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Illinois Primary on Tuesday: Is Obama's State up for Grabs?

4 years ago
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CHICAGO -- President Barack Obama's old Senate seat and the Illinois governorship, held by Democrats, are GOP November takeover targets as voters head to the polls for Tuesday's primary, the earliest in the nation for the 2010 election cycle.

The downtown headquarters for the three front-running Democratic Senate contenders -- State treasurer Alexi Giannoulias, attorney David Hoffman and former Chicago Urban League Chief Cheryle Jackson -- are within walking distance of the Michigan Avenue high rise that housed Obama's presidential campaign for two years.

But the Democratic exuberance in Illinois from 2008 -- the Obama high -- has vanished.

"People are unhappy with the way things are," said David Yepsen, the director of the Paul Simon Institute of Politics at Southern Illinois University.

Never ending ethics scandals and the near insolvency of the state government burst the bubble of any post Obama euphoria months ago. On Saturday, Chicagoans awoke to these stories: a suburban mayor sentenced for bribery; a Chicago alderman taking a bribery plea deal, and a former alderman learning he may face prison time for a real estate kickback scheme.

Illinois Democrats are splintered and frazzled in the wake of the impeachment of former Gov. Rod Blagojevich, who will be tried this summer on federal public corruption charges for, among other items, trying to auction off Obama's seat. "They're scared," Yepsen said.

That Republicans are salivating over two Illinois plums -- governor and senate -- is Blagojevich's fault. The state has been Democratic for years: both senators, the governor, both chambers of the Illinois General Assembly and all the statewide elected major office-holders are Democratic. And a Chicagoan is the president of the United States.

Patrick Quinn, lieutenant governor when he replaced Blagojevich a year ago, was thrust into a political campaign because of the early primary. (Illinois lawmakers had moved the primary to February from its traditional March date in order to bolster Obama's chances in the 2008 "Super Tuesday" sweepstakes.) He faces a challenge from Comptroller Dan Hynes, who is making Quinn's competence a major issue in the closing days of the campaign.

Before Blagojevich was tossed out of office, he tapped Roland Burris to fill the Senate vacancy created by Obama's election. Burris, a political has-been eager for a comeback, soon found himself enmeshed in his own scandal over contacts with Blagojevich allies before his appointment. He decided not to run in 2010 to keep the Senate seat he had coveted.

Republican governor victories last year in Virginia and New Jersey, and the stunning loss earlier this month in Massachusetts of the Senate seat held by Ted Kennedy to Republican Sen.-elect Scott Brown have moved Illinois to the top of the GOP priority list.

Massachusetts furthered emboldened the Republicans; they knew they had an Illinois senate game months ago when two factors fell in their favor -- in addition to the Blagojevich mess:

First, the failure of the Chicagoans in the Obama White House and Illinois Democratic leaders, such as Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), to recruit the popular Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan to tackle a Senate race.

Madigan would have likely been a stronger contender than Giannoulias, Hoffman or Jackson.

The second GOP break came only after Madigan took a Senate pass. Once she was out of the picture, the Republicans best bet, Rep. Mark Steven Kirk (R-Ill.), generally seen as a moderate, jumped in and the Illinois GOP establishment united behind him, deciding to fight another day over conservative/moderate ideological differences.

The Illinois Contests for U.S. Senate

On the Republican side, Kirk has been running a cautious frontrunner primary contest-- his campaign manager will not issue a campaign schedule to reporters --- in order not to give his relatively little known field of rivals opportunities to attack him.

Even so, Kirk at times found himself on the defensive: one rival accused Kirk, divorced last year, of being gay. He angered Republicans by voting with Democrats in the U.S. House on the cap and trade emissions bill. He later all but renounced the House climate change legislation vote, explaining that he was voting only the narrow interests of the 10th Congressional District of Illinois. A memo he sent to Sarah Palin asking for an endorsement gave Democrats a chance to zap him and accuse him of making a sharp turn to the right.

Kirk's main rival, Patrick Hughes, has tried to rally Illinois conservatives. "Mark Kirk's record of votes for cap and trade, bank bailouts, millions in earmarks for his donors, and his liberal social values do not resonate well with Republicans and he lacks a strong base," Hughes said in one campaign e-mail.

Conservative groups, such as the tea party movement and the Club for Growth, have not had a significant impact on the campaign.

First elected to the House in 2000, Kirk represents a Democratic-leaning north suburbs district that hugs Lake Michigan. Kirk has won re-election by playing on his moderate credentials and his pro-Israel record -- factors that resonated in the heavily Jewish pockets of the district. He has raised more money -- $4.78 million-than any of the other Senate candidates.

