March 8, 2006


The worst kept secret among Democrats in the General Assembly, among Democrats throughout the state, and now among many minority Democratic politicians, is that they are becoming ever more eager to stick a knife in the back of Democratic Governor Rod Blagojevich.

The governor, with his no-tax-hike pledge during a putative second term and his uncooperative demeanor during his first term, is perceived as a Democrat who acts like a Republican. That makes Democrats yearn for the days when they had a Republican governor who acted like a big-spending, tax-hiking Democrat -- like during the 26 glorious years of Jim Thompson (1977 to 1991), Jim Edgar (1991 to 1999) and George Ryan (1999 to 2003).

That's why rumors abound that the fix is in, namely, that Democratic committeemen in Chicago and Cook County and Downstate county chairmen will "cut" Blagojevich and allow Republican Judy Baar Topinka to win. And then, after Topinka presumably acts like a Democrat for 4 years, she'll be ousted in 2010 by a "real" Democrat: Attorney General Lisa Madigan.

But the best kept secret in Illinois is that Republicans may no longer be capable of winning any statewide office, in any circumstance. The strategy espoused in 2004 by presidential adviser Karl Rove was to identify and turn out the Republican base. The nationwide turnout in 2000 was 104,283,351, and George Bush got 50,456,169 votes; in 2004 turnout was 122,286,000, and Bush got 62,040,606 votes. The Democratic vote spiked from 50,996,116 to 59,028,109, an increase of about eight million; but the Republican vote increased by 11.5 million.

The trend was similar in Illinois: Bush's vote increased by 326,525 over 2000, and the Democrats' vote increased by 302,524. But the key is this: Bush lost Illinois by 369,605 votes in 2000 and by 545,604 votes in 2004. Illinois is becoming ever more Democratic.

That means that, to win, Republicans need Illinois Democrats to squabble among themselves and get enmeshed in scandal -- which they have so vigorously and visibly done. At a time when Republicans are buffeted by scandal in Washington, Illinois looms as the reverse situation. If voters want a change and an end to corruption, it's the Democratic incumbents who have to be ousted.

Blagojevich's prospects hover between bleak and grim. State Senator James Meeks is ruminating about running for governor as a third-party candidate; if he runs, he'd get at least 200,000 black votes, ensuring Blagojevich's defeat. The governor's handling of controversy on the obscure hate crimes commission has infuriated Jewish leadership in the state. The governor's poll numbers are still terrible. Blagojevich's Republican foe, if he or she still has a pulse in November, should win.

But many Republicans don't want just any Republican to be governor. Instead, they want a "real" Republican, like Al Salvi or Alan Keyes, who espouses Republican "values" and whom independents and disgusted Democrats cannot support. Rather than exhibit a killer instinct and focus on beating Democrats, Republicans are showing an instinct for extinction, as demonstrated in four contentious March 21 primaries:

Governor: The one Republican nearly certain to beat Blagojevich is Judy Baar Topinka. Having served as state treasurer for 12 years and in the legislature for 14, she's definitely part of the Springfield "good ol' boy" network. She talks about controlling spending, but the phrase "no tax hike" does not roll off her tongue. If nominated, she would be Illinois' first major-party female candidate for governor, which probably would get her at least 200,000 votes from women who would vote for her solely because of her gender.

Topinka's foes, Jim Oberweis, Ron Gidwitz and Bill Brady, have yet to lay a glove on her. She leads the polls, with more than 30 percent of respondents favoring her. Gidwitz has ads on television, and he sent out a mailer blasting her as a closet liberal and ripping her for sponsoring a sales tax increase while a legislator, "doubling" treasurer's office spending, and "signing off" on $5.6 billion in new state borrowing.

Topinka's plausible retort is that the General Assembly transferred two state programs to her office after she was elected in 1994, which increased the office's spending; that she sponsored the sales tax hike as a swap for a proposed tax on nursing home beds (neither passed); and that it was the legislature that approved Blagojevich's expansion of state borrowing, and she had no choice but to implement it.

Back in 2002, Jim Ryan was the popular and much respected state attorney general who had overcome cancer and lost a daughter to a strange illness. But he was blasted in the primary for being anti-abortion and for not investigating George Ryan's scandals. His image tattered, he was a walking loser, and Blagojevich beat him by 252,080 votes. Thus far Topinka has not been "Jim Ryanized." My prediction: If she can get past March without being savaged, she will win the election.

