frist (TN), Hatch (UT), Hutchison (TX), Kyl (AZ), Lott (MS), Lugar (IN), Snowe (ME), Thomas (WY).
DEMOCRATS: Highly Vulnerable: Robb (VA), Nevada Open. Vulnerable: Nebraska Open, New Jersey Open, New York Open. Safe: Akaka (HI), Bingaman (NM), Byrd (WV), Conrad (ND), Feinstein (CA), Kennedy (MA), Sarbanes (MD), Kohl (WI), Lieberman (CT).