May 30, 2012


You've heard the clichés before: Winning is everything. Second best is not an option. Cream of the crop. Go for the gold.

Quite understandably, nobody remembers who lost the last Super Bowl, World Series, U.S. Open, Masters, Final Four, Wimbledon, Rose Bowl or Olympics.

In politics, however, losing once or even twice is not an impediment to future victory. Few recall that presidents Bill Clinton, George Bush and Barack Obama lost congressional races early in their careers, that the senior Bush twice lost Texas Senate bids, that Richard Nixon was a two-time loser, that Jimmy Carter and George Wallace lost their first tries for governor, that Mitt Romney lost a 1994 U.S. Senate race to Ted Kennedy (and shrewdly chose not to run for re-election as governor in 2006 because he feared defeat), or that Newt Gingrich was defeated twice before winning a Georgia congressional seat.

In Illinois, Pat Quinn lost four of his first five attempts to win statewide office. More clichés: Try, try again. Persistence pays. Never give up. By 2002 the Democrats' bench was so depleted that everybody who was anybody was running for governor, and the shopworn Quinn's name identification finally gave him a clear shot at the lieutenant governor's nomination. Bracketed on the ballot with Rod Blagojevich, who spent $25 million, Quinn was elected and the Blagojevich-Quinn team won again in 2006, with Blago spending another $25 million.

Dick Durbin, who beat Quinn in the 1996 Democratic U.S. Senate primary, lost a 1978 bid for lieutenant governor.

There is a dichotomy between local losers and statewide losers. In an aldermanic, municipal, legislative or congressional race, "friends and neighbors" form the key component. The first campaign has a novelty factor, engendering enthusiasm, time commitment and donations from the candidate's social and employment circle. Should a failure occur, anger and irritation with the perceived stupidity of the voters fuels a second attempt. Should that fail, a third try is hopeless. Fatigue replaces novelty, pessimism eclipses enthusiasm -- in short, the thrill is gone. Two examples:

Dan Seals was a much-hyped 10th District Democratic congressional candidate in 2006 against Mark Kirk, getting 46.6 percent of the vote. He ran again in 2008 and was expected to win, and he got 47.4 percent of the vote. By 2010 fatigue was palpable, enthusiasm was nonexistent, and he lost again, with 48.9 percent of the vote. On his current trajectory, Seals is primed to win by 2018.

Tony Peraica, a Republican county commissioner, ran against Democrat Todd Stroger in 2006 for Cook County Board president and got a resounding 46 percent of the vote -- more a testament to "The Toddler's" unpopularity than to Peraica's appeal. Then he unwisely decided to run for state's attorney in 2008, getting just 26.7 percent of the vote. He exhausted his base. In 2010, seeking re-election in his district, he could not raise money or manpower, and he lost by 5,612 votes, getting 42.4 percent of the vote.

Statewide races and, to a lesser extent, Cook County contests, are about building residual name identification -- the so-called "brand name." It's a vetting experience. If no significant scandal attaches to a candidate after an 18-month campaign, and if the media can't dig up enough dirt to permanently tarnish the candidate, there is a future. While voters quickly forget the issues and charges, they tend to vaguely remember the name. That's why 2010 losers Republican Bill Brady and Democrat Alexi Giannoulias are viable enough to try again.

This column is about a few of Illinois' well populated "League of Losers" -- politicians who suffered recent non-debilitating defeat and who are resiliently poised to run for governor in 2014. Here's the outlook:

Governor (Republican): There is no doubt that Romney will lose Illinois to Obama. The president carried his home state by 1,388,169 votes in 2008, and he will win it again, by at least a million votes in 2012. Whether or not Romney wins the presidency will have a profound impact on the 2014 gubernatorial aspirations of three Republicans, all members of the "League of Losers" -- Dan Rutherford, Kirk Dillard and Bill Brady. The former two are fiscal conservatives who profess moderate views on social issues and who are part of the party establishment. Brady is a hardline social conservative and a Tea Party favorite.

Rutherford, age 57, a former state senator from Downstate Pontiac, was elected state treasurer in 2010 by 161,049 votes (with 49.7 percent of the vote), after having been trounced by 1,045,399 votes in 2006 by Secretary of State Jesse White, getting just 33.1 percent of the vote. Rutherford is Romney's 2012 state chairman and his principal spokesman in Illinois, and he deserves credit for Romney's easy primary win on March 20. If Romney is in the White House, Rutherford will have enormous influence on the new president's policy and patronage decisions in the state. If Romney's political operation decides that Rutherford is their guy for governor in 2014, they can surely clear Dillard out of the race, but not Brady.

