Funds gush in deep blue Land of Lincoln as Kirk struggles to hold seat

Democrats badly want Rep. Tammy Duckworth to win the Illinois Senate seat; leadership PACs of her hoped-to-be future colleagues in the Senate have provided $345,000, making them her fourth most generous donors. (AP Photo/Seth Perlman)

By: Jack Noland

One-term Sen. Mark Kirk's success or failure in his heated struggle to retain his seat will help determine whether Republicans or Democrats control the Senate come January.

No surprise, then, that the race's fundraising totals have soared. The most recent fundraising reports show that Kirk, a Republican, and his opponent, Democratic Rep. Tammy Duckworth, each had raised more than $10 million as of midyear, the combined $21.4 million making theirs the fifth-most expensive Senate contest. But the four races with more cash - Florida, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Ohio, in order - are presidential swing states, while Illinois is not.

Because Hillary Clinton, the Democratic nominee, is likely to carry the state at the presidential level, this could be the easiest Senate pickup available to Democrats in 2016; RealClearPolitics ranked the seat "[leaning] Democratic," while FiveThirtyEight in June gave Democrats a 77 percent chance of winning the race. More dramatically, by mid-August, Kirk was down seven points in the polls. That, and the race's national profile, help explain why 64 percent of Duckworth's large contributions (those over $200) have come from out-of-state donors. More than $1 million has come from contributors in the New York and Washington, D.C. metropolitan areas alone.

Lawyers and law firms top Duckworth's list of donor industries at nearly $826,000, followed by organizations focused on women's issues; EMILY'S List, the D.C.-based pro-abortion rights group, has given $251,587. In a show of how badly the Democrats want to win this seat, leadership PACs of Duckworth's hoped-to-be future Senate colleagues have provided $345,000, making them her fourth most generous interest group.

Despite the flood of money to Duckworth's campaign, Kirk had raised $1.2 million more than Duckworth by the end of June, reaching a total of $11.3 million so far. The real discrepancy between the two candidates, however, has been in expenditures: Kirk had spent $3.5 million more than his opponent when the candidates last filed with the FEC -- much of which has gone for TV ads. Kirk's single largest vendor was Mentzer Media Services, a conservative television ad-buying firm that had received five payments worth a total of $1.4 million.

While Duckworth had spent significantly less than Kirk, she led the Republican comfortably in cash-on-hand as the race entered the summer, with $2.4 million more left in her coffers.

Wall Street has led all industries backing Kirk; employees and PACs of securities & investment interests shelled out more than $1 million for him. Third on his list were pro-Israel interests, at $469,000, while funds from leadership PACs of his Senate GOP colleagues rang in not far behind. (Retired people gave him his second-largest chunk of money and ranked No. 3 for Duckworth, which is not uncommon.) Drilling down further, Kirk's top five donors included two financial services firms, a pro-Israel group, an energy provider and an international commercial law firm.

PAC contributions tell a similar story, with business emphatically backing Kirk. The incumbent Republican has received $2.1 million from business PACs, though conservative ideological PACs have kicked in $578,820, putting them ahead of their liberal counterparts, who have given Duckworth $501,892. Duckworth, predictably, has Kirk beat in labor PAC contributions - $327,510 to $47,500.

The Democrat has enjoyed far higher contribution levels from small-dollar donors, too. Forty-five percent of Duckworth's donors have given the campaign more than $200, but she's received almost $3 million from contributors giving less than that. Large contributions make up a smaller share of Kirk's haul this year than they did in 2010, when they comprised 73 percent, but he has still received just 7 percent of his funds from small donors.

Six years ago, Kirk was fighting a dual battle, running in concurrent elections in November 2010 to serve out the final months of Barack Obama's Senate term and win a full, six-year term. He raised $14.3 million to take both races.

Outside spending in the 2016 face-off has, thus far, disproportionately benefited Kirk. More than $1.6 million has been spent to back the incumbent or oppose Duckworth, while comparable outlays to help Duckworth come to less than half that, $713,901 to date.

Chief among the active outside groups is Independent Voice for Illinois, which has spent a little less than $1.1 million to oppose Duckworth. The super PAC has received $350,000 from employees of Citadel LLC, a hedge fund, and $250,000 from Elliott Management, a hedge fund management firm. Employees of both companies were also among Kirk's top contributors in 2010. To date, no single-candidate super PAC has chipped in for Duckworth.

Kirk finds himself in a bind, seeking re-election in a blue state for the Senate seat once occupied by the current Democratic president, while Donald Trump, a man with abysmally low favorability ratings, runs under the Republican banner for the presidency.

"Assuming Clinton wins the state by 5 or 10 percent, which is likely, because this is her home state, it is likely that Duckworth will win," said Dick Simpson, professor of political science at University of Illinois at Chicago and a former Chicago alderman, in an interview with the OpenSecrets Blog. "Kirk has stumbled several times, which has made it difficult for him to gain ground."

Kirk in June became the first member of Congress to rescind his endorsement of Trump, appearing to try to separate himself from the controversial nominee. Down in the polls and facing Duckworth's multi-million-dollar lead in cash-on-hand, Kirk's ploy appears not to be enough. At a minimum, he'd likely have to beat Duckworth's third-quarter fundraising by a big margin to have any hope of catching up.

Whether he's doing that or not will be clear in about a month, when fundraising reports covering July 1-Sept. 30 are due at the Federal Election Commission.