Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Illinois Governor Race

Race of the Day

August 16, 2006
83 Days Until Election Day

Illinois Governor

Status: Democrat Incumbent
2004 Presidential Result: Blue State (Midwest)

Outlook: Tossup (R)

Today’s contest is the extremely crucial race for Governor in my home state and one that I am actively involved in a volunteer capacity. There is so much to say about what has been and should be an interesting and complex race, but I really need to try to be as brief as absolutely possible. I originally wrote most of this in early April, but am going to go ahead and add a bunch of updates. I will be glad when this is over and do not expect very many people to bother to read this whole thing, so this is primarily an exercise for me to look back on and read in a few years or so. Here goes:

In 2002, Rod Blagojevich became the first Democrat to be elected Governor of Illinois since 1972. He entered office with much in the way of national ambition but he has had an extremely rocky 3 years plus as Governor, being hampered by very low job performance numbers, federal investigations, fights with powerful figures in his own party, political gaffes, withdrawn controversial legislative proposals, an embarrassing public feud with his father-in law/political mentor, and some puzzling public statements, just to name a few of the Governor’s problems.

Nonetheless, Blagojevich has amassed a huge war chest for his reelection campaign, much of it from out of state donors, and much of it from businesses and individuals who do business with the state of Illinois. In spite of all the problems mentioned above, Blagojevich’s strong fundraising, the Democrat friendly nature of Illinois, and some lingering problems among Illinois Republicans, all indicate that he absolutely cannot be counted out as someone who might win a second term. In fact, the current conventional wisdom seems to be that he is favored.

Blagojevich’s popularity has perhaps fallen the most precipitously in Downstate Illinois where he has angered many who believe that he has not paid attention to that part of the state by his insistence of commuting daily to his home in Chicago at taxpayer expense while the taxpayer funded Executive Mansion in Springfield remains empty, albeit with a new expensive heated driveway that the Governor had installed. In his comfortable statewide primary victory back in March, against a little known opponent who put forth a lackluster effort, Blagojevich failed to carry a handful of Downstate counties, indicating potential problems for November. Since his primary victory though, Blagojevich has actually remained on the airwaves through most of that time, at first with positive television spots indicating the state of his campaign bank account and his willingness to spend what is necessary to improve his political circumstances, and then with a massive spending blitz featuring attacks ads against his Republican opponent. Knowing that the Republican nominee did not have the campaign cash to immediately respond, this was done in order to define her to the voters and drive up her negatives. Polling data has indicated that the tactics have largely worked, at least as it relates to harming his opponent.

The incumbent, who idolizes Elvis Presley, has also received a lot of bad publicity for sometimes acting immature and less than serious in press conferences and other events. He once bragged that his “testicular virility” gives him the ability to stand up to political rivals. During his time as Governor, he has clashed at one time or another with just about every powerful Democrat in the state from Chicago to Springfield. He has claimed that it is all part of ending politics as usual, but surveys indicate that very few voters believe that Blagojevich has kept his 2002 campaign promise to be a reformer. Most famously, Blagojevich’s father in law, powerful Chicago Alderman Richard Mell, who had orchestrated his son in law’s political career, had a falling out with the Governor over actions taken against a relative’s landfill and Mell went so far to say that the Governorship was for sale. Blagojevich has denied that claim while insisting that he does not want to talk about painful family matters but there is currently a federal investigation under way into Blagojevich, who is labeled in investigative documents as “Public Official A,” and also into his circle of advisors and associates.

With his predecessor as Governor, Republican George Ryan, convicted a few months back of numerous federal corruption charges, Blagojevich has found it difficult to escape the perception of corruption. Some Democrats and Republicans alike will join media figures by openly speculating that Blagojevich, whose office has apparently already had wiretaps placed by the Feds, appears headed for a federal indictment of his own over the next few years. Such a dramatic step would probably not be taken by the U.S. Attorney before the November election though, as it might be seen as overly political. However, U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald not so long ago sent a letter to Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan, which in a large way outlined the wide scope of what exactly he was looking into. Further details of Blagojevich associates and appointees who have been reported to be cooperating with the government has only increased speculation that Blagojevich is headed for indictment, sooner or later, and that a person or people very close to him are even more likely to get indicted before the election.

