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Democrats think they have Republican U.S. Sen. Mark Kirk squarely in their crosshairs.

Politically speaking, he's widely considered dead meat — the most vulnerable of the vulnerable incumbents running for re-election to the U.S. Senate next year.

As the campaign manager for the Kirk campaign, it's Kevin Artl's job to disagree with that assessment and then back it up with a win in the November 2016 general election.

Artl asserts that Kirk will win a close race, just as he did in 2010, when he defeated Democratic treasurer Alexi Giannoulias.

Most polls show Kirk trailing. But Artl said his polling — "just like in 2010" — "suggest(s) the race is a statistical tie, with Kirk holding the edge among independent voters."

Further, Artl said even though 2016 is a presidential election year that generally draws higher Democratic turnout, it'll be a different kind of presidential election year than 2008 and 2012, when native son Barack Obama led the ticket.

That means the huge turnout Obama drew when he was elected and re-elected won't be quite as big.

Artl said he anticipates the turnout in Illinois to be "more similar to 2004," when Democratic U.S. Sen. John Kerry was his party's presidential candidate.

Although he lost the national election, Kerry handily carried Illinois, collecting almost 2.9 million votes against President George W. Bush.

That number, however, pales in comparison to Obama's numbers four years later.

Obama collected 3.4 million votes in the 2008 presidential race, compared to 2 million for GOP candidate John McCain, boosting other Democrats on the ticket.

It's hard to imagine any of the 2016 Democratic presidential candidates — Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders or Martin O'Malley — having that kind of emotional appeal to Illinois voters.

Further, Artl said, Kirk's appeal to independent and minority voters has traditionally been strong.

When Kerry carried 54 percent of the vote in 2004, then-U.S. Rep. Kirk attracted 64 percent of the vote in Illinois' evenly balanced 10th congressional district.

When Obama carried 60 percent of the Illinois vote in 2008, Kirk carried nearly 53 percent in his district.

He outpolled President Bush by 20 percent in 2004 and McCain by 16 percent in 2008, showing his appeal to ticket-switching voters.

Nonetheless, the challenge remains daunting for Kirk, a once-energetic campaigner who sustained a debilitating stroke several years ago and has fought hard to recover.

Artl said Kirk is "in good shape" physically but "there are some mobility issues" that limit his ability to campaign as he once did.

Given the Democratic lay of the land in Illinois, it's pretty much impossible for a Republican to win a statewide race by anything other than a relatively small margin. But the right Republican running against the right Democrat can win, the best example being GOP Gov. Bruce Rauner in 2014.

The conditions, however, have to be right.

Consider, for example, the Democrats' advantage in Cook County. A solid Democratic win there can negate the results of the state's other 101 counties.

In 2014, U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin carried Cook by 600,000 votes, more than enough to offset weaker-than-expected results elsewhere. He ended up winning by slightly less than 400,000 votes over Republican state Sen. Jim Oberweis.

Former Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn did the same thing in 2010 — his victory margin in Cook providing just enough votes to sustain a narrow victory over Republican candidate Bill Brady of Bloomington.

But Democrats have their problems, too, and what's bad for them is good for Kirk.

Three Democrats — U.S. Rep. Tammy Duckworth, Chicago lawyer Andrea Zopp and state Sen. Napoleon Harris — have announced they are candidates for their party's senatorial nomination.

Party leaders are badly split on the candidates, creating the possibility of a bitter fight prior to the March 15 primary election that could leave lingering hard feelings.

There's another problem Democrats have. Downstate voters feel increasingly abandoned by the party's Chicago lakefront liberal approach to issues and are turning to Republicans.

Here are some stunning numbers involving Durbin, who's been elected four times. He's never had a serious Senate race run against him and usually faces only token opposition. Further, as one of the few statewide Democrats not from Chicago, the Springfield resident should have a special appeal in central and southern Illinois.

In 2008, Durbin collected almost 68 percent of the vote against Republican Steve Sauerburg, carrying 100 of 102 counties. Tiny Johnson and Wayne counties, located deep in southern Illinois, voted narrowly against him.

Durbin won again relatively easily in 2014. But this powerful and theoretically popular Democrat's numbers weren't nearly as good.

Durbin collected 1.9 million votes (53 percent) to 1.5 million for Oberweis. That's nearly a 15 point drop from six years earlier. Further, Durbin won just 14 counties, compared to 100 six years earlier.

Some of that can be attributed to turnout. But it seems obvious that while Cook County is Democratic utopia, the party's support downstate has substantially diminished.

What's that mean for 2016? Probably that Illinois voters will have a competitive race on their hands.

Kirk, a socially moderate, fiscally conservative, Spanish-speaking, environmentally active candidate with cross-party appeal and serious foreign policy credentials, against ... well, that remains to be determined.

Jim Dey, a member of The News-Gazette staff, can be reached by email at jdey@news-gazette.com or at 217-351-5369.

Opinions Editor

Jim Dey is a staff writer for The News-Gazette. His email is jdey@news-gazette.com.