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GOP Faces Uphill Battle to Hold Moderate Kirk’s Seat

After weeks of speculation and drama, Rep. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) officially became a candidate for Senate on Monday and his suburban Chicago House seat became what could be one of the top battlegrounds of the 2010 cycle.

Democrats aggressively targeted Kirk for defeat in the previous cycle, but the five-term Republican has been able to hold on in his Democratic-leaning suburban district because of his moderate profile and strong fundraising abilities.

Now that Kirk is vacating the northside Chicago 10th district seat to run statewide, several Democrats and Republicans are interested in running — and it’s unlikely either party will escape a primary fight.

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has no plans to meddle in the primary and has not actively recruited candidates to run. According to one Illinois Democrat, the committee is counting on the belief that any of the several strong candidates interested in running could win the general election.

State Sen. Michael Bond became the first Democrat to get in the race when he announced his candidacy earlier this year. But Bond raised just $86,000 in the second quarter — a lackluster start for any candidate who is building a campaign in the expensive Chicago media market.

“As I have said, what others decide to do in this race will have no impact on my decision,— Bond said in a statement Monday. “I am running for Congress because our country is facing enormous challenges that call for new ideas and pragmatic solutions.—

Most Democrats, however, are waiting to see what marketing consultant Dan Seals, the 2006 and 2008 Democratic nominee, will decide about the race. Seals clobbered his 2008 primary opponent and would bring solid name identification to the race; however, national and local Democrats have expressed serious doubts about giving him a third shot at winning the seat.

Seals’ aides insisted earlier this year that he would enter the race if it were an open seat, but they did not release an official comment this week in response to Kirk’s announcement.

“It’s my understanding that he is definitely interested in running, and you should expect an announcement very soon,— a source close to Seals said Monday.

Meanwhile, at least one prominent local Democrat has declined to run for the seat yet again — but she plans to throw her support behind another state lawmaker who plans to move into the district and run.

National Democrats have tried to recruit state Sen. Susan Garrett (D) in the 10th district for the past few cycles, but she has resisted a bid each time. In a phone interview Monday, Garrett said she has decided not to run for the open-seat race.

“I made the decision this weekend, albeit it wasn’t easy,— Garrett said. “I’m here to stay for a while.—

Garrett is close with state Rep. Julie Hamos (D), who she said will move from Rep. Jan Schakowsky’s (D) neighboring district into the 10th district to run. Hamos did not return a call for comment on the race, but Garrett said she would be likely to support her at some point in the campaign.

Meanwhile, Republicans are looking at an even more crowded primary as they face an uphill battle to hold the seat.

So far, it appears Republicans could be consolidating their support behind businessman Dick Green, CEO of Green — who could self-fund some of his own bid — is still considering running but has done the most groundwork so far out of all of the potential GOP candidates.

Another businessman, Bill Strong, has also expressed interest in the race. A former finance chairman for Sen. John McCain’s (R-Ariz.) presidential campaign in Illinois, Strong would also be able to put a significant amount of his own money into the race.

“If you have a couple rich candidates, they will try to go moderate,— said a Republican operative in the state. “They will try to use Mark Kirk as their template.—

Nonetheless, the National Republican Congressional Committee might look to recruit a state legislator to run for the seat in an effort to find the candidate who is the best ideological fit for the district. Kirk, then a top staffer to retiring Rep. John Porter (R-Ill.), emerged from a crowded primary with 31 percent of the vote when he first ran in 2000.

While Democrats could likely afford to stand by while a few of their candidates battle it out for their party’s nod, a crowded, nasty primary could drastically hurt Republican chances of holding the seat. It would be a tough gamble for Republicans, who need a nominee with a profile similar to that of Kirk and Porter.

State Rep. Beth Coulson confirmed in a phone interview that the NRCC had contacted her about running for Kirk’s seat. The socially moderate Republican said she is considering the race and would decide within the next month.

“I would say that I fit [my state House] district, as well as the Congressional district, really well,— Coulson said.

State Rep. Ed Sullivan (R) has also been targeted as a potential recruit, although an NRCC official did not confirm whether he has any interest. State Sen. Matt Murphy (R) has made it clear that he is interested in running for governor, but some local Republicans hope he will consider a bid for Congress instead.

Businesswoman Patricia Bird (R), who recently ran for Mount Prospect mayor, is also running. Lake County Board Member Ann Maine and Wilmette Village President Chris Canning are also interested, according to a GOP source.

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