For her part, Democrat Lisa Madigan, who happens to have ambitions to become Governor of Illinois herself, has recently said that since her office has been involved in an investigation of Blagojevich, she cannot officially endorse his candidacy for reelection or appear at political events with him due to that reason. Madigan’s father is the extremely powerful Speaker of the Illinois House and Chairman of the state party, who has clashed with the Governor in the past, and who many believe might even prefer seeing the Governor lose this year, in order to give his daughter Lisa a freer shot at running for the office in 2010. Lisa Madigan, looking back at how Blagojevich was able to score political points against his Republican opponent in 2002 who was the state’s Attorney General over the George Ryan situation, will clearly continue to keep her distance from the Governor in order to not have that tactic used against her one day.

Most professional Illinois political pundits, regardless of their ideological bent, would probably say that they suspect an indictment of the Governor is inevitable and even if he wins reelection, he may not last too long in the job. A lot of Democrats are openly saying that they will cast a vote for the incumbent, simply because they expect that will allow them to eventually see Lt. Governor Pat Quinn take over as Governor.

Another one of the more significant political pratfalls potentially awaiting Blagojevich was his appointment of a women to a state commission on hate crimes who happens to serve as the Minister of Protocol to the Nation of Islam, of which Minister Louis Farrakhan has once again made public statements that are viewed as anti-Semitic and anti-gay. Blagojevich has claimed that he was unaware of the women’s associations with Farrakhan but she has claimed that such is not the case and that the Governor was very aware. Nonetheless, Blagojevich has oddly stood by the nomination claiming he does not believe in guilt by association. In reaction, all of the Governor’s Jewish appointees to the commission have resigned in protest rather than serve with Farrakhan’s close associate, and a lack of support by Jewish voters could be harmful on Election Day.

Just this past weekend, reporters were grilling Blagojevich, who was attending the State Fair in Springfield over issues related to the corruption allegations, and as things got heated, he picked up his three year old daughter and practically dared reporters to continue asking him questions. When young Annie began to cry, Blagojevich lashed out at the media for the turn of events, in a situation which many felt was a calculated political ploy that involved using his child as a political shield and a tool to make his critics look mean spirited.

Moving on to the Republican nominee, State Treasurer Judy Baar Topinka in March won a solid but not overwhelming victory in a crowded Republican primary. She has been elected to her statewide post three times and has been a top vote getter for Republicans, largely on the basis of support of many Democrats and Independents who agree with her very moderate views on many social issues.

She entered the race for Governor somewhat reluctantly after popular former Governor Jim Edgar declined once again to make a political comeback and Topinka was seen by many as the only remaining electable candidate on the Republican bench. Pledges of financial support from national Republican organizations had been offered, and she happens to have more money in the bank than the GOP nominee for Governor had at this point in time in 2002, but she still is lagging far behind Blagojevich in the cash race and that is being seen as one of the most significant drawbacks to her chances of victory in November.

While Topinka has succeeded politically throughout her career, she has had problems with many people who make up the conservative base of the state’s Republicans, on issues involving her support for abortion and gay rights, including her participation in her capacity as State Treasurer in the annual Chicago Gay Pride Parade. While most conservatives have indicated a willingness to support her in November as their chance to oust Blagojevich, albeit reluctantly in some cases, other more ardent right-wingers have made it known that they will not be able to vote for Topinka under any circumstance.

A tough-talking smoker from the western suburbs of Chicago, Topinka’s personal style has been viewed as very abrasive to those who disagree with her on social matters and critics have claimed that she has not taken any steps to reach out to an important part of the Republican constituency.

Topinka’s current campaign has not gotten stellar reviews. It has been seen as unfocused and undisciplined. While she surprised and impressed many by being extremely forceful and aggressive against Blagojevich in their one debate thus far, and clearly managed to get under his skin, others accused her of overkill and acting in a way that was “ungubernatorial.” Another knock on her is that she has not articulated much of a positive vision for Illinois or given many details as to what she would do as Governor. Topinka has said that she has to release her platform in chunks in order to generate much needed free media attention and that she will be far more specific once people start tuning in more to the campaign. Republicans are counting on Topinka’s stock rising once she is able to finally start advertising on television, but just about everybody realizes that her campaign and the candidate herself needs to continue to step up their game and show how she is a viable alternative.