A commander in the Naval Reserves, Kirk has leveraged his active duty stints as an intelligence officer -- he was deployed to Afghanistan for a few weeks at the end of December. He also has been a leading critic of President Obama's plan to buy a nearly vacant Illinois prison in northwest Illinois to house Guantanamo Bay military detainees.

While Democrats are fighting in their own primary over the nomination to the Senate, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee in Washington has been working to soften up Kirk for the general election, putting a staffer on the ground in Chicago last summer with a quiver full of arrows.

Kathleen Strand, a Chicago native and onetime spokeswoman for the New Hampshire Democratic Party, said her DSCC job is to "call Mark Kirk out for his continued flip flops and drastic swing to the right and his consistent record of siding with the Washington interests over Illinois families." The Democratic committee helped throw a spotlight on what Strand called Kirk's "contorted cap and trade flip, his Sarah Palin love letter and his blowing off a critical unemployment benefits extension vote last fall."

Over on the Democratic side, Giannoulias has held the lead through the entire primary season over Hoffman and Jackson. A poll by the Chicago Tribune/WGN-TV taken Jan.16 to Jan. 20 gave Giannoulias 34 percent of Democratic sample to 19 percent for Jackson, and 16 percent for Hoffman who made his name as an inspector general, investigating corruption in Mayor Daley's City Hall.

Giannoulias, a basketball playing buddy of Obama's raised $3 million as of Jan. 13; Jackson, $408,899 and Hoffman put together $2.1 million -- with $1 million of that his own money. Attorney Jacob Meister, a political unknown who self-financed his campaign to the tune of $1 million, announced Saturday night he was dropping out and throwing his support to Giannoulias.

Giannoulias never locked in his lead and a large number of undecided voters could affect the outcome as Hoffman recently stepped up his charges that Giannoulias is ethically challenged.

Elected state treasurer in 2006 -- with Obama, then a U.S. senator backing him in a primary -- Giannoulias has traveled around the state and has name recognition. But his job at his family's Broadway Bank in Chicago before his election -- a troubled financial institution -- is an Achilles heel.

The Democratic senate contest in Illinois may turn on Giannoulias' connections to Broadway Bank loans to Tony Rezko, the same controversial figure -- now in prison--who bought the lot next to the Obama's South Side home and helped him raise money early in his political career.

Giannoulias has said he did nothing wrong but would have argued against giving Rezko loans if he knew then what he knows now. Hoffman -- at news conferences and in hard hitting television spots -- highlighted what he sees as Giannoulias-Rezko connections. Part of his pitch is that Giannoulias would be a flawed general election candidate.

State Senator Susan Garrett, an early David Hoffman backer, was with him at his Chicago headquarters on Thursday at a news conference about Giannoulias and Broadway Bank. Giannoulias' November electability "is going down quickly," she asserted. "With Alexi, there are too many questions."

"...The State of Illinois always has this cloud of corruption hanging over it. This is Barack Obama's seat and it is up to us to make sure we have the best person to take over," Garrett said.

The Giannoulias campaign is circulating a Jan. 29 memo from their pollsters, Greenberg Quinlan Rosner, noting that the latest Rasmussen and Public Policy Polling surveys shows he is "the only Democrat who leads Kirk" in a November match-up "despite incessant negative attack ads from primary opponent David Hoffman."

Hoffman, little known outside of Chicago before he got in the Senate race, has support from the editorial boards of the major newspapers on the state. Giannoulias early on wrapped up the endorsements of major Democratic county chairmen, a score of other elected officials and the politically potent unions.

Cheryle Jackson, on leave from her post as the Chicago Urban League chief is the only woman and only African-American in the primary. She has the backing of Emily's List, the organization that helps female candidates who support abortion rights, and African American leaders in Chicago. Her main issue message has been job creation.

She needs a repeat of the dynamics that won Carol Moseley Braun the Senate Democratic nomination in 1992. Moseley Braun was the only female and African American running against two white men, Sen. Alan Dixon (D-Ill.) and attorney Al Hofeld. Hofeld spent millions smacking Dixon only to see his effort take down Dixon rather than build himself up. Jackson's campaign estimates that 24 percent of the Democratic primary vote will be African American.

Jackson is hoping that Hoffman --and his hits on Giannoulias -- can do for her what Hofeld did for Moseley Braun. Last week, she stepped into the fray, calling on Giannoulias to drop out of the race.

Neither Hoffman nor Giannoulias, who do not want to alienate women or African-Americans, have taken aim at Jackson. They have not exploited her soft spot: she served as Blagojevich's spokeswoman during his first term.

