ANALYSIS: GOP’s Road to 51: Illinois

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This is the third in a series of articles looking at the races most likely to determine whether Republicans capture or Democrats hold the majority in the U.S. Senate after Election Day.

Is it better to be the candidate who approved loans for alleged mobsters through his family bank or the candidate who embellished his service record?

It’s a trick question.  These “scandals,” such as they are, figure to matter little in the race between Democrat Alexi Giannoulias and Republican Mark Kirk for the U.S. Senate seat in Illinois once occupied by President Obama and now held by his hapless successor, appointee Roland Burris.

This is the Land of Lincoln, where scandals are not reasons to vote for a particular candidate, merely excuses.  This is the state where three former governors since the 1970s have done time — one is still in prison — and where a fourth, Rod Blagojevich, was forced from office and is awaiting a likely retrial for attempting to sell the seat occupied by Burris.  This is the state where voting patterns bear a troubling resemblance to snow removal patterns.

So what if, as vice president and senior loan officer of his family-owned Broadway Bank, Giannoulias, now the state treasurer, approved loans for alleged mob figures. And so what if Kirk, who has represented Chicago’s northern suburbs in the U.S. House since 2001, claimed on his resume — since corrected — that he fought in Iraq or ran the Pentagon’s war room as a Navy Intelligence Officer.

Contrary to popular belief, this election probably won’t turn on those questions.  In all likelihood, the question will be this: Is it better to be the candidate with the best get-out-the-vote operation or the candidate whose substantial fundraising edge will enable a weeks-long TV blitz as Election Day approaches?  And the answer, right now, is impossible to know.

Kirk, 51, will be the candidate with the substantial funding advantage.  In August, the National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC) slotted $3.4 million for Kirk’s race.  That’s enough for him to maintain a strong TV presence right through Election Day.  In the quarter that ended in June, Kirk raised $2.3 million compared to roughly $900,000 for Giannoulias.  Kirk is believed to have at least a 3-1 advantage in cash on hand.

Giannoulias, 34, who, until 2006, served as vice president and chief loan officer for his family’s now-shuttered Broadway Bank in Chicago, may be short on cash, but he could have an extensive advantage when it comes to foot soldiers.  On Election Day, his campaign will be Priority One for the Chicago political machine and its vaunted get-out-the-vote operation.

His campaign also will receive a lot of attention — boots on the ground, phone bankers, etc. — from allied groups, such as MoveOn.org, America Votes, a liberal umbrella group, and Organizing for America (OFA), the remnants of President Obama’s campaign organization.

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC), which supports Democratic House candidates, says it already has made 4.9 million personal calls, 2.2 million volunteer recruitment calls and 1.8 million door knocks since June 1 — as operatives try to get an early start to reach those who participate in early voting.

The Republican National Committee (RNC) says it has made more than 20 million volunteer voter contacts this cycle — 6.5 million more than at this point in 2008.  It recently took out a $5 million line of credit to ramp up its get-out-the-vote operation.  But Kirk, who hails from north of Chicago, must depend on a ground game that will be focused downstate, where he is least known but where Republicans are most popular.

And this could make all the difference because the margin of victory will be razor thin.  Political prognosticator Charlie Cook calls the race a “Toss Up.”  Nate Silver of The New York Times assigns Kirk a 55.7 percent chance of winning, according to an Oct. 7 modeling, which basically means he also considers the race too close to call.  The Real Clear Politics polling average has Giannoulias up by a fraction of a percentage point.  Rasmussen Reports, which liberals suspect of stacking its polls in favor of conservatives, gives Giannoulias a one-point lead.

Neither candidate has inspired voters.  Kirk’s moderate image precludes him from benefitting much from the support and enthusiasm that has been bestowed on Tea Party candidates around the country, and he has yet to fully explain why his military record was not correct on his resume.

As for Giannoulias, voters don’t know what to make of him, his family’s ill-fated bank or its connection to mob figures.  Yet, Kirk has not managed to use these questions to pull ahead.

So will it be the guy with the trumped-up resume?  Or the guy with the failed bank and links to alleged mobsters?  Obviously, Illinois voters aren’t holding out for a choirboy.  But what they would like is to be convinced that one or the other is as good as it gets for now.  If Kirk can do that, Republicans will move an important step closer to retaking control of the world’s greatest deliberative body — the U.S. Senate.

Ford O’Connell and Steve Pearson are the co-founders of ProjectVirginia and CivicForumPAC, and are the co-creators of TurnNevadaRed.com.