January 21, 2004


There's a big difference between the Chicago Cubs baseball team and the Republican minority in the Illinois Senate and Illinois House. The Cubs are known as the "Loveable Losers." The Republicans are derisively dismissed as just "Losers."

Another difference: If the Cubs don't make the World Series in 2004, they need only wait until the next year . . . or the next. Conversely, the Republicans, mired in the minority due to the 2001 Democratic redistricting map and perplexed and unable to criticize a popular Democratic governor, will likely need to wait until the next decade to win a majority.

The Democrats hold a 33-26 majority in the Senate and a 66-52 majority in the House, and Democratic Governor Rod Blagojevich is governing much like conservative Republicans dream a Republican would. Not only did Blagojevich fulfill his promise not to raise taxes, but now he is attempting to dismantle the state's education bureaucracy. In the interim, Blagojevich enacted "ethics" legislation which, given the stain which former governor George Ryan has affixed to their party, Republicans eagerly embraced.

 Were Jim Ryan -- whom Blagojevich defeated in 2002 -- governor, and had he done what Blagojevich has done, he would be assailed by liberal Democrats and minorities in the General Assembly as "insensitive to the needs" of the poor and minorities because he didn't raise spending, create new programs and impose new taxes. Likewise, he would be blasted by Democrats and the educational establishment as "anti-education" and biased against "poor" students.

Yet the silence which has greeted Blagojevich's initiatives has been deafening: Democrats haven't criticized their governor, nor have Republicans praised him. And, as a consequence, from a political, psychological and financial perspective, the Republicans have been effectively neutered. They can't criticize Blagojevich for governing like a Republican, they can't praise him for it, and they can't raise money from business and conservative groups by demonizing Blagojevich and portraying themselves as the last line of defense against some liberal, tax-hiking onslaught.

In addition, Blagojevich has astutely avoided the advocacy of hot-button issues, such as tort reform (which would activate the medical lobby), gun control or abortion. Thus, Republicans have no plausible fund-raising pitch. In past election cycles the parties raised and spent nearly $5 million each on their legislative candidates. For 2004 the minority Republicans will be lucky to raise half that amount; there is, quite simply, no compelling reason for any special interest to give money to the Republicans, since the Democrats are sure to keep their majority.

Of the 59 senators, 20 seats are up for election in 2004; 12 are held by Democrats and eight by Republicans. Every Republican seat is safe, but three Democrats' seats could be vulnerable. A four-seat switch would give the Republicans a majority. Here's a look at those three key Senate contests:

47th District (Downstate around Quincy): Democrat John Sullivan, a Quincy attorney, pulled a huge upset in 2002, defeating 22-year Republican incumbent Laura Kent Donohue by 2,394 votes. Sullivan was strongly backed by local unions, and he ran extremely well in usually Republican Adams County (Quincy). Donohue opted against a rematch, and popular state Representative Art Tenhouse declined to run, so the Republican candidate is Gary Speckhart, a farmer and banker from Quincy. Outlook: Definite edge to Sullivan.

38th District (Central Illinois, Peru): Incumbent Democrat Pat Welch has held this seat since 1982, and he won by 10,907 votes in 2002. His Republican foe is Gary Dahl, a trucking company owner. Outlook: Definite edge to Welch.

59th District (Far Downstate to the southeastern tip): Incumbent Larry Woolard resigned to take a state job and was replaced by Gary Forby, a state representative from Benton. Woolard won election with 69.6 percent of the vote in 2002, but Forby is much less popular. Republican Ron Summers, a former manager of the DuQuoin State Fair, is a credible candidate. If well funded, he could surprise. Outlook: Forby is a slight favorite.

So, after November, the Democrats' Senate margin likely will be 32-27, a one-seat loss. That keeps the Republicans irrelevant. But in 2006, when 39 seats are up (18 Republicans, 21 Democrats), the Republicans could chip off a few more seats.

