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Why Illinois Matters

November 20, 2009

Why Illinois Matters

The question, “ How will it play in Peoria?” was a standard of any national political campaign, meaning if you can’t win in rural Illinois, you’d better change your strategy. But lately, Illinois has been unable to get it right, becoming more solidly Democratic, including, currently at least, two Democratic senators, a Democratic governor and a Democrat controlled big city machine. Illinois, at one time, was considered a bellwether state. Today, the political climate in Illinois is nothing less than a national embarrassment. Our state faces a $12 billion structural deficit, and generations have grown up alongside a pay-to-play culture perpetuated by systemic corruption.

Illinois has voted for Democratic presidential candidates in the last five elections. Obama easily won the state’s 21 electoral votes in 2008, by a margin of 25 percentage points with 61.9% of the vote. And, in 2004, well over 80% of Illinois’ counties cast their vote for Bush, but Cook County, Chicago, went for Kerry by a big margin, giving Kerry the win. Like in many other elections, as Chicago goes, so goes the state. Politics in the state, particularly those of the Chicago machine, has long been about power and corruption and for much of the last century, Chicago has been considered one of the largest Democratic strongholds in the United States. It is sad that Illinois cannot use some common sense and impose term limits on many or all office holders. This is the only way to break up the stranglehold of power and corruption.

The Cook County Democratic Organization is one of the most powerful political machines in American history. Commonly called the “Chicago Democratic machine”, the organization has dominated Chicago politics since the 1930s. It relies on a tight organizational structure of ward bosses and precinct captains to maintain discipline, as well as patronage and graft to reward supporters. It’s not the money in Illinois politics that’s the problem, it’s an entrenched system of political machines and the utter lack of transparency in the process – who’s getting government contracts, and who gets the power to exercise control over what entities, is the problem. Its patronage and cronyism. With Obama in office, the Chicago Way is now nationalized.

And, the Chicago Way effect on Illinois, the region and the nation is noticeable. In 2006, former Governor George Ryan (R) was convicted of racketeering and bribery. In 2008, Rod Blagojevich (D) was indicted on sixteen felony charges, including racketeering, wire fraud, and making false statements to investigators stemming from allegations that he conspired to sell the vacated Senate seat left by Obama to the highest bidder. And of course, there’s Obama winning the White House. Mayor Daley and his cronies and the Olympics bid. Roland Burris. Jesse Jackson. Lisa Madigan. David Axelrod. Rham Emanuel. Valerie Jarrett. Dick Durbin. Tony Rezko. Bill Daley. All could be favorably cast in a movie titled: The Untrustables. And now there is the new Gitmo North.

Here in Illinois, Governor Pat Quinn’s job approval rating is at 39% and disapproval is at 26%, while 35% have no fixed opinion, according to a recent Chicago Tribune poll. In the 2010 state elections, the biggest challenge for Illinois voters will be identifying a candidate that is not part of the corrupt establishment. Yet, the 13 candidates who have filed with the Illinois board of elections to run for governor: 2-Green party candidates, 7-Republicans and 4-Democrats; all but one Republican is from the Chicago area and two are actually from the same suburb, Hinsdale. So much for party unity among Republicans in this election cycle. There are a few front-runners and no one has emerged as the presumptive favorite. All Democrats are from the Chicago area too. Andy McKenna is one of 7 Republicans in the field. Many consider him the least worthy. But his family has a lot of money so McKenna could conceivably buy 3rd or 4th place. No better.

McKenna stepped down in August from the chairmanship of the Illinois Republican Party, to run for governor. He had the post for over 4 years, during which time Republicans lost almost everything there was to lose in Illinois. McKenna also ran for U.S. Senate in 2004 and got less than 15% in the GOP primary. Obama went on to win that seat and the rest is now history. In 2010, Alexis Giannoulias, and Obama’s protégé and currently Illinois’ Treasurer, is the favored of four primary candidates running for the seat currently held (and to be vacated) by Sen. Roland Burris. Giannoulias has a questionable past but will likely be heavily backed by Obama. But, regardless of who makes it out of the Democratic Senate primary, the winning candidate will face obstacles to keep the seat in Democratic hands. The taint of former Gov. Rod Blagojevich and the ethics scandals that have surrounded Burris create obvious hurdles for the winning candidate.

