Illinois primary: GOP jockeys to make gains in Obama's home state

Obama's former Senate seat and the governor's office are up for grabs in 2010. The GOP is likely to emerge from the Illinois primary on Tuesday with candidates who can compete well in this blue state.

By , / Staff writer

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    Illinois gubernatorial candidates Gov. Pat Quinn (l.) and Comptroller Dan Hynes debated Jan. 19.
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Illinois voters head to the polls Feb. 2 with an eye to replacing two tarnished officeholders: ex-Gov. Rod Blagojevich, indicted on federal corruption charges, and Sen. Roland Burris (D), named by Mr. Blagojevich to fill President Obama's Senate seat in a process many see as tainted.

The primary election, the nation's first in the 2010 season, will yield a clearer picture of Republicans' chances of stealing these two seats from Democrats in a state that is reliably "blue."

Heading into the primary, which last year was moved up to February, voters are sorting through a profusion of candidates on both sides and in both contests.

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"Reform is on everyone's mind. All of the candidate forums [and] debates, and most of the interviews, have put ... good government front and center, and candidates are being forced to answer questions" about the issue, says Andy Shaw of the Better Government Association, a watchdog group that has battled corruption in the state. "The bad news is that we're likely to see one of the lowest primary turnouts ever because it's so early.... We may not end up with our best candidates because of this peculiar anomaly."

In both parties, the race for the governor's seat has narrowed. Democratic Party candidates Gov. Pat Quinn and state Comptroller Dan Hynes are neck and neck, according to recent polls.

On the Republican side, the lead of former front-runner Jim Ryan seems to have evaporated, pitting him in a tight battle with former state GOP chairman Andy McKenna and state Sen. Kirk Dillard.

In the Senate race, Democratic candidate Jacob Meister pulled out of the race Sunday, throwing his support behind state Treasurer Alexi Giannoulias.

Illinois voters do not register by party and can vote in the GOP or Democratic primary. Key issues: the dismal economy, a $12 billion state budget gap (and attendant service cuts), and candidate ethics.

The governor's race

In the Democratic primary, the known quantity is Gov. Quinn (formerly Blagojevich's lieutenant governor), who has struggled with imploding state finances and who has pushed through tepid ethics reform. His challenger, Mr. Hynes, is hammering Quinn about the early release of some criminal offenders to save money.

On the Republican side are no fewer than seven candidates. Mr. Ryan, former state attorney general, has run a lackluster campaign so far and is facing off against several more-conservative candidates. They may carve up the conservative vote so that none gives him a real run for his money.

The governor is trying to distance himself from his former boss, emphasizing his credentials as a reformer. In his State of the State speech in January, Quinn barely mentioned Illinois's budget deficit or his bid to raise income taxes to address it. Rather, he praised campaign-finance reforms he helped bring about, even though many have criticized them as having too many loopholes.

Quinn built a career as an outsider and a populist reformer, but now he "is the consummate insider," says Kent Redfield, a political scientist at the University of Illinois in Springfield. If Quinn only squeaks past the primary, Dr. Redfield adds, it may signal that he's weak and spell bad news for him in the general election, when his GOP opponent would be likely to pounce on his missteps and emphasize his Blagojevich connection.

The Senate race

After Mr. Burris assumed Mr. Obama's former Senate seat, accusations arose that he lied about his preappointment interactions with Blagojevich and his pledges to raise funds for Blagojevich. Burris is not running to keep the seat, and Democrats have five candidates to choose from, including Mr. Giannoulias, a familiar face in Illinois politics whom the tabloids dub "Sexy Lexi."

Giannoulias is favored, but he faces strong challenges from David Hoffman, a former US prosecutor running on a reform platform, and Cheryle Jackson, president of the Chicago Urban League and the only African-American seeking the seat. Already, Giannoulias's youth and inexperience, and some missteps as treasurer – including a college savings program that lost money – are issues.

Mark Kirk, a moderate GOP congressman, is leading the pack of six GOP candidates. He is so far stressing his conservative credentials, decrying Obama's plan to buy the state's Thompson Correctional Center to house Guantánamo terrorism suspects and courting Sarah Palin. He is expected to swing toward the center if he wins the primary.

The most interesting reform candidate to emerge may be Mr. Hoffman, a political newcomer with low name recognition outside Cook County. He has been endorsed by the three big Chicago-area papers.

"He's presenting himself as the outsider, the ethical purist, the political virgin, and a tough fighter," says Prof. Christopher Mooney with the Institute of Government and Public Affairs at the University of Illinois in Springfield. "That's the kind of image and guy we can see, especially post-Blagojevich, in Illinois ... if he could get enough money and get up on TV."

The primary races are rich with candidates because "they smell blood in the water, and they believe Obama's mantra that change is in the air," says Dick Simpson, a political scientist at the University of Illinois in Chicago. "They stand for change in some form."

The big question is whether imperfect candidates and voter dissatisfaction with the ethics scandals and the foundering economy will be enough to push Illinois – now considered firmly Democratic – to elect a Republican senator or governor. In both races, political observers say, it's a real possibility.

"The [state] Republican Party has been in the wilderness," says Redfield, referring to a series of scandals that beset GOP candidates or officeholders in Illinois in the late 1990s and early 2000s. "On the other hand, the Democrats don't have a [strong candidate for] governor."

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A true blue state

Illinois has tilted Democratic in the past 12 years. Below is its recent voting record.

Presidential elections

2000 Gore (D) 55%

G.W. Bush (R) 43%

2004 Kerry (D) 55%

G.W. Bush (R)44%

2008 Obama (D) 62%

McCain (R) 37%

Congressional delegation

111th Congress

Democrats 12

Republicans 7

Gubernatorial elections

1998

G. Ryan (R) 51%

G. Poshard (D) 47%

2002

R. Blagojevich (D) 52%

J. Ryan (R) 45%

2006

R. Blagojevich (D) 50%

J. Baar Topinka (R) 39%

Sources: "The Almanac of AmericanPolitics," 2010 & 2002

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