GOP falters in the Land of Lincoln

An expected Democratic sweep in Illinois may give the party a foothold in a key Midwest state.

Illinois voters are poised to do something they haven't done for a quarter century: put a Democrat in the governor's mansion.

Democrats are also expected to win both houses of the state legislature and perhaps take all statewide offices.

The sweep, if it happens, could strike a devastating blow by Democrats in the Land of Lincoln – the state that helped launch the Republican Party to national prominence in 1860.

At the very least, this year's election promises to put Democrats in a position to deepen their political roots in the Midwest's linchpin state. The governorship, too, gives the party a key platform for assisting its 2004 presidential candidate in a bid for the White House.

Some analysts see a more ominous prospect for the GOP: that the party could be on the road to becoming a permanent underdog in a key battleground state.

"This may be a sign of new Democratic strength in the state," says John Pelissero, a political scientist at Loyola University in Chicago. "The only Republican with a chance to hold on to a position is the state treasurer."

This by no means portends easy victories for Democrats from now on. But in recent presidential elections the trend appears stark: Democratic candidates have won the state in the past three races, following a six-cycle winning streak by Republicans that began in 1968.

One reason, analysts say, is the state's shifting demographics. Chicago, home to roughly a quarter of the state's voters, has long been Democratic – indeed, Democrats have held the city's mayoral position since the days of Herbert Hoover's presidency. But Democrats have been moving into the suburbs in recent years, diluting traditional Republican strongholds. That's one reason why Democrat Rob Blagojevich holds a strong lead In this year's gubernatorial race, with surprising strength outside of his home base in Chicago.

But many observers feel that the predicted landslide is more a result of an uncivil war within the Republican party than a long-term shift.

The Republicans' difficulties began when Gov. George Ryan became so mired in a scandal called "bribes for driver's licenses" that he opted not to run for reelection.

"This is a really unusual case, the incumbent is a real albatross," says Kenneth Janda, a political science professor at Northwestern University.

The GOP then turned to state attorney general Jim Ryan to run in his place. But the two Ryans have publicly feuded, with George Ryan saying that Jim Ryan is "a lousy candidate."

The two Ryans aren't related, except in the minds of some voters. Democrats repeatedly questioned whether Jim Ryan was lackadaisical in investigating the scandal as attorney general.

lllinois Republican Party chairman Gary McDougal feels that the similarity of the Republicans' names is a big reason Mr. Blagojevich holds double-digit leads in most polls. "If you take out the name confusion, this is a 5 per cent race, and we can overcome that," McDougal says.

In other years, a name like Ryan would be a boon in the downstate region. Voters in central and southern Illinois are often leery of Chicagoans with "foreign sounding" names. In 1986, it's generally agreed that the main reason fringe candidates named Hart and Fairchild won in a Democratic primary was because the competitors' names were Pucinski and Sangmeister.

Blagojevich, whose ties to Chicago include having a father-in-law who's a well-known Chicago alderman, has turned that around, partly by touting his ethnic background. "He's stressed his name, saying he grew up the American way, as an immigrant," Janda says.

But even if Democrats do sweep the elections as expected, their future won't necessarily be smooth sailing. Some analysts predict that there could be tensions between powerful Democratic mayor Richard Daley and a Democratic governor.

And some are wondering whether Democratic dominance will result in a backlash. That's not uncommon in Illinois. After the last two major sweeps by one party, voters quickly went redressed the balance. "In 1975 to '76, when the Democrats won big, and in 1995 to '96, when the Republicans swept, there was a sense that state government went too far in one direction," says Mike Lawrence of Southern Illinois University's Public Policy Institute in Carbondale.

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