Tonight’s debate between the candidates for Senate in Illinois featured long discussions of the issues and controversies that have dogged both candidates during the entire campaign — and also touched on some of the hot political issues of the day, including campaign spending and the federal budget. Often, the candidates went right from answering a question to attacking the other.
But in the most controversial moment of the evening, the candidates argued over recent charges that the Rep. Mark Kirk (R) was working to suppress African-American turnout.
A moderator asked Kirk if the “voter integrity” program Kirk was recently recorded discussing was aimed at African-Americans. Kirk said it was not, adding that his efforts were concerned with the corruption in the state of Illinois. He said he welcomed having one Republican and one Democratic poll watcher at each voting location. He also cited as evidence a recent voter fraud conviction in Metro East, presumably the case of an East St. Louis Democratic precinct committeeman and former member of the city council.
“We have a corruption problem in our state,” Kirk said. “We’ve become a punchline on late night television.”
But Democrat Alexi Giannoulias countered that the program was targeting African Americans, because “there has never been an accusation of fraud on the West or South side of Chicago.”
“You’re trying to suppress the African American vote,” Giannoulias said.
Both candidates were asked to address their campaigns’ respective long-time scandals. Kirk said he had apologized for the misstatements about his military record, while Giannoulias acknowledged that his family’s failed bank had given loans to criminal figures, but argued that in business you don’t always like who you work with.
“No one has ever accused my father’s business of doing anything illicit,” Giannoulias said.
Neither candidate was much satisfied with their opponent’s answers. Kirk said Giannoulias was ducking responsibility, while Giannoulias said Kirk had never answered some of the specific questions about his record.
“The congressman says he’s holding himself accountable, and that’s not true,” Giannoulias said. “Were you shot at or not?”
Kirk struck back that Giannoulias attacked him over his record “and yet he never served a day in uniform.”
“I have put my life on the line for the United States,” Kirk said.
Giannoulias also invoked Karl Rove often during the debate, as part of his attack on Kirk as a Washington insider, recipient of help from outside groups with corporate backers and ally of the Bush administration.
“Karl Rove is repaying [Kirk’s] favor with millions of dollars,” Giannoulias said toward the end of the debate.
But on the issue of campaign spending, both candidates agreed that they favored more disclosure about donors to politicians and to outside groups. The difference came when they were asked if they would vote to nullify the Citizens United Supreme Court decision. Kirk said that he would not nullify the decision, and that the “key issue is disclosure,” while Giannoulias called it a “dangerous” decision that was having a “devastating impact.”
The TPM Poll Average for this race shows Kirk barely leading Giannoulias 43.8%-43.7%.
Eric Lach is a reporter for TPM. From 2010 to 2011, he was a news writer in charge of the website’s front page. He has previously written for The Daily, NewYorker.com, GlobalPost and other publications. He can be reached at ericl(at)talkingpointsmemo.com