Donald Lambro

WASHINGTON -- The White House had been working for months to talk Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan into running for President Obama's former Senate seat to keep it from falling into Republican hands.

Madigan is popular, has high voter-approval poll results, and was seen as the strongest Democrat who could hold the seat. But in an unexpected blow to the White House's political recruiting efforts, she turned down the president's request and decided to run instead for re-election to her present job.

Within hours of her decision Wednesday, Republican Rep. Mark Kirk saw his chance and sent out word that he was running for the seat now held by Democratic Sen. Roland Burris whose approval polls are in the basement and stands little chance of keeping his seat next year. He is the target of a Senate Ethics Committee inquiry into whether he offered a quid pro quo in exchange for his appointment by Gov. Rod Blagojevich, who was impeached and removed from his job on charges that he attempted to sell the seat to the highest bidder.

Until now, no one thought the Republicans had a chance to win the Senate seat in heavily Democratic Illinois, especially in the present climate when the GOP's brand has been badly damaged. But Kirk may be the one candidate who can pull it off in a state where widespread state corruption has badly damaged the Democrats' brand even more.

The youthful five-term congressman represents the Democratic-leaning 10th congressional district that Obama carried last year by 61 percent, but Kirk's cross-party appeal has kept it in the GOP column against all comers.

He is a prodigious fundraiser, too, raising more than $580,000 in the second quarter, amassing a total of $1.1 million.

"Kirk is a very strong statewide candidate for Republicans. This is an easier race for them now that Madigan is not running," said Jennifer Duffy, senior elections analyst at the Cook Political Report.

A lot depends on whether Burris runs for election in his own right in next year's Democratic primary or whether, as many assume, he decides to return to private life after his term is completed at the end of 2010.

But other Democrats were expected to run for the seat next year no matter what Burris decides, promising a potentially divisive party primary fight that could further weaken their party's chances of holding on to the seat. State Treasurer Alexi Giannoulias has already announced that he is running, and businessman Chris Kennedy was also expected to enter the race.

Donald Lambro

Donald Lambro is chief political correspondent for The Washington Times.