It’s almost easy to feel bad for Mark Kirk. He’s probably the closest thing there is to a reasonable Republican Senator right now, what with hating neither the gays nor the Mexicans. Because of that, he’s never really been trusted by the far right, but that’s suited him well in Illinois. The deep south of Illinois is culturally Kentucky (indeed, where Illinois, Indiana, and Kentucky meet is one of the most rabidly conservative regions in the country). The farmlands that make up most of the state are very Republican, and have been growing more far-right over the last few decades, but still have a lot of Combine machine-type politics which rarely demand the “Warrior for Christ” you see in a lot of other states. Kirk is perfectly suited to get their votes, since he has an “R” after his name, and can win a lot of the not-crazy but still conservative voters in the collar counties and near the Iowa border.
But being a reasonable Republican still means being a Republican, and that’s not going to cut it for him in Illinois this year. It’s far from a done deal, but it looks likely that Tammy Duckworth is going to end his Senate career this year. A Democratic Presidential candidate hasn’t won here since George HW Bush*, and Illinois is going Hillary in a landslide. The fundamentals were already stacked against him, which is why he made the choice to “un-endorse” Trump, saying he “Cannot and will not” support him. It’s was really his only choice: despite pockets of cultural support in Chicago’s ethnic and coppish neighborhoods, and the southern parts of the state, Trump is deeply unpopular here. He’s not a collar county sort of candidate.
All that being said, he can’t completely disappoint people who vote Republican, which is why he has to make the occasional dip into the waves of racial hatred Trump stirred up. His discussion of the Obama administration’s payment to Iran (money we owed legally) is a perfect example of this.
“We can’t have the president of the United States acting like the drug dealer in chief,” Kirk said, “giving clean packs of money to a … state sponsor of terror. Those 500-euro notes will pop up across the Middle East. … We’re going to see problems in multiple (countries) because of that money given to them.”
Now, the interesting thing here, you will note, is that “giving clean packs of money to a state sponsor of terror” is not a thing drug dealers tend to do. There is a complicated nexus between organized crime, narcotics, and terrorism, to be sure, and it is true that drugs tend to be a cash business, but this is not a straight line here. It’s nothing more than racial imagery to try to make sure that his voters know he’s still one of them.
This, to me, is why Republicans have to lose, and badly. It’s why the idea of a “moderate Republican” is little more than wish-flogging at this point. Kirk himself might be instinctually moderate. Heck, he got an endorsement from Gabby Giffords for being anti-NRA-ish. But at the end of the day, he has to appeal to the sort of people who would vote for Donald Trump to be President. And when you have to do that, you abdicate any claims of being a responsible and reasonable politician. Mark Kirk isn’t a moderate: he’s a member of the party of Trump, his voters, regardless of his sweaty triangulations, are Trump voters, and that’s literally all ye need to know.
*Earlier version said “since Reagan”, but that was wrong. I forgot about 1988. In my defense, I think most people have.