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Colorado, Illinois Senate Races May Prove Critical

October 27, 2010 at 5:14 PM EDT
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In Colorado and Illinois, Senate candidates are in a dead heat. Gwen Ifill talks with political watchers Floyd Ciruli and Carol Marin.
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GWEN IFILL: For a closer look at two campaigns that could determine the control of the Senate, we look to the Great Lakes and the Rocky Mountain West. It’s part of our continuing Vote 2010 coverage.

Two of the fiercest Senate battles this year are being waged in Colorado and Illinois. Because both seats are now held by Democrats and the Illinois seat was once held by President Obama, both parties have poured resources into the races. The president and first lady have each traveled to Chicago to campaign for Democratic nominee Alexi Giannoulias. And Mr. Obama will return this weekend.

The latest Chicago Tribune poll shows Giannoulias narrowly trailing veteran Republican Congressman Mark Kirk. As each candidate struggles for the upper hand, their debates have focused on hot-button issues, like taxes and spending.

REP. MARK KIRK (R-IL), senatorial candidate: If you’re happy with the direction of the government right now, of trillions in debt, of increasingly accelerating the spending of the Congress and the grow of — growing of the government into our national life, then my opponent is your candidate.

ALEXI GIANNOULIAS (D-IL), senatorial candidate: To hear Congressman Kirk say that he taxes less, borrows less, and spends less is of tremendous irony, because there is no one in this race who has actually taxed more, spent more, and borrowed more.

GWEN IFILL: But their disagreements have also turned personal, especially on television.

MAN: Mark Kirk’s lies are finally going to catch up with him.

WOMAN: He’s not a leader. He’s a liar.

WOMAN: I wouldn’t trust him with my left shoe.

NARRATOR: What do you call someone who lent $20 million to convicted felons and mobsters? Senior loan officer Alexi Giannoulias.

GWEN IFILL: In Colorado, incumbent Senator Michael Bennet, appointed to the seat in 2009, is facing a Tea Party-backed challenge from Republican nominee Ken Buck.

Unlike in Illinois, President Obama has mostly kept his distance here this fall, but other outsiders have played a major role. According to a Washington Post analysis, organizations affiliated with both parties have spent $25 million on the race so far. Buck benefits from spending by Republican-affiliated interest groups, like American Crossroads.

NARRATOR: Bennet promised his reform would save costs and reduce the deficit. Instead, we got tax increases, billions in Medicare cuts, and record deficits.

GWEN IFILL: Bennet, meanwhile, is getting much of his help from the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, which released this new ad today.

WOMAN: I just can’t vote for Ken Buck.

MAN: He’s just too out there.

MAN: He wants to put Social Security in the stock market.

GWEN IFILL: Such expensive advertising financed by as many as 27 separate interest groups has made Colorado the nation’s top target for outside money this year.

And, for more, we’re joined now by political watchers in both states.

Floyd Ciruli is a Denver-based independent pollster. He’s president of Ciruli Associates. And Carol Marin is a columnist for The Chicago Sun-Times, political editor at NBC 5 there, and a contributor to WTTW’s “Chicago Tonight.”

Welcome to you both. Let’s start with Colorado. Why is — why is Senator Bennet so vulnerable, Floyd Ciruli?

FLOYD CIRULI, Independent Pollster: Well, the entire year has been a pretty good-looking Republican year out here. Really since the spring, almost every poll has indicated that the Senate candidates had about a five-point advantage going into the race.

And Buck indeed had a five-point advantage right through early October. Actually, the race looks like it’s now closed. The — two polls within the last four days indicate that it’s a tie, 47-47. And that’s no doubt a reflection of this huge expenditure of money, most of it in negative advertising.

GWEN IFILL: I remember, when Ken Buck won the Republican nomination in August, this was met by some — with some dismay by national Republicans, and — because they had supported Jane Norton. Have they come on board, or is this entirely a Tea Party-funded surge?

FLOYD CIRULI: No, it really is funded by the National Republican Senatorial Committee, and also all these independent committees.

To get to the $25 million, of which Buck has had probably close to half of it in advertising, it really is a full-scale effort of the Republicans to take this seat. And, as I say, up until about a week ago, it looked like they were going to.

This is a state, as you know, that, just two years ago, the president won it by 9 percentage points, which was unusual for Colorado to go Democratic. But, this entire year, Colorado voters have been saying they’re dissatisfied with Washington, obviously upset about the economy. And it’s been helping the Republicans in the polls. At this point, it now looks like it’s a ground game. This could be a one- or two-point race.

GWEN IFILL: Are the issues driving this economic or social?

FLOYD CIRULI: Well, needless to say, the — the Republicans have been talking about the economy, government debt, the health care takeover, which they consider really key issues for them. And they do poll well in Colorado.

The Democrats have been able to capitalize on some Buck faux pas and mistakes over the past couple of weeks, including at the — on national television at “Meet the Press.” And they have been focusing on social issues.

And, consequently, the latest poll shows that where the Democrats have improved their position is with women voters and with independent voters. And that’s exactly the target they have gone after.