Admirers of Topinka look at her zany and humorous antics as being endearing and proof that she is far more genuine and down to earth than most highly scripted politicians. Like Blagojevich though, Topinka might also have a problem with the issue of “gravitas” and appearing authoritative as a chief executive figure, for some of the reasons mentioned above. While she is very good with quips and one-liners and in one on one conversation, Topinka lacks Blagojevich’s uncanny political ability to stay on message and deliver sound bites.

Topinka’s detractors in both parties also cite her background as a political associate with the discredited George Ryan and all the issues of corruption related to his tenure as Secretary of State, which now has him scheduled to be behind bars in a few weeks. Furthermore, most Republicans soured on George Ryan during his term as Governor for additonal reasons, including high government spending and his crusading against the death penalty. Needless to say, Topinka will not be highlighting any political partnership she has had in the past with Ryan while Blagojevich has spent money attempting to tie the two of them together (as most of her defeated primary opponents had also attempted to do) at every turn. Her critics also claim that she is tainted by corruption on issues related to an allegation by a former employee that political work was done on state time and that she has accepted money from people who do business with the state in what is commonly known as “pay to play” politics.

While Topinka certainly is well versed in old school Illinois politics, there has never been any sort of serious indication that she might have done anything illegal or unethical in office or that she was ever a serious target for potential prosecution. It is risky for Blagojevich to continue trying to cast aspersions over her ethics, while basically conceding that those questions exist about him. Still though, Topinka probably will not be seen as the perfect candidate to exploit the ethical problems of the Blagojevich Administration, but will do what she can to try to come across as a reformer, relying in large part on her conservative running-mate DuPage County State’s Attorney Joe Birkett, a tough on corruption prosecutor.

After the March 21 primary, the race was further complicated by what appeared to be the somewhat surprising entrance of State Senator James Meeks, a charismatic African-American minister and close associate of Jesse Jackson, into the race as an Independent. Meeks called for more spending on issues that African-Americans find important and he has chastised Blagojevich for what he saw as an unwillingness to raise taxes, or at least admit in the context of a campaign that such a step might need to be taken. It looked like Meeks was serious about running, but right before he was scheduled to formally enter the race, he announced he had reached an agreement with Blagojevich over a school funding plan which involved the sale of the state’s lottery in order to pay for education. While Democrats were clearly relieved to not have a candidate in the race that would take votes away from the party’s African-American base, Blagojevich might still be tainted for the perception that he caved to Meeks’ demands for political purposes and that he might have basically had to buy an opponent off.

Despite the alliance on the education issue, Meeks was in the news a few weeks back for making an extremely inflammatory statement that appeared to be directed in part at Blagojevich.

Nonetheless, the Meeks non-run, while a plus on balance for Blagojevich, also had the added element of the fact that he is anti-abortion and far more conservative on gay rights issues than either Blagojevich or Topinka. Many speculated that his outreach to disaffected conservatives meant that he might very well have taken away chunks of votes away from Topinka as well. Polling data even seemed to back that up. The end result thought is that there is not any sort of Pro-Life or socially conservative candidate to appear on the ballot who might drain protest votes away from the moderate Republican nominee. In fact, the only other candidate to be on the ballot will be the choice of the liberal Green Party, who with so many Democrats dissatisfied with Blagojevich, appears poised to capture a few more points than third party contenders usually receive. Attorney Rich Whitney could very well swing the election to Topinka, with her managing to win with a bare plurality of the vote.

Without the presence of Meeks stressing the tax issue, the overall fiscal debate will continue to basically be Topinka taking Blagojevich to task on his numerous spending proposals and also a matter relating to raiding the pensions of public employees to pay for programs. The state's union of public employees is vehemently oppsed to the Governor's reelection.

Topinka has the tricky task of telling voters that some belt-tightening is necessary and that some will have to do without in order for the state to live within it’s means. Blagojevich continues to advocate feel good government programs such as health care for all children, and insisting that it can be done without a tax increase.

Blagojevich, who would have preferred to run against a staunch social conservative on wedge issues such as abortion in a state where Democrats have had many recent successes, is instead trying to appeal to women, a key constituency against a moderate Republican female opponent, by stressing his support for the social safety net and also getting to Topinka’s left on the issue of guns. He even went so far as to immediately after the primary take issue with her legislative votes against mandatory seat belt laws from 20 years ago.

