December 1, 2004


For first-term Governor Rod Blagojevich -- who is derisively referred to as "The Kid" by Springfield insiders and Chicago politicians -- the recent election results, coupled with the state's economic trends, are far more auspicious than they are ominous.

Blagojevich, age 48, earned his nickname because he is the son-in-law of powerhouse Alderman Dick Mell (33rd) and because he is still viewed as a political rookie. He was elected governor in 2002, primarily due to voter revulsion over the scandals of George Ryan's administration. His term expires in 2006, and he ranks as an early favorite.

In no particular order of importance, here are eight salient reasons why Blagojevich's re-election prospects look increasingly bright, and five potential pitfalls that he must avoid or correct.

* Economic rebound. The state's personal and corporate income tax revenue is expected to climb by 4 percent in fiscal year 2006 and that, combined with other tax and fee hikes, will bring a projected $740 million into state coffers. But state pension, Medicaid and state employee health insurance obligations will wipe that out. The 2006 budget is projected to have a $675 million deficit, but that is a significant improvement over 2005's $2.3 billion deficit and 2004's $5 billion deficit.

In both of those years, Blagojevich unveiled some creative financing (such as his $10 billion pension bond plan) to close the revenue gap and to avoid raising the state income tax. The governor may be hard-pressed to be equally creative next year, but he has a smaller shortfall to cure. The state's -- and nation's -- economic rebound is coming to his rescue.

* Longevity factor. Across America, during in 2002 and 03 election, the incumbent party lost 24 of 41 governor's races. That trend continued in 2004, with the incumbent party losing five of 11 governor's contests.

The reasons for those switches were essentially threefold: economic distress, scandal or party longevity, or a combination thereof. Blagojevich won in 2002 due to the latter two: the outgoing governor was wreathed in scandal, and Republicans had held the governorship for 26 consecutive years. That trend was apparent in other states in 2002, with Maryland and Hawaii electing a Republican after 34 and 40 years of Democratic rule, respectively, and Wisconsin and Michigan electing a Democrat after 16 and 12 years of Republican rule. It continued in 2003, when Kentucky elected a Republican after 32 years of Democratic domination.

And it was evident in 2004, as Washington, Indiana and Missouri ousted Democrats after 20, 16 and 12 years, respectively, and Montana ousted the Republicans after 16 years. Quite clearly, voters do not want one party to endlessly dominate state government. Party rotation and balance is perceived as necessary to avoid scandal and abuse.

But first-term governors, unless elected in a fluke or beset by scandal or severe economic dislocation, usually win re-election. Of the 38 states that elected a governor in 2002, 12 re-elected their governor and only three incumbents lost (first-term Democrats in Republican-trending Georgia, South Carolina and Alabama); in 2003 a first-term Democrat lost in Republican-trending Mississippi. This year four of eight first-termers (in Vermont, North Dakota, Delaware and North Carolina) won, while economic problems sank Missouri's governor, scandals sank New Hampshire's, and ineptitude and personal scandal caused those in West Virginia and Montana to retire.

So, absent pervasive scandal or economic duress, Blagojevich looks good going into 2006.

* The Credibility Kid. Blagojevich, in 2002, emphatically promised not to raise the state income tax and not to sanction the expansion of casino gambling. A Chicago casino, a Rosemont casino or the proposed trifecta (casinos in Waukegan or Elgin, Chicago and the south suburbs) would boost city, county and state revenues, but Blagojevich has kept his word -- and voters appreciate such integrity.

The governor has already fudged on one promise: not to take contributions from the gambling industry. His 2004 disclosure indicates that he accepted $247,398 from the horse-racing industry. If he reneges on either his no tax hike or his no casino promise, he invites a world of trouble.

* Bye-bye Obama. After a year in which Barack Obama was lionized as the new face of the Democratic Party, eclipsing Blagojevich, matters will revert to norm. Obama is off to Washington, and the governor will get more face time in 2005. But Blagojevich must remember that Obama is a potential presidential candidate in 2012, so the governor must make his national move in 2008.

* Plenty of money. Blagojevich raised and spent $25 million in 2002, and he raised approximately $5 million in each of the last 2 years, leaving him with more than $10 million in his campaign account. He'll likely raise $8 million this year and another $20 million in 2006. Expect him to blow $35 million on his 2006 re-election race.