You know, to some extent, that reflects the base as sort of coming back to the party. But, also, it reflects the fact that they have been aiming at the abortion issue, some insensitivity to rape issues that they have accused Buck of, and also the latest ad that you had up that he’s too extreme on Social Security, on a number of issues that they feel are going to play to independent voters, particularly here in the Denver metro area.

GWEN IFILL: Carol Marin, you have a special case, in that this is President Obama’s old seat. Why isn’t Alexi Giannoulias, who is the president’s old basketball-playing buddy there in Chicago, the state treasurer, why isn’t he a slam-dunk here?

CAROL MARIN, The Chicago Sun-Times: It’s a good question, but part of the problem is, Mark Kirk is a very good candidate with a lot of experience.

What we have seen out of these two candidates, though, Gwen, they’re both attractive. They’re both telegenic. They both have youth on their sides. But the problems they have had have been hugely self-inflicted. For Kirk, he’s had a problem, for some reason, embellishing a perfectly terrific military record by saying that he received an award he didn’t get and talking about being caught under fire in Afghanistan, which no one can verify.

For Giannoulias, his youth in some ways reflects a level of inexperience. He came into public office as a state officeholder saying that he was a young, but excellent banker, part of his family’s bank, knew a lot about finance. Now that bank has been taken over by the federal government. Some of the loans have been given to convicted felons with mob connections. Both of these guys have problems.

GWEN IFILL: You know, unlike Ken Buck in Colorado, Mark Kirk wasn’t, immediately at least, embraced by the Tea Party or the Tea Party elements that exist in Illinois. How’s that going now?

CAROL MARIN: You know, they still don’t embrace him, Gwen, because he’s too moderate. He’s moderate on the social issues. He’s pro-choice. That’s a problem for them.

And so, downstate Illinois, which is much more Republican and conservative, is grudgingly now closing the gap and going for Kirk. Meanwhile, the suburbs — just suburbs are the place that Barack Obama won independent women, the city of Chicago, where he had a strong African-American vote.

Those two constituencies, which would — you would think would naturally be with Giannoulias, do not show the level of enthusiasm that they showed for Barack Obama. And those are really the places where the ground game is going to be waged.

GWEN IFILL: Is that the reason for the repeated visits? We have seen the president in Illinois probably more than we have seen him in any other single state.

CAROL MARIN: Absolutely. We have seen him more than we in Illinois — expected to see him a lot more early on, and didn’t. He’s coming back, as you pointed out, on Saturday. Michelle Obama may be back here on Friday for a funeral of a revered African-American minister. But, at the same time, that may still send another get-out-the-vote message.

But it may be too late, that Obama’s loved in Illinois, still has a lot of great affection, but his policies have really come under question, even by his most ardent supporters.

GWEN IFILL: I want to ask you — and I will ask Floyd Ciruli in Denver this same question, too — who is working harder and more successfully to get out their base in the next coming, what, six days, Carol?

CAROL MARIN: Gwen, I would say that was a tie. I mean, this is an absolutely to-the — to-the-death fight for each of these parties. This is Barack Obama’s Senate seat. That’s all you need to say. This is symbol and it’s substance.

GWEN IFILL: Floyd Ciruli, what’s — what’s happening on the ground in terms of getting out people’s base?

FLOYD CIRULI: Well, I think the Democrats correctly feel that they’re going to win this, if at all, by one or two points.

And so getting out the vote is something they have mastered here in Colorado. It’s part of the reason why they have really been very successful the last five or six years here. They can track votes. About 70 percent of our vote will come in by mailed-back ballot. And when — until you turn that — return that ballot, you will be getting phone calls and visits from Democrats.

The sense is that the Republicans have the wind in their sails, and so they’re really thinking that, if they can just turn out that enthusiastic base that’s shown up in every poll, they’re going to win this. And, at least so far, in the early vote, there are more Republicans returning the ballots than Democrats.

So, it frankly looks very, very close, and I think both of them have good, solid get-out-the-vote efforts.

GWEN IFILL: So, you’re saying only 30 percent of Colorado voters are actually voting on Election Day?

FLOYD CIRULI: That’s what the clerks tell us. People really like the idea of convenience voting. And we now allow absentee voting without any excuse. And people just vote by mail. And most of it will be in before this weekend.

GWEN IFILL: Carol Marin, what about the early voting? There’s also early voting in Illinois, right?

CAROL MARIN: There is early voting in Illinois. And, Gwen, in the time that it’s been in practice, which has been since 2006, city of Chicago has always surpassed the suburbs — not this time. Right now, the suburbs are surpassing the city. And that is not a good sign for Democrats, because those suburbs are more Republican.

GWEN IFILL: So, is it fair to say, if you were to take a turn around the suburb this weekend, you would find a lot of Democrats trying to get people out, get people to the mailbox, whatever they have got to do?

CAROL MARIN: There is no question. Right now, this is get the base. And when you’re trying to get the base, it’s because you pretty much have figured out that some of the independents are not closing in your favor. And, so, yes, there is a massive get-out-the-vote effort under way.

GWEN IFILL: Carol Marin and Floyd Ciruli, two people who will be working all weekend, so nice to talk to you. Thank you.

CAROL MARIN: Thank you.