Perhaps feeling confident about his ability to come across better on television, Blagojevich, who completely ignored his primary opponent while claiming he was too busy as Governor to engage in a campaign, has challenged Topinka to several additional debates. A candidate who feels they are behind and has nothing to lose though typically attempts such a tactic. Topinka has said the debates should also include the Green Party nominee, which Blagojevich is extremely unlikely to agree to.

The first group of polls after the primaries showed that Topinka had moved out to a lead on Blagojevich, which had political pundits somewhat surprised considering the very negative and potentially damaging primary campaign some of her Republican opponents ran against her. However, with Blagojevich’s negative television blitz, those polls eventually turned around greatly in his favor. Both sides will concede that Blagojevich is now leading, but the most recent Rasmussen Reports poll shows the race tightening somewhat to a 45-37 lead for Blagojevich, with his numbers remaining stuck at the same 45 % mark. Republican optimists will note that with all the money he has spent, his opponent is still breathing politically, without her having spent practically any money whatsoever and that the incumbent is unable to approach 50%. Polls on this race have also indicated that a large number of voters are unhappy with both major party choices and the vote for Whitney, the Green, could surprise many people. Topinka may actually only need as little as 47 % of the vote in November in order to win the race.

Democrats believe that Topinka can be harmed by being a Republican during a sixth year midterm election, which is traditionally bad for the party of a President and there is widespread belief that President Bush, who has campaigned with Topinka, will harm Republicans in a state like Illinois this year. Republicans think that they may catch a break because of a complicated situation in the Democrat stronghold of Cook County related to the County Board Presidency race that has the potential of creating a harmful backlash against other Democrats or decreased turnout in the most reliable area of the state for Blagojevich. Furthermore, Chicago area Democrats may be so focused on trying to save the powerful County Board Presidency that the troublesome Blagojevich’s campaign may move somewhat to the back burner. The thing thought that Topinka backers continue to most hang on for is some sort of an indictment or other legal development before the election that they think could put the nail in Blagojevich’s political coffin.

While an unpopular incumbent facing an opponent who fits the political nature of the state and has demonstrated past electoral strength would usually be seen as a likely goner, this race is just too complex to reach such a conclusion.

Illinois Republicans are still reeling for a variety of reasons and Topinka has personal and political baggage in her own right (but was still considered to by far the strongest Republican challenger who sought to face Blagojevich).

Blagojevich, for all his problems, is an extremely well funded candidate whose political skills should not be underestimated in a campaign context, where television ads have played and will continue to play a large part.

The Governor is very likely to win the election if Topinka does not improve on the trail or further burns bridges with ideological conservatives who might decide to sit the race out.
When one considers though that Blagojevich is not going to be able to fare as well as he did Downstate as he did in 2002 and the prospect of facing an opponent from the crucial swing area of the Chicago suburbs, to which he owes his initial election as Governor, he clearly has much to worry about.

While the race may break strongly for one candidate if one of the principles were to happen to get indicted before November, the end result is likely to be a race in which the two finish up within five points of each other.

Topinka has a longer record of electoral success in the state and incumbents polling as badly as Blagojevich currently does typically does not bode well for them. She has the potential to appeal to Democrats while Blagojevich has problems with support from many in his party. While Topinka is far from universally loved among Republicans, it is hard to see how Blagojevich could add those conservative GOP votes to his column.

If the election were held today, Blagojevich would win, and while he very well might when it really counts. Topinka probably has the best room for growth though over the next 83 days considering the fact that she has yet to spend money on television advertisements in the general election. Blagojevich will continue to spend heavily in that area, but after a while, all the ads, especially the negative ones, might just cause people to tune him out and the effect may be muted.

All things considered, especially the expected Green Party vote as much as anything else, I still think the Land of Lincoln is slightly more likely than not to have a Governor who once again comes out of the Party of Lincoln. If Blagojevich is victorious though, stay tuned for fireworks.

Topinka campaign link:

2006 Governor races Predicted thus far: 2 D, 10 R
Post-election total of Governors predicted thus far: 10 D, 16 R