Meanwhile, the Republican running for the Senate seat, Rep. Mark Kirk (R-Ill), has strong name identification in the state. And in a poll conducted by Colorado-based Magellan Data and Mapping Strategies he currently holds a 42-35 lead over Giannoulias in a hypothetical general election — with 23 percent of voters undecided. Kirk is not an ideal candidate by any means but in a state that is starting at ground zero, its progress; Kirk, well, to be polite, his views too change with the Windy City breeze and is no friend to state conservatives. For me, Kirk ‘is’ a Democrat with a republican button on his Blazer. The Congressman was one of seven House Republicans to vote for Cap and Trade. But the problems that Illinois has are serious. This whole state has gone MAD. Throw in the Cubbies and their 100 -year losing tradition and its maddening.

But, For Illinois GOP politics to move on out from its checkered past, or change its fortunes, it must find a way to field the right candidates in 2010. When looking at state houses and assemblies, it’s clear that the Midwest has been consistently one of the two most competitive regions since the early 1980’s. The only region more competitive across the time period is the Far West. But, because of that competitiveness, the Democrats have flipped more state chambers from Republican control in the Midwest than anywhere else. As for the GOP, Republicans have bolstered their talk of late about recovering in the Northeast. But if there is a Republican recovery in the offing in 2010 and beyond, I’m betting it will come in the Midwest.

The Midwest is not as liberal/progressive as are the East and West Coast regions, and probably never will be, given that the region has more rural areas than do the Coasts, and thus have more of a conservative base. And states like Indiana and Missouri have had GOP tilts in them for quite some time. The Midwest is not a monolithic bloc politically. John McCain prevailed in Missouri with less than one-full-percentage point – a little over 4000 votes. And, Illinois is the 7th least conservative state, voting 12.8% less Republican in the 2004 presidential elections than the national average. Trust in Illinois state government is at a serious low. Only 15 percent of Illinoisans said they believed the state government did the right thing most of the time, compared to 27 percent nationally. All bellwethers are swing states, but not all swing states are bellwethers.

Midwestern congressional gains significantly contributed to the Democrats’ recapture the U.S. House and Senate in 2006, and their expansion of those majorities last year. And, every winning presidential candidate since 1920 has won at least 50% of the big Midwest states and in – an amazing 23 consecutive cycles – has carried at least four of the eight Midwest states that border the Great Lakes and/or Mississippi River (Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Ohio, and Wisconsin). These three states: Minnesota, Iowa, and Wisconsin have historically been a key electoral bloc for successful presidential campaigns since 1860. It is often said that as Iowa goes, do does Wisconsin and Minnesota. During the 2008 election, Chicago Field Director for the Obama campaign headquarters organized trips to the state of Iowa every other week to help organize and influence in the state.

Today though, some of the biggest erosion of Obama’s popularity has occurred in (light) blue states right in the Upper Midwest. While fairly steady in Minnesota, he has declined noticeably in the neighboring states of Iowa and Wisconsin. Although Obama had a virtually identical level of support on Election Day in Iowa (54%) and Wisconsin (56%) as he did in Minnesota, his approval rating has fallen to 46 and 47 percent in the Hawkeye and Badger States respectively. Since January, Obama’s job performance rating has dropped 32.9 percent in Wisconsin (from 70 to 47 percent) and 32.4 percent in Iowa (from 68 to 46 percent). With anti-Bush sentiment waning, Obama’s coattails are frayed and weak.

Democrats successfully turned Ohio from red to blue in 2006 and 2008, but the love affair too with Obama and the Democrats has come to an end. Ohio voters disapprove 53 – 42 percent of the way Obama is handling the economy and disapprove 57 – 36 percent of the way he is handling health care. In September, they approved of his handling of the economy 48 – 46 percent and split on his handling of health care 44 – 45 percent. As Obama’s fortunes fall, so do those local and state candidates of his party. In Ohio, the latest efforts by Ohio Governor Ted Strickland to hold on to his office are spiraling downward.