* Nobody can't beat Somebody. Blagojevich is not popular with Democratic insiders, such as Mayor Rich Daley and House Speaker Mike Madigan. They would dearly love another Democratic governor, but no viable alternative has emerged. Neither state Attorney General Lisa Madigan nor state Comptroller Dan Hynes will challenge Blagojevich in the 2006 Democratic primary. Paul Vallas, who lost the 2002 primary, may run again, but he will be grossly underfunded, and he will have no real issue to use against the incumbent. What does he do, criticize Blagojevich for not raising taxes?

* A friend in need. During the 2003-04 budget wars, Blagojevich's most trusted ally was Illinois Senate President Emil Jones, who backed the governor's budget. Their common enemy was Speaker Madigan. During 2004 Blagojevich campaigned hard for various Senate Democrats, including Gary Forby, John Sullivan and Pat Welch. Only Welch lost, and Jones' majority diminished by just one, to 32-27. In addition, Madigan lost a net of one House seat, reducing his majority to 65-53, and despite a huge amount of funding and involvement, he lost a southern Illinois Supreme Court race which was fought on the issue of tort reform. Expect the Rod-and-Emil alliance to continue in 2005.

* Muscular Dems. Although Blagojevich won by just 252,080 votes in 2002 over Republican Jim Ryan, the 2004 returns indicate a further deterioration of the Republican base in the Cook County suburbs and the Collar Counties.

But, lest Blagojevich get too giddy, there are a couple of dark clouds on the horizon:

* Iron Mike. After intense squabbling in 2003 and 2004 about the "Madigan budget," which increased spending less than the Blagojevich-Jones budget, the governor fervently hoped for an electoral backlash. In particular, he reportedly hoped for a five-seat net Democratic House loss, so as to enable him to claim that Madigan's "obstructionism" hurt the Democrats. That didn't happen, and Madigan's lock on the House majority is unassailable. So Blagojevich faces a critical strategic decision: Does he run for re-election in 2006 by bashing Madigan? Or does he work with Madigan to enact a Democratic agenda and run on that accomplishment?

* Arrogance of power. Blagojevich has already succumbed to the perks of power. As ABC-Channel 7 News recently reported, Blagojevich took 12 bodyguards and six state cars to Boston for the Democratic convention, running up $23,000 in hotel bills. In addition, according to Channel 7, one guard is assigned to carry his hairbrush, and his security detail handed out candy at the governor's home on Halloween. George Ryan did the same, using his guards as golf caddies.

Public officials are not royalty. If Blagojevich's head gets too fat and his ego bursts normal restraints, the public will notice . . . and will not be indulgent.

* The Unhappy Mayor. Daley dearly wants a casino, and he wants more state funding for Chicago projects. Blagojevich will not accommodate him. Will Daley sit on his hands in the 2006 governor's race? Or will he actively work against "The Kid"?

* The presidential itch. It is no secret that Blagojevich, the perpetual campaigning machine, harbors ambitions for the White House. After all, he can't be governor for life. But the Nov. 2 post-mortems in the major media do not even mention Blagojevich's name as a 2008 presidential contender.

For 2 years Blagojevich has governed as a fiscal moderate -- and he has been ignored by the national media. The governor needs to do something to get himself noticed, real quick. Otherwise, he won't be a player in 2008. And if what he does is too liberal, such as embracing gay marriage or raising taxes, he'll jeopardize his 2006 re-election.

* Wither Republicans? The chief Republican gubernatorial aspirants for 2006 are state Treasurer Judy Baar Topinka and state Senator Steve Rauschenberger. The governor is addicted to polls, reportedly spending more than $100,000 a year to gauge his popularity. A Saint Louis Post-Dispatch poll just before the 2004 election gave Blagojevich a 50 percent approval rating/42 percent disapproval rating. By comparison, California's Arnold Schwarzenegger has a 62 percent approval rating.

When an incumbent hovers around 50 percent approval, he's in jeopardy. If the Republicans tag Blagojevich as being shallow, egotistical and ineffectual, and if they make the 2006 election an up-or-down referendum on "Shallow Rod," he could lose. Expect Blagojevich to go negative early on his Republican foe.