Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Illinois Governor Race

Race of the Day

Illinois Governor

August 18, 2010
76 Days Until Election Day

Status: Democrat Incumbent
2008 Presidential Result: Blue State (Midwest)

Outlook: Leans Republican

Even before the election of the state's junior Senator as President, Illinois had become one of the most reliably Democrat states in the country. Today, Democrats hold every state office and control all aspects of government. A perfect storm of circumstances though now have the Party of Lincoln looking to score major gains in the Land of Lincoln, which would be a particular embarrassment to the Chicagoan in the White House.

In 2002, Rod Blagojevich, considered a product of Chicago Machine politics, became the first Democrat to be elected Governor of Illinois in nearly 30 years. In the wake of firestorms regarding investigations that would eventually put the then Republican Governor in a federal prison, Blagojevich promised to usher in an era of reform. Under the state's election laws, the winners of the primary for Governor and Lt. Governor are matched together as a ticket in the general election. While no Democrat candidate for Governor that year supported a choice to be their running mate in the primary, the contest was narrowly won by Pat Quinn, a liberal activist, who despite having served a single term as State Treasurer in the early '90s, had since unsuccessfully run three more times for statewide office, losing the last two in primaries. The good fortune of running on the Democrat ticket in 2002 though made Quinn, who had earned the reputation as a bit of a political gadfly, the new Lt. Governor.

During his time as Lt. Governor, Quinn tried to work on his own agenda and generate his own publicity. The relationship between him and Governor Blagojevich was not close and reportedly, they went for long stretches of time without even speaking to each other. Nonetheless, Quinn supported the renomination and reelection of his running mate in 2006, even as it appeared certain that the federal government was now targeting Blagojevich for corruption. At one point, Quinn said that Blagojevich was a man of integrity who could be counted on to do the right thing. The Democrat ticket, which had a massive financial advantage over their Republican opponent won another four years in office with just under 50 percent of the vote. The Green Party nominee, attorney Rich Whitney, scored 10 percent of the vote, guaranteeing ballot access for the next four years for his party.

Blagojevich's second term saw him estranged politically and in the dispatching of governing from his number two Quinn, and also incredibly unpopular as allegations of corruption swirled, and the state government, which was dominated by Democrats, found itself paralyzed by a weak economy and bickering between the Governor and the General Assembly. People of all political stripes cheered when the FBI arrested Governor Blagojevich on a variety of charges in December 2008, including an attempt to sell the U.S. Senate seat being vacated by President-Elect Obama. "Blago", as he is often referred to, turned down requests by Quinn and others to resign, and fairly swiftly, the General Assembly voted to impeach him and remove him from office. Suddenly Quinn, the ultimate outsider, was now Governor of Illinois.

Even before becoming Governor, Quinn found himself in difficult political water regarding changing positions he seemed to take on an almost weekly basis on whether or not a special election should be held to replace Obama in the U.S. Senate, and if he would be willing to appoint an interim Senator as Governor. The Blago brouhaha grew even greater when before being booted from office, the indicted Governor appointed Roland Burris, under questionable circumstances to the seat. Quinn joined a chorus of national and state Democrats in denouncing the move, but ultimately acquiescing to the brazen move.

In the meantime, the state's economy and budget mess continued to worsen and Quinn's job approval as Governor began to fall dramatically as he was seen as an ineffectual bumbler, who was more comfortable in his role giving Sunday afternoon press conferences, and unprepared to govern. It certainly did not help matters when Quinn tried to alleviate the state's prison overcrowding by releasing inmates, who then went on to commit violent crimes. While much of the Democrat establishment was behind him in a bid for his own term as Governor, a primary challenge by State Comptroller Dan Hynes gained steam, and it looked as if Quinn would be spending almost a year as a lame duck Governor. The race between the two Democrats turned nasty and personal down the stretch with negative ads saturating the airwaves. Hynes may have overreached though in the campaign's final days, and a populist appeal by Quinn was enough to very narrowly deliver the Democrat nomination to the incumbent in the February primary.

All the while, Republicans were lining to take advantage of the political chaos Democrats had found themselves embroiled in. While several credible candidates entered the field, critics claimed that none was the sort of political heavyweight who could be certain of winning. On Primary Day, the top four finishers were all neck in neck in an even more crowded field, but the winner, by less than 200 votes turned out to be a conservative State Senator from Central Illinois named Bill Brady, who took just over 20 percent of the primary vote. In 2006, Brady had finished a respectable third in a run for the GOP Gubernatorial nomination. While his campaign was virtually non-existent in the Chicago Metropolitan area, Brady took advantage of the fact that all other candidates for the GOP nomination were from Chicagoland and he was the only one from Downstate. It took a month for the final count to be confirmed, which put Brady ahead of State Senate colleague Kirk Dillard, who many believed would have been the strongest general election candidate.

With eight months to go before the general election, some in both parties wondered why they had nominated the candidates they did. While Hynes or Dillard would have been heavy favorites over Brady and Quinn, respectively, the contest of Brady vs. Quinn looked like it would turn out to be very competitive, with a lot of voters bemoaning both choices.

