JACKSON DAVIS LAHOOD KIRK
AP file
Republican Mark Kirk represents a suburban congressional district north of Chicago which Democrat John Kerry won in the 2004 presidential election.
By Tom Curry National affairs writer
msnbc.com
updated 5/11/2006 2:32:40 PM ET 2006-05-11T18:32:40

Say “Republican core beliefs” and do you think of cutting taxes? Fighting against jihadists? Intervening in the Terri Schiavo case? Banning same-sex marriage?

Or do you think of preserving open space and farm land from strip-mall developers?

Rep. Mark Kirk, a centrist Republican who represents the suburbs north of Chicago, is leading his party’s campaign to win the votes of suburbanites and of those in rural exurban areas by touting a set of ideas far removed from the social conservative creed.

“I don’t want a situation ten years from now in which we are driving to work or to school by an endless strip of malls. We should protect green and open space,” Kirk said Wednesday at the debut of the suburban agenda which he and 40 other GOP members designed.

“For me this represents moving the Congress back to the political center,” Kirk said.

The suburban agenda includes:

  • Incentives for preserving rural land and farms from housing and mall developers.
  • A bill to link state and national criminal data files to ensure that pedophiles can’t cross state lines and get hired as teachers or coaches.
  • An effort to protect children from online sexual predators on social networking websites such as MySpace.com.

“We do not have to over-think this. When you’re elected to the Congress, your job is United States representative, and you are charged with representing the needs of that community. Any suburban community in America will now say one of the emerging crises is on Myspace.com and social networking sites,” Kirk said.

Keeping land away from developers
Rep. Jim Gerlach from suburban Chester County, outside Philadelphia, said his federal grant idea to encourage preservation of rural open space was driven by his constituents. “In our area there’s a lot of growth and development which is providing a lot of great jobs, but at the same time they want to preserve the environmental quality of life and, absolutely, farmland preservation is a huge issue in our area,” he said.

Protecting open space wasn’t the Republican slogan when former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay ran the place.

But House Speaker Dennis Hastert (from an exurban Illinois district) and Majority Leader John Boehner from suburban Ohio gave the Republican leadership’s blessing to Kirk’s roll-out this week. And underscoring the high stakes in the appeal to suburban voters was the presence of several of the House Republicans who are in the most hotly contested races, such as Gerlach and Rep. Dave Reichert from the Seattle suburbs.

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Kirk’s, Gerlach’s and Reichert’s districts all voted for Democrat John Kerry in the 2004 presidential election. Kerry did best in Kirk’s Illinois district, getting 53 percent of the vote. It’s easy to see why such Republican members have worries if current polling accurately reflects voters’ intent this November.

Is GOP out of touch?
Boehner seemed to acknowledge the doubts some voters had about House Republicans, saying, “A lot of people in the suburbs, where I live and many of us live, I’ve got to believe, some days they look up and wonder ‘Do they get it?’”

He called Kirk’s agenda “a list of issues we can do that are relevant to the people who live in our neighborhoods.”  

Hastert also praised Kirk and the suburban agenda, saying, “This is real stuff for real people, real problems, real solutions… This is good stuff, this is everyday stuff.”

To Kirk we posed the question, “when you go back to your district in Illinois, do voters say, ‘You guys in Congress are spending too much time on things like Schiavo, same-sex marriage, flag burning?’”

“Absolutely,” he replied, “This (suburban) agenda is entirely directed from the grassroots concerns from members of Congress listening to their constituents that many times in Washington we get diverted on to other topics that don’t have a direct meaning to what families are facing.”

Multiple issues and multiple voices
But less than 24 hours after Kirk implied his party’s leaders had spent too much time showcasing such issues as same-sex marriage, Republican senators scheduled an event on the Capitol grounds to tout their support for the constitutional amendment to outlaw same-sex marriages. Although the event was cancelled by rainy weather, a Senate floor vote on the amendment is scheduled for early next month.

In 2004, leading the charge for the amendment, Sen. Rick Santorum, R- Pa., could not get the 60 votes he needed to end debate and bring the measure to a final vote.

In the House, Kirk voted against the constitutional amendment in 2003, as well as against the ban on the procedure known as partial-birth abortion, but he voted to authorize a federal court to intervene in the Schiavo case last year.

Kirk seems in little danger of losing his seat. His re-election campaign had nearly $1.4 million in cash on hand last month, compared to his Democratic opponent’s stash of less than $250,000, according to reports filed with the Federal Election Commission.

But beleaguered Republicans such as Gerlach are in races rated as toss-ups by analysts at the nonpartisan Cook Political Report.

Like Kirk, Gerlach voted against the constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage. He voted for the ban on partial-birth abortion. He did not vote on the Schiavo bill.

Reichert voted no on the Schiavo bill but wasn’t a member of the House when the votes on partial-birth abortion and the constitutional ban on same-sex marriage came up.

Gerlach’s re-election campaign had $1 million in cash on hand last month, compared to $961,000 for his Democratic opponent, Lois Murphy. 

Reichert had more than $700,000 million in cash on hand last month, while his Democratic opponent Darcy Burner had about half that amount.

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