When we talked Thursday, I asked Jackson if the defeat in Massachusetts of Democrat Senate nominee Martha Coakley gave her pause. No, she said. "It was not an anti-Democratic vote, it was a pro-change vote. People are so frustrated witih the disconnect between Washington and their lives."

Giannoulias told me Thursday, "David has made his campaign about Rod Blagojevich and Mayor Daley and how he has stood up to them, which is great and is commendable. But we are talking about the United States Senate, creating jobs and rebuilding the United States economy."

The Illionois Contests for Governor

California's financial troubles have gained national press. But the deep fiscal woes in Illinois have been overshadowed by, among other things, the Blagojevich scandal -- and the book tour, TV interviews and publicity stunts undertaken by the former governor. But the state is broke, and that's a theme in the GOP and Democratic primaries.

Illinois "arguably is the only state in worse shape that California, depending how you calculate the numbers," said Charles Wheeler, the director of public affairs reporting at the University of Illinois, Springfield. A stunning $13 billion deficit is projected for fiscal 2011. "The electorate is dissatisfied. Because Illinois has the stench of corruption from the Blagojevich years, all this stuff is making the Republicans salivate," Wheeler said.

In a Jan. 27 memo, Public Policy Polling concluded "regardless of who emerges from next Tuesday's primaries, it looks like Illinois will have a competitive race for governor this fall."

Gov. Quinn and primary challenger, Comptroller Dan Hynes, are fighting in the last days of the contest over the pivotal African-American vote, with Hynes gaining. The Quinn - Hynes fight has become personal and acrimonous.

The Obama White House stayed out of this one.

Quinn and David Axelrod, Obama's senior advisor, have been friends for years. Hynes, who ran for the Senate in the 2004 Democratic primary against Obama, was one of the first to call for him to run for president.

Hynes is the son of former Cook County Assessor Thomas C. Hynes and vaulted to statewide office because he was his father's son. He is one of several legacy officeholders: Mayor Daley, the son of former Mayor Richard J. Daley is another; Lisa Madigan, the Attorney General, is the daughter of Michael J. Madigan, the speaker of the Illinois House and the chairman of the Democratic Party of Illinois. As the leader of the state party, Michael Madigan has displayed no interest in the senate or governor's primaries.

The late Mayor Harold Washington, Chicago's first and only black mayor has been remarkably resurrected as a factor in the primary, testifying from the grave against Quinn in what had been a long forgotten video interview the Hynes camp dug up and made into a commercial. In the interview, Washington talks about firing Quinn as his revenue director, calling his hiring perhaps his biggest mistake.

That Hynes invoked the name of Harold Washington is deeply ironic, since Hynes' father, Thomas C. Hynes, a member of the Democratic National Committee, ditched the party to run for mayor as a third party candidate against Washington in April, 1987. He dropped out of the mayor's race 36 hours before the polls opened in order to not splinter the white vote. Washington went on to win a second term, only to die a few months later.

The Quinn-Hynes acrimony came through Thursday during a joint appearance on WVON, a radio station with an African American audience.

"This is a divisive commercial and he knows it," Quinn said. Hynes said the spot was relevant to the 2010 contest as it only underscored his charge that Quinn was a poor manager.

"I voted for Harold Washington, I worked for Harold Washington in every single election he was in, from state representative, to state senator, to congress to mayor. His (Hynes) father called Harold Washington sleazy," said Quinn.

Added Quinn, "I'd rather lose the race for governor than divide the people of Illinois along the lines of race."

On Friday, Hynes gathered a group of more than 20 African American ministers at a South Side hotel to accept their endorsement.

The 2008 Illinois primary brought out a record 1.75 million Democrats, with about 750,000 of them first time primary voters, lured to the polls by the explosion of interest in the presidential campaign. Turnout is expected to be way lower this time. I asked Hynes if he thought those first-time 2008 voters will come out Tuesday.

"I hope so. We saw in '08 not only excitement for Barack Obama, but people were concerned about our country and they knew we had to have the right leadership," he said. "People know the state is in a crisis and we have to take matters into our own hands. We have to get involved and engaged and we need to come up with a better solution and come up with a better leader."

Over on the GOP side, the race is a toss up. One of the contenders, state senator Kirk Dillard -- a friend of Obama from their state senate days--is in a jam because he appeared in an Obama primary campaign commercial touting his Democratic friend. Rival Andy McKenna is hitting Dillard for boosting Obama.

Obama took note of the GOP Illinois primary while speaking to Republicans at their retreat on Friday in Baltimore. The comment came in taking a question from Rep. Peter Roskam (R-Ill.), who also served in the state senate with Obama.

Said Obama, "One of our former colleagues is right now running for governor on the Republican side in Illinois. In the Republican primary, of course, they're running ads of him saying nice things about me. Poor guy."

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