Image: Kirk
Frank Polich  /  REUTERS
Mark Kirk  gestures to supporters while giving a speech during his Illinois primary election night celebration in Wheeling, Ill., on Feb. 2.
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updated 2/4/2010 11:50:32 AM ET 2010-02-04T16:50:32

Illinois Rep. Mark Steven Kirk, the newly minted Republican nominee for the U.S. Senate seat previously held by Democrat Barack Obama, appears a model for the kind of GOP centrist that conservative activists label as a RINO, for “Republicans in Name Only.”

Yet Kirk, in his campaign for Tuesday’s primary, was able to avoid the kind of conservative wrath that has been visited on establishment favorites such as Dede Scozzafava, who was overthrown as the Republican nominee in a New York House special election last November, and Florida Gov. Charlie Crist, whose bid for an open Senate seat has drawn a strong challenge from conservative Marco Rubio.

Kirk, in fact, cruised to an easy — if short of overwhelming — victory with 57 percent of the unofficial vote, sending him into a general election campaign against state Treasurer Alexi Giannoulias, the Democratic primary winner. Patrick Hughes, a conservative businessman, finished a distant second behind Kirk with 19 percent.

Kirk won his primary without big trouble even though he has been criticized by conservative activists for his support of abortion rights, his opposition to the troop surge in Iraq employed by President George W. Bush beginning in early 2007 — and for his June 2009 vote, along with just seven other House Republicans, for a climate change bill that included a cap-and-trade provision to limit industrial emissions that is loathed by most on the political right.

So why didn’t Kirk become serious prey for conservative RINO hunters?

The lure of winning Obama’s seat
Despite a now long-running Democratic voting trend in Illinois politics, Republicans sensed early on that they might have an unusual opportunity to score an important symbolic victory in this 2010 Senate election. The effort to fill the seat Obama vacated to become president became a fiasco, when then-Democratic Gov. Rod R. Blagojevich — already arrested on corruption charges and soon to be expelled from office — made his unpopular appointment of former state Attorney General Roland W. Burris (who subsequently decided not to run for a full term).

Kirk’s reputation as a centrist Republican is a central reason why he was heavily recruited for the Senate race by the GOP establishment. That image was the key ingredient to his success in his five House races in Illinois’ 10th District, a suburban Chicago constituency that has an overall Democratic lean.

“The Republicans are pumped up about the Senate race to the extent that they can win, and it’s particularly delicious that it would be Obama’s seat,” said David Yepsen, the longtime political reporter for the Des Moines Register who now is director of the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University. “So it has given a degree of pragmatism, why waste our energy on a Senate race, we’ve got a good credible candidate.”

Kirk: Running in the shadows
Kirk also benefited from fiercely competitive primaries for governor in both parties, which drew the lion’s share of voters’ attention — in part because of the tainted legacy of the ousted Blagojevich, and in perhaps larger part because of the massive fiscal problems the next governor will have to deal with in a state suffering from double-digit unemployment.

“Senators can’t write contracts. Senators don’t have a National Guard. Senators don’t wrestle with budgets. Governors do. That’s what people in the states care about,” said Bill Pascoe, a Republican political consultant who has worked extensively in Illinois.

Both contests produced cliffhanger outcomes: Democratic incumbent Pat Quinn — who moved up from lieutenant governor following Blagojevich’s expulsion by the legislature — held a razor-thin lead over state Comptroller Dan Hynes in late and unofficial returns, with state Sen. Bill Brady barely leading state Sen. Kirk Dillard atop a crowded and closely bunched Republican field.

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Kirk also lucked out by avoiding a high-profile conservative challenger. “Conservatives in the state have been disorganized for a long time,” Pascoe said.

It’s Groundhog Day — time’s up
Despite all of these factors, conservative activists’ inability to muster a threatening challenge to Kirk was not from a lack of desire, says Denise Cattoni, state coordinator for Illinois Tea, a branch of the populist conservative “Tea Party” movement that has grabbed national attention over the past year.

“I know that the Tea Party movement, no matter what, was against Mark Kirk,” Cattoni said, adding that conservative activists “assumed and hoped we would find one solid candidate” to rally behind.

But Cattoni said that the nascent movement initially was so focused on fighting the agenda pursued by Obama and the Democratic-controlled Congress that its Illinois branches only recently turned their attention to a primary scheduled for the record early date of Feb. 2.

“Frankly, we just ran out of time,” she said, noting that primary runner-up Hughes had just begun to galvanize significant support among conservative activists. “If we were to have had just a couple of more weeks, honestly, we would have had more of an impact on the race.”

But even though conservatives missed an opportunity to take a serious run at Kirk in the primary, Cattoni cautioned that he should not take it for granted that they will flock to him as the Republican nominee.

“You’re not going to get the conservatives in Illinois enthusiastic about Mark Kirk. It’s that simple. They’re not going to forget ...” Cattoni said. “This is what the movement is about. It’s holding our legislators accountable for what they’re voting for.”

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