Obama’s job approval rating has dipped below 50% nationally for the first time particularly with independent voters. In Illinois, Obama still has a 56% Approval but in an October poll, and when asked if Illinois politicians have done enough to clean up politics in the state? Illinois voters overwhelmingly voted 89% NO. The strength of labor in this region is a major factor too as unions have historically had a strong voice in states as Michigan, Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana and Ohio and have significantly influenced the region. No doubt, Illinois, being a blue state, is one of the most reliably Democratic in the Midwest with one of the most heavily union-influenced machines.

Certain geographical groups of states tend to move as a group, a fact reflected in the national polling which reflects national events. Those states tend to have even registration between the parties and a relatively large independent block. Call these states sensitive or persuadable. Other states do not move and would vote for a dead-horse from their favorite party. For example, Wyoming and Alabama will stay Republican and the District of Columbia, Democratic. The undecided act as a kind of proxy for sensitivity and results over 50% for a candidate as a proxy for dead-horse states; thus, if New York goes Republican so then likely will Pennsylvania and Ohio.

The Midwest is the swing region of the country and to improve its standings in Wisconsin, Iowa, Minnesota, Missouri and Michigan, Illinois must reverse it Chicago machine hold. Chicago is the hub and spoke of the Midwest. Its influence from labor and union money on the upper and surrounding industrial states is both influential and pivotal. For Illinois to improve its standings in gaining GOP seats, and thus influencing the region, it must reduce the 400,000 plurality of Democratic votes in Chicago in order to win statewide. Today, demographic factors have grown Democrats’ margins in Cook County and have made the suburbs more competitive. Downstate Illinois is predominately conservative but a decreasing population. This means for Republicans to win, they need bigger margins south of Interstate 80 to offset losses in Cook County and the close-in suburbs.

The challenge for the GOP is that what makes a candidate attractive up north may not translate in central and southern Illinois. Pro-choice, pro-environment and anti-gun wins in the Chicago media market. Farther south, however, moderates begin more to resemble Reagan Democrats. They are pro-life, pro-guns and pro-jobs. Chicago and its suburbs in Cook County, make up roughly 23% and 19% respectively of the 41% of the Illinois electorate. Unless you can chip away 5-6% from that Cook County vote, Republicans will find it difficult in coloring the state red. Alliances between the Democratic machine, organized labor groups and union leadership have made it possible to buy off pensions with party patronage influencing the region.

The RNC, with prodding from state party leaders, recognize now the need to squash the stranglehold the Democratic Chicago machine has with its 400,000 vote plurality. The Chicago GOP is more active and the national party will be making Illinois a top priority in 2010 as they will be pouring money into the IL Senate and Governors race, of which, the RNC feels they can win both. There is a strong belief that the influence that Illinois has on neighboring states can help swing elections. In 2004, the Wisconsin Presidential race was the closest in the nation, with Kerry defeating Bush by just 0.4% and Bush won over Kerry in Iowa by just 0.8%, or about 10,000 votes. Wisconsin with its 11 electoral votes, is always besieged by Democratic volunteers from neighboring Illinois. In Missouri, McCain beat Obama by only 4000 votes in 2008. Bush “won” the presidency in 2000 with only 3 of the great eight states (MO, OH, IN) and Minnesota hasn’t been won by a Republican presidential candidate since 1972.

The swing areas in the Midwest naturally tend to be suburban; the cities Democratic, and the rural areas tend to vote Republican, making the suburbs the swing areas. The ‘burbs’ are very vulnerable to the Republican argument of high taxes, so one would not expect them to be nearly as stable as advertised after the ’08 cycle. One can easily see suburban Cook and Kane counties outside Chicago turning VERY red again. Three district geographic segments: Chicago, “downstate,” and the “collar counties,” comprised of sprawling suburbs and expanding cities surround the great metropolis. Illinois has a chance of getting GOP back into the game and influencing the central region if Republicans capture the governor’s race. But, unless the GOP can capture 5% of the 23% electorate in Chicago (and build on suburban Cook), Illinois will find it hard to regain the power in Illinois and elect a Republican Senator and Governor. But this is Illinois politics, where the unpredictable seems normal.

Candidate Briefs

Election 2010 – Illinois Senate Race
Election 2010 – Governor of Illinois

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