Of the 118 House seats up for election in 2004, only 10 will be highly contested. Here's the outlook:

17th District (Glenview, Wilmette, part of Skokie): Incumbent Beth Coulson, a very liberal Republican, won her fourth term in 2002 by just 666 votes. This was designed to be a "Skokie seat," but the Skokie candidate, Michael Bender, lost the 2002 primary to Wilmette's Pat Hughes by 116 votes, and Hughes then lost to Coulson. The district is heavily Jewish, but the rule of thumb is that Jewish voters, when confronted with a choice of two gentiles, will opt for the woman over the man. That happened in 2002. In 2004 YJR Democrats picked Michele Bromberg, a Skokie trustee. Outlook: Toss-up.

20th District (Chicago's Northwest Side): Republican Mike McAuliffe beat fellow incumbent Bob Bugielski by 2,583 votes in 2002. Now McAuliffe faces popular 34-year incumbent Ralph Capparelli, who moved in from an adjacent district to run. Capparelli has almost $1 million in his account to spend. Can the House Republican Campaign Committee match that on McAuliffe's behalf? If not, McAuliffe will lose. Outlook: Slight edge to McAuliffe.

59th District (southeast Lake County: Deerfield, Vernon Hills): Incumbent Democrat Kathy Ryg won her first term in 2002 by just 107 votes. She is quite liberal, but since there were no tax-hiking votes during 2003, there is little to use to attack her. The Republican candidate is attorney Paul Tully, a Riverwoods trustee. Tully will be well funded, but so will Ryg. Outlook: Toss-up.

75th District (suburban Joliet and Kankakee): Incumbent Democrat Mary Kay O'Brien was appointed to the Illinois Appellate Court, so this Republican-leaning seat is open. The Republican candidate is Morris police chief Doug Hayse; the Democrat is Careen Gordon, an assistant state attorney general. Outlook: Republican favored.

79th District (Kankakee): Democrat Phil Novak has held this seat since 1986, but he is retiring. The Republican is Kay Pangle, the Kankakee-Iroquois regional superintendent of schools, and the Democrat is Lisa Dugan, president of the Bradley-Bourbonnais Chamber of Commerce. Pangle is well known and popular. Outlook: Republican favored.

117th District (Far Downstate: Marion, Benton): Forby vacated this seat for the Senate appointment and was replaced by Democrat John Bradley, a Marion attorney. The Republican is Leslie Donelson. Outlook: Democrat favored.

108th District (Effingham): Popular incumbent Democrat Chuck Hartke, a conservative, was appointed state agriculture director, and Effingham County Board vice chairman Bill Grunloh was named to replace him. The Republican candidate is David Reis, who lost to Hartke in 2002 by only 3,662 votes. This Republican-trending area went more than 60 percent for George Bush in 2000. Outlook: An easy win for Reis.

24th District (Cicero): Frank Aguilar became the legislature's first Hispanic Republican when he won an upset in this Cicero-centered district in 2002, defeating Democrat Lisa Hernandez. Because of political upheavals, convictions and shifting alliances, it is difficult to keep tabs of who is backing whom, either publicly or surreptitiously, but Aguilar seems to have entrenched himself. He will face Hernandez again. Outlook: Republican favored.

103rd District (Champaign-Urbana): First-term Democrat Naomi Jakobsson beat conservative Republican Tom Berns in 2002 by 1,489 votes. Berns was not thought to be a good fit for the area, which contains a large university population. The Republican is Deb Feinen, a member of the Champaign County Board, who is a moderate on social issues. Bush got only 40 percent of the vote here in 2000, so it's an uphill climb for Feinen. Outlook: Slight edge to Jakobsson.

Expect a net Republican pick-up of four seats, cutting the Democrats' majority to 62-56. But remember this: 2004 is likely to be a good Republican year in Illinois, with President Bush running strongly. Whatever marginal seats exist will tip to the Republicans.

However, 2006 will be much more difficult. Unless Blagojevich gives the Republicans some blockbuster issue, like an income tax increase, to run against, Republican candidates will have to depend on demographics and personality. And the demographics of Illinois are now, and will be for the foreseeable future, decidedly Democratic. The General Assembly's Republicans will reach their glass ceiling in 2004.