November 16, 2005


State Treasurer Judy Baar Topinka has finally announced her candidacy for governor in 2006.

The good news is that she will be the Republican nominee. She will win the March 21 primary.

The bad news is that she will be the Republican nominee, and she may lose the November election. During and after the primary, Topinka will find her character besmirched, her integrity impugned and her competency questioned. As she noted in her announcement, she is ready for a "brutal" campaign, and most of that brutality will emanate from the re-election campaign of Governor Rod Blagojevich, who has the money to relentlessly go "negative" on Topinka.

A late October Glengariff Group poll had Topinka ahead of Blagojevich by 38 percent to 31 percent, and 58 percent of the respondents said he had made "no difference" in cleaning up state corruption. Another poll, conducted by Tel Opinion research, had Topinka on top by 47-35 and had the governor's favorable/unfavorable rating at 39/44 and Topinka's at 47/13. A mid-October poll by SurveyUSA had Blagojevich's approval/disapproval number at 41/53, while the Chicago Tribune's poll in early October put the governor's numbers at 39/42.

Clearly, Blagojevich is quite beatable. Any incumbent who hovers under 50 percent in a head-to-head contest against a specific opponent, or whose disapproval rating exceeds his approval rating, is extremely vulnerable.

So how does Blagojevich win a second term? When an incumbent runs, the election is a referendum on the incumbent's performance. As of now, Blagojevich would lose that referendum, so the path to victory lies in making the 2006 gubernatorial election a choice, which means that Blagojevich must make his Republican foe even more repugnant to voters than he. He wins if he's the lesser evil.

The U.S. Attorney's Office is investigating hiring practices in the Blagojevich Administration, and it has subpoenaed personnel records from the Department of Corrections, the Department of Children and Family Services and the Department of Transportation. Having run for governor on a platform to change the "culture of corruption" in Springfield, Blagojevich is looking more and more like just another self-serving, smooth-talking politician. "He's all ego and no substance," said one Northwest Side Democratic legislator.

But so was Gray Davis, who was California's governor back in 2002. Davis was unpopular and mistrusted, but, like Blagojevich, he had a huge campaign treasury, and he spent it running negative ads on Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan, who was running in the Republican primary for governor. Polls showed that Davis would lose to Riordan, so Davis ran saturation television ads attacking Riordan for being pro-choice on abortion and for his spending policies as mayor. As a result, conservatives flocked to Bill Simon, who won. Davis then had the candidate he could beat, and he relentlessly attacked Simon as an "extremist." Davis raised $68 million for his campaign, winning by 463,689 votes but getting only 47 percent of the vote (to Simon's 42 percent) in a three-way race. After Davis's duplicity in concealing the enormity of the state's deficit was revealed, he was recalled by California voters in 2003.

 The election is a year away, but Blagojevich's worst nightmare would be federal indictments of state appointees. That would undermine his image as an "agent of change." And, without question, Topinka would be the governor's toughest foe.

But first she must prevail in a crowded Republican primary, which already includes Jim Oberweis, Steve Rauschenberger, Bill Brady and Ron Gidwitz; still exploring the race are Joe Birkett and Pat O'Malley. According to Springfield sources, private polling puts Topinka in the range of 30 to 35 percent of the primary vote, with Oberweis and in the teens and Rauschenberger, Brady and Gidwitz in single digits. For somebody as familiar to voters as Topinka, polling just a third of the vote is not auspicious, but she's running against four (and maybe six) men and topping Oberweis by better than 2-1, and they're dividing the non-Topinka vote. Here's a look at the ideological and geographical bases of each contender:

Oberweis: The dairy millionaire's geographic base is the Aurora area and Kendall County. He sought the Republican nomination for U.S. senator in both 2002 and 2004, and he spent $2.5 million of his own money in the latter bid. His ideological base is that of social conservatives - those opposed to abortion rights, gay rights, gun control and immigration restrictions. That base - the so-called Pat Buchanan faction - can deliver up to a third of the vote in a Republican primary.