The "Romney connection" cuts several ways if he wins. If the economy doesn't rebound or if it seriously deteriorates, Romney gets the blame and the voters will punish the Republicans in 2014. If Romney takes an ax to federal entitlement programs such as Social Security and Medicare, chopping spending, the reaction of those whacked will be swift, severe and pro-Democratic. If Romney governs like a Tea Party adherent, Illinois Tea Party followers will embrace him and the Republican Party, and Brady's base will evaporate. If Romney is a bumbler and an equivocator, Tea Party anger will flare and Rutherford will be punished.

Finally, if Obama wins a second term and doesn't govern any better than in his first term, 2014 will be a grand Republican year in Illinois.

Dillard, age 57, a Hinsdale state senator, lost to Brady in the 2010 primary by 193 votes. He loyally supported Brady, and in 2012 he easily withstood a Tea Party-backed challenger in the primary, winning by 16,213-10,524 votes and getting 60.6 percent of the vote. His base is DuPage County, which casts about 100,000 votes in an off-year primary.

Dillard's problem is ideological: He and Rutherford appeal to the same moderate, suburban constituency that supports Romney. Brady's problem is geographic: In 2010 he got just 155,527 votes (20.3 percent of the total), almost all from Downstate, where he was the only Downstater among seven candidates. In 2014, especially if Romney is president, Downstate county chairmen will stick with the proven winner and fellow Downstater (Rutherford), chopping Brady's vote in half.

Brady, age 51, a Bloomington state senator, should be the governor. He ran in an outstanding Republican year, with the Democrats mired in the Blagojevich scandal, the state in fiscal crisis, and Quinn generally perceived as an amiable dunce. Brady won 98 of 102 counties, but he still lost by 31,834 votes (with 45.9 percent of the vote). He carried the Collar Counties by 114,583 votes, but he lost Cook County by 500,553 votes. In the U.S. Senate race, Republican Mark Kirk also won 98 counties, and he carried the Collar Counties by 168,510 votes and lost Cook County by 456,722, winning by 59,220 votes. Overall, Kirk got 1,778,698 votes to 1,745,219 for Brady. The consensus among Republican operatives is that Brady's 2010 effort was a masterpiece of confusion: He just wasn't ready for prime time, lacking the necessary experience, staff and money.

Brady's intransigent "no exceptions" position on abortion prompted Personal PAC to mail more than 100,000 fliers to pro-choice households the weekend before the election, moving just enough votes to elect Quinn. "He's just got too much baggage," one Republican insider said. "He can't be elected."

Brady is enormously popular Downstate. Against Quinn, in the 95 Downstate counties, Brady won 820,648-476,510 (getting 63.3 percent of the vote), a margin of 345,138 votes. That area casts 37 percent of the statewide vote. To win, a Republican has to carry the Collar Counties by close to 150,000 votes and Downstate by 350,000 votes and lose Cook County by fewer than 500,000 votes. "He had no (Cook County) appeal," the Republican operative said. "He's still going to lose by 500,000, even against Quinn. If it's against Lisa Madigan, he'll lose by more."

As demonstrated on March 20, Brady's path to another nomination is dicey.  In 2010, with six of seven candidates from the suburbs and the Collar Counties, total turnout was 767,485, with roughly 20 percent of the vote going to Brady, the evangelical/social conservative/Tea Party contender. Historically, that percentage has been consistent, depending on the quality of the candidate. In the 1988 Illinois presidential primary, Pat Robertson got 59,087 votes (6.9 percent of the total), in 1992 Pat Buchanan got 186,915 votes (22.5 percent), in 1996 Buchanan got 186,177 votes (22.8 percent), in 2000 Alan Keyes got 66,057 votes (8.9 percent), and in 2008 Mike Huckabee got 148,053 votes (18.5 percent). That's an ideological vote of 70,000 to 190,000.

On March 20, Romney topped social conservative Rick Santorum by 428,434-321,072 (47 percent to 35 percent), with 17 percent to Gingrich and Ron Paul. Romney won Chicago with 55 percent of the vote, the Cook County suburbs with 57 percent and the Collar Counties with 51 percent, but he lost Downstate to Santorum 182,207-166,622 (42.1 percent to 38.5 percent). Santorum doubled the prior Buchanan vote, but, to be fair to Romney, on March 20 he wasn't in the same league as George Bush, John McCain and Bob Dole. Some of the Santorum vote was anti-Romney.

The outlook: Rutherford took a huge risk tying himself to Romney, and he hit the jackpot. The Republicans want a winner in 2014, and that's not Brady. Dillard will be pressured to run for attorney general or treasurer. Ironically, if Romney loses in 2012, Rutherford will certainly win in 2014.