December 21, 2005


In years past, candidates for Illinois lieutenant governor were rarely seen and barely heard.

This year, however, aspirants for the state's number two office are a much-desired commodity, as evidenced by the fast and furious "name game" being played by Republican gubernatorial candidates Judy Baar Topinka, Ron Gidwitz and Jim Oberweis. In an effort to forge helpful geographic or ideological alliances, forage for campaign cash or facilitate some gender balance, each has selected a number two and will run as a "ticket" in the March 21 primary.

Topinka will team up with DuPage County State's Attorney Joe Birkett, a law-and-order type who ran a close but losing race for state attorney general in 2002. Gidwitz will team up with state Senator Steve Rauschenberger, an Elgin-area fiscal conservative and advocate of reform who lost the 2004 U.S. Senate primary. Oberweis will team up with Kathy Salvi, a McHenry County conservative who is the wife of Al Salvi, the losing Republican candidate for U.S. senator in 1996 and for secretary of state in 1998. Given these developments, the announced Republican contenders for lieutenant governor - Downstate state Representatives Ray Poe (R-99) and Jim Watson (R-97) and former Illinois Chamber of Commerce president Doug Whitley - have withdrawn.

Topinka-Birkett (tabbed Topinkett) is the "Insiders' Ticket," Gidwitz-Rauschenberger (tabbed Gidberger) is the "Reform Ticket," and Oberweis-Salvi (tabbed Obersalvi) is the "Social Conservative Ticket," opposing abortion rights, gay rights, liberal immigration policies and gun control. The remaining Republican gubernatorial hopeful, Bill Brady, is now lost in the proverbial shuffle. Early polling puts Topinka at about 35 percent, Oberweis near 20 percent, and Gidwitz and Brady under 5 percent.

In the majority of the 50 states (including Illinois), the parties' candidates for governor and lieutenant governor are bracketed in the election and get one vote for both. Elsewhere, voters cast a separate ballot for governor and lieutenant governor. In only two states, Florida and Kentucky, the two candidates are bracketed in the primary and run as a team.

In the Illinois primary, every office is nominated separately. There is no doubt that Topinka, the state treasurer, engineered a political master stroke with her choice of Birkett. Here's why:

First, Topinka's political base is ill defined.

Topinka, age 61, is a 25-year Springfield insider, having served in the General Assembly from 1981 to 1994 and as treasurer for the past 11 years. Her appeal is twofold: She is mature and she has a record of competency, in contrast to the erratic posturing and superficiality of incumbent Governor Rod Blagojevich, and she would be Illinois' first female governor. But, in a Republican primary where conservatives dominate, her appeal rests on one critical criterion: her electability. Polls show her beating Blagojevich, while the governor beats Oberweis, Brady and Gidwitz, and Republicans, at least in primaries for statewide offices, opt for electability, not ideological purity.

Second, by ticket mating with Birkett, she sews up DuPage County, where he is enormously popular. Birkett gives her credible gender balance and adds substantial law-and-order gravitas to her candidacy.

And third, the Topinka-Birkett team has an aura of inevitability. Topinka was elected statewide three times, and Birkett almost beat Lisa Madigan for attorney general in 2002, losing by just 114,946 votes and getting 47.1 percent of the total cast. Their opponents are losers or unknowns.

Here's how the race is developing:

Topinka has never had a Republican primary foe in her three races for state treasurer. She is from Berwyn, in Cook County. In a primary, Cook County casts about 20 percent of the vote, while about 14 percent comes from DuPage County, 8 percent from Lake County, 5 percent each from Will and Kane counties, and 3 percent from McHenry County. The remaining 45 percent comes from the rest of the state.

Gidwitz is from Chicago. Oberweis is from the Ottawa area, in the Interstate 80 corridor. Brady is from Bloomington.

Oberweis twice ran in the Republican primary for U.S. senator. In 2004 he finished second, with 23.5 percent of the vote, carrying only four of 102counties. Rauschenberger finished third, with 20 percent of the vote, and he carried only Kane County, which was part of his Senate district. The winner, Jack Ryan, was backed by the Republican establishment and won 96 counties, finishing first in Cook, DuPage, McHenry, Lake and Will counties.