8th U.S. House District (eastern McHenry County, western Lake County, and Schaumburg, Palatine, Barrington, Streamwood and Rolling Meadows in Cook County): Longtime incumbents sometimes become legends in their own minds, impervious to political reality. Such was the case of 35-year U.S. Representative Phil Crane, who saw his victory margin dwindle from 56,628 votes in 1998 to 51,141 in 2000 and to 24,649 in 2002. He was beseeched to retire in 2004 so that a younger, more credible, Republican could hold the seat. The obdurate Crane refused, and he lost the heavily Republican district to Democrat Melissa Bean by 9,043 votes.

Now the Republicans will have to spend millions of dollars to get the seat back. Bean infuriated organized labor when she backed the Central American Free Trade Agreement. In 2004 the AFL-CIO and other labor unions gave Bean $235,200. Bean spent $1.6 million in 2004, and she has raised more than $1.1 million to date.

Bush won the district with 56 percent of the vote in both 2000 and 2004, so a competent and credible Republican should oust Bean. But the Republicans have fielded a B team: The three leaders are Dave McSweeney, a rich businessman who has already spent $1.4 million, Kathy Salvi, a rich attorney who is married to Al Salvi and who has spent $1 million, and Bob Churchill, a state representative from Lake Villa who lost the 1998 primary for secretary of state to Al Salvi.

Each candidate postures as the "real" -- meaning most conservative -- Republican. Salvi is wrapping herself in the mantle of Ronald Reagan and blasting McSweeney for running against Crane in 1998 (and losing with just 34.5 percent of the vote). McSweeney is blasting Salvi for opposing tort reform caps and for letting her husband be her "attack dog" because, on his radio show, Al Salvi called McSweeney a "nut." My prediction: Bean is eminently beatable, but that won't happen if Republicans beat up each other. The consensus is that Salvi, of Wauconda, would be the strongest Republican against Bean because of her gender. But McSweeney, of Barrington Hills, has been endorsed by the Schaumburg, Barrington, Palatine and Hanover township Republicans. Churchill, as a longtime legislator, would be the most credible candidate, uniting all Republicans. But deep pockets will prevail. McSweeney will edge Salvi by a few hundred votes, and, if he spends another $2 million, will beat Bean.

27th Illinois Senate District (Interstate 294 west to DuPage County, including Arlington Heights, Prospect Heights, Palatine, Buffalo Grove, Rolling Meadows, Hoffman Estates and Inverness): This Cook County district is represented by retiring Republican Wendell Jones, a former Palatine village president. Gary Skoien, the Palatine Township Republican committeeman, also is the Republican county chairman, but his vocabulary focuses on the five-letter word purge, not the word build. The area is awash in bloodletting.

Skoien is feuding with Jones' backers, who include former state senator Dave Regner, and the Jones faction, which is strongly pro-life, is feuding with the pro-choice faction, led by Palatine Mayor Rita Mullins, who also detest Skoien.

This year the Skoien faction is backing McSweeney, and Harper College Board member Matt Murphy against Mullins for Jones's seat. Murphy also is backed by Republican organizations in Wheeling and Barrington townships. My prediction: It's organization versus recognition. Mullins is downplaying the abortion issue and claiming to be the Republican who can win. In a low turnout, expect a narrow Murphy win. Springfield Democrats will then spend a ton of money to isolate Murphy as an "extremist," and he could lose to Democrat Peter Gutzmer. If he does, blame it on the inept Skoien.

Maine Township (Park Ridge, Des Plaines and parts of Glenview, Niles and Mount Prospect): If Palatine Township is a river of blood, then Maine Township is a veritable ocean. Back in 2001, then-committeeman Bill Darr and township trustee Bob Dudycz conspired to dump the "liberal" Mark Thompson as township supervisor. They succeeded. But in 2002 Thompson beat Darr for committeeman. In 2005 Dudycz beat Thompson in a primary for supervisor. Now, road commissioner Bob Provenzano, a conservative, is challenging Thompson for committeeman.

My prediction: The Republican presence in the township is withering. Expect Provenzano to win narrowly -- and the Thompson faction to take a permanent walk.