In 2002 Oberweis finished second in a three-way primary, getting 259,515 votes (31.5 percent of the total) in a turnout of 825,237. He finished second again in 2004, this time in an eight-candidate primary, getting 155,794 votes (23.5 percent) in a turnout of 662,004. Oberweis has promised to "spend what it takes" to win, and he is advocating tax cuts and budget reductions as part of his program. To win, Oberweis needs a third of the vote and an implosion of Topinka's popularity. That means he will have to go negative on her, blasting her ethics and her pro-choice position. Oberweis would be Blagojevich's dream opponent - somebody that he could easily demonize and defeat.

Rauschenberger: The fiscally conservative state senator from Elgin is much respected in Springfield for his budgetary acumen. He ran for U.S. senator in 2004, finishing third in the primary with 132,655 votes (20 percent). Unlike Oberweis, Rauschenberger did not self-fund his campaign. His geographic base is northwestern Cook County, which he has represented for 14 years. He is a social conservative, but he emphasizes fiscal issues. If he withdrew, many of his backers might drift to Oberweis. His only hope is that Oberweis and Topinka sling so much mud at each other that voters will seek a third option.

Brady: The Bloomington state senator could have emerged as the dark horse contender had Topinka not announced. He's a fresh face, unfettered by past defeats and implacable enemies, and he could have positioned himself as the guy who could beat the Guv. A fiscal and social conservative, Brady has appeal south of Interstate 80; but much of that will now move to Topinka.

Gidwitz: The millionaire heir to the Helene Curtis fortune, Gidwitz is a former chairman of the Illinois State Board of Education. Gidwitz has been on television with ads blasting Blagojevich's economic policies, and he has sent out four statewide mailings to Republican households. Like Brady, he's trying to co-opt the electability issue, but Topinka's candidacy dooms him. His base is in Chicago and among moderates. He may now switch to a race for lieutenant governor or state treasurer.

Birkett: The DuPage County state's attorney ran a credible race for state attorney general in 2002, losing to Lisa Madigan by just 114,946 votes, getting 47.1 percent of the votes cast, carrying 62 of Illinois' 102 counties and winning DuPage County by 94,941 votes. He has good name identification statewide, and he has a reputation as a tough prosecutor, which would aid him if corruption is the predominant issue in 2006. DuPage County casts about 15 percent of the Republican statewide primary vote. Birkett could generate up to 25 percent of the total state vote, but it's difficult to see him winning.

O'Malley: The Palos Park state senator ran for governor in 2002 as the "social conservative" candidate and got 260,860 votes (28.4 percent) in a turnout of 917,759. O'Malley attacked the primary winner, Jim Ryan, for not doing enough to fight state corruption or investigate Governor George Ryan, and Corrine Wood attacked Ryan for being anti-abortion. Ryan limped to an unimpressive primary win with just 410,074 votes (44.7 percent) and then lost to Blagojevich by 252,080 votes.

Topinka: Elected treasurer in 1994, 1998 and 2002, she is the sole statewide Republican office holder. Her appeal is based on her electability: Polls show she can beat Blagojevich, while nobody else can. In past Republican gubernatorial primaries, voters have opted for the electable candidate, not the most conservative candidate. The U.S. attorney has subpoenaed her office records as part of an investigation of whether her staffers did political work, and Topinka has been close to George Ryan. One can visualize the commercials: "If you liked George Ryan, you're going to love Judy Baar Topinka." In the last three contested statewide Republican primaries, the "establishment" candidate won: Jim Durkin for senator (2002) with 45.8 percent of the vote, Jim Ryan for governor (2002) with 44.7 percent and Jack Ryan for senator (2004) with 35.5 percent.

The early line: As part of the Springfield scene, Topinka cannot run as the candidate of "change," nor can she position herself as a reformer. Her prime asset is a reputation for competence and maturity. In addition, she is well liked by Democratic legislators, who feel that they could work with her as governor. But Topinka has a record that can be mined for negative nuggets. My prediction: Topinka will win a contentious primary with about 35 percent of the vote, and she'll get pounded by Blagojevich throughout the summer of 2006. But if some indictments come down, Blagojevich will be a goner.