The Republican primary turnout in 2002 was 946,339. It will equal that in 2006. In 2002 Oberweis got 37.3 percent of the vote in Cook County, losing to the unknown party-endorsed Jim Durkin. In 2004 Oberweis got 23.5 percent of the vote in Cook County, finishing third behind Ryan and Rauschenberger. Ryan had 50,326 votes, to Rauschenberger's 32,955 and Oberweis' 32,310. In 2006 Topinka will certainly exceed Ryan's 36.6 percent Cook County showing, but by how much? Oberweis expects to grab some of the Rauschenberger vote, which was made up of fiscal conservatives and northwest Cook County suburbanites and which was augmented by his media endorsements. To beat Topinka, Oberweis must carry Cook County, but in all likelihood, Topinka will get close to 60 percent of the Cook County vote.

Rauschenberger had announced for governor, but he downsized to become part of Gidwitz's ticket. Rauschenberger didn't have the fund-raising capability to run in a multi-candidate gubernatorial primary. But Gidwitz, the obscure former state board of education chairman, is the heir to the Helene Curtis fortune, and he expects to spend upwards of $5 million in the primary. Gidwitz's theme is that he is a "conservative reformer." The Gidberger team is running as outsiders, but after 4 years of bickering in the Springfield, do Illinois voters want to replace Blagojevich with another in-your-face, do-it-my-way outsider?

Had Topinka not run, Gidwitz could have been a viable contender against Oberweis, Rauschenberger and Brady, with the latter three splitting the conservative vote. But with Topinka in, Gidwitz is irrelevant. Only Rauschenberger benefits, as Gidwitz's mailings and television ads will feature his name.

Oberweis' hard-right conservative edge will not be tempered by ticket mating with Salvi, another hard-core social conservative who was running for Congress in the 8th District. But she provides gender balance, and she certainly will enhance Oberweis' vote in the Lake County-McHenry County area.

In handicapping the 2006 lieutenant governor primary, history is a guide. In the past 30 years there have been only two vigorously contested Republican primaries for lieutenant governor, and neither featured a so-called "ticket."

In 1976 the contestants were Dave O'Neal of Belleville, the Saint Clair County sheriff; and Joan Anderson of Cook County, a Metropolitan Sanitary District commissioner. Chicagoan Jim Thompson, the outgoing U.S. attorney, was running for governor, and he endorsed neither. A Thompson-O'Neal ticket would provide geographical balance, while a Thompson-Anderson ticket would provide gender balance.

The result was reasonably tight: O'Neal beat Anderson 376,126-279,087. Anderson ran a close second in Lake, DuPage, McHenry and Will counties, but O'Neal, backed by most suburban Cook County organizations, won the county 99,232-72,704. And outside the Chicago area, O'Neal won by more than 60,000 votes.

After losing a U.S. Senate bid in 1980, O'Neal resigned. In 1982, as Thompson was seeking his third term, the contestants for number two were George Ryan, then an obscure Kankakee state representative, Don Totten, an outspokenly conservative state senator from Schaumburg who had been the 1980 Illinois Reagan for President chairman, and Susan Catania, a liberal state representative from Hyde Park. Thompson and Totten were long-time antagonists, and the governor supported Ryan.

As in 1976, geography trumped ideology. Turnout was only 619,120, and Ryan finished first with 278,544 votes, getting 44.9 percent of the total. Surprisingly, Catania finished second, with 188,220 votes (30.4 percent), and Totten was third with 152,356 votes (24.7 percent). In Cook County Catania topped Ryan by 1,359 votes. In Chicago she won 36 of 50 wards and edged Ryan by 6,596 votes, and in the suburbs Ryan won 19 of 30 townships (to Catania's eight and Totten's three) and beat her by 5,237 votes. Totten won only three northwest suburban townships: Schaumburg, Palatine and Elk Grove. Why did Ryan do so well? Because organizations allied with Thompson, who had state patronage, delivered for Ryan.

Downstate, of course, was all Ryan, who carried 95 counties. In the Collar Counties of DuPage, Lake, McHenry and Will, Ryan won narrowly, with Catania in second place. Only in Kane County did Totten finish first. Clearly, Republican voters did not want a right-wing firebrand as Thompson's number two. The combined Ryan-Catania vote was 75.3 percent. But equally clear was the fact that many Republican voters did not resist the notion of a qualified - and very liberal - woman on the statewide ticket.

My early prediction: Topinka will get overwhelming support from female Republican voters in the Collar Counties, almost two-thirds of the vote in DuPage County, and, because she's perceived as a winner, solid support Downstate from Republican county chairmen. In the primary, She will win the primary with 55 percent of the vote, and Birkett will win with 51 percent.