Adding to the intrigue was nomination of Quinn's newest running-mate. Scott Lee Cohen was a little known pawnbroker, who spent the most money on his campaign and won a very low profile primary. While Cohen's opponents had claimed to have tried to warn Quinn about questions surrounding the candidate, the Governor stated he had no preference in that race and would be happy to run with whomever was nominated. In the days after his victory, the media turned his attention to Cohen and the dirt that came out could have filled a barn involving the candidate's roles in steroid use and putting a knife to the throat of his then prostitute girlfriend. After vowing to stay in the race, Cohen eventually succumbed to pressure and left the ticket, which came as a big sigh of relief to Quinn and other Democrats who were able to slate a replacement nominee. The GOP nominee for Lt. Governor also won a very below the radar campaign, and thanks to the Downstate turnout, and spending the most money on the race, a then 27 year old businessman Jason Plummer captured that nomination. While Plummer's problems were nowhere nearly as severe as Cohen's, concerns arose as to whether the GOP ticket was too Downstate oriented and too conservative to win. While Brady, who is also runs a home building company, eventually gave in to calls to release his tax returns, Plummer has still refused to do so. The two original nominees for Lt. Governor, as well as the Blagojevich/Quinn pairing have spurred the state legislature to have now changed the law to allow candidates for Governor and Lt. Governor to now have to run together in primaries in future elections. Others, want to eliminate the office of Lt. Governor all together.

Continuing the campaign drama, Cohen would eventually come to regret giving into Democrat pressure to drop his place on the ticket and proceeded to petition for a place on the ballot as an Independent candidate for Governor, opposing his short-lived running mate Quinn. Cohen seems intent on spending even more money on such a quixotic campaign and often generates media attention. His candidacy, along with that of Green Party nominee Rich Whitney returning to the scene, means that ultimate winner will do so perhaps with well under 50 percent of the vote, and that Quinn has far more to lose to Cohen and Whitney, although there are some voters who have decided they cannot vote for Quinn, but will throw their vote to a third party candidate if given the choice, instead of supporting Brady. It remains to be seen whether the nominees of the Libertarian and Constitution parties will remain on the ballot, but they are less likely to significantly harm Brady at the ballot box.

At the present time, Quinn has just been unable to regain any political traction, and now looks to be a distinct underdog to Brady, who had some initial general election missteps himself. Democrats have tried to make hay out of votes that Brady cast in Springfield in order to portray him as being "anti-woman" and in favor of such things as the execution of puppies. While the socially conservative Brady would seem to have an uphill fight in Illinois, voters seem to be focused primarily on the state's economy and all polls now show Brady ahead, with the most recent Rasmussen Reports survey putting him up by as much as 13 points.

A major issue in the campaign will be that during a time where the state government is near broke, Quinn has given pay raises to may of his staffers, and has struggled to explain away the decision. That act, plus that of the prisoner release scandal can be expected to be featured heavily in GOP ads during the fall campaign. With evidence suggesting that attacking Brady on social issues has done little to inspire the Democrats' dispirited base for Quinn, they can be expected to try to paint him as some sort of heartless businessman, who avoided paying taxes, and laid off workers.

The political nature of Illinois and Brady's vulnerabilities as a statewide candidate, do not make this race a done deal, but the edge clearly has to go to the challenger. Not enough attention is being paid to the fact that Cohen and Whitney can be expected to perhaps take as much as 15 percent of the total vote this year, and that will make the math for a Brady victory easier. While Obama and the White House may do what they can in the state to try to stave off the embarrassment of losing the President's former U.S. Senate seat, they will likely say and do little to save Quinn's job. The most powerful Democrat in state government is State House Speaker Michael Madigan, who is not particularly close to Quinn, and whose daughter Lisa is the popular state Attorney General. She surprised and disappointed many Democrats by deciding to run for a certain reelection this year, rather than Governor or U.S. Senate, which she would have been the favorite to win. Michael Madigan is also the State Party Chair and is believed to have Quinn's election way down the list of his priorities (same can be said for the U.S. Senate race). Madigan wants to hold on to his State House majority and with the state continuing to likely be in terrible financial shape for some time, he perhaps would prefer a GOP Governor in office to take the hits, and set up an opportunity for Lisa in 2014.

It is also worth noting that with both candidates being so politically imperfect, the one who is less active politically could win, just by focusing in on their opponent's weaknesses. Downstate anger at Chicago Democrats is going to generate a big turnout in support of Brady. Many in Chicagoland still do not know enough about Brady to form an opinion of him at this point though, and Democrats will continue to try to define him. It may just be smart politics for Brady to continue to try to come across as the affable politician with an attractive family, without jumping too deeply into the fray while in the Chicago media market. As long as the race is a referendum on Quinn, whose job approval ratings are dismal, the Republican candidate will win.

Finally, the big elephant (or donkey) in the room is of course the Blagojevich situation. Yesterday, a federal jury in Chicago convicted the disgraced ex-Governor of one count of lying to federal agents, but were unable to reach a unanimous verdict on 23 other more serious charges. That is possibly the worst political outcome for Democrats, as voters are likely to believe justice has not been served. The government has indicated they intend to seek a speedy re-trial of Blagojevich, which will possibly be occurring right on Election Day. Democrats had hoped this matter would have been resolved with as soon as possible.

Quinn was lucky to escape his primary challenge with a victory, but there is not much in his overall political history or in the current Illinois political landscape working in his favor, despite the strength Democrats have here, and an opponent who is vulnerable to some attacks. It is starting to get sort of late in the game though and since the primary dust has settled, Quinn has moved backwards and not forward.

If nothing dramatic changes, Bill Brady will find himself as a somewhat unlikely Governor of one of the Democrats' most reliable states in America. Whomever wins this year though, will perhaps face an unwinnable task in governing the state and can expect to tangle with Lisa Madigan before too long.

Brady (and Plummer) campaign link:


2010 Governor races predicted thus far: 4 D, 8 R
Predicted Gubernatorial totals thus far: 11 D, 14 R