Auguest 22, 2012


With the November election roughly 10 weeks away, the good news for Democrats is that Illinois is still a blue -- meaning solidly Democratic -- state.

The bad news is that Illinois is considerably less blue than in 2008, when Barack Obama carried his home state 3,419,348-2,031,179, getting 61.9 percent of the vote and scoring a spectacular plurality of 1,388,169 votes, which was exceeded only by Obama's 2004 U.S. Senate margin of 2,206,766 votes (69.9 percent).

But the really horrific news for the Democrats is that the portion of Illinois south of Interstate 80 and generally west of the Fox River Valley has become red -- meaning solidly Republican.

The biggest loser in November will not be Obama, who will win Illinois, albeit by a much-reduced margin, probably not much more than 500,000 votes, but Illinois Senate President John Cullerton, who may find his 35-24 Illinois Senate majority wither to at best 30-29 or at worst to a minority.

That wasn't supposed to happen. The Democrats controlled the redistricting process, mapped three Republican incumbents into oblivion and created four new open districts, and they were confident that they could squish the Republican minority to as low as 21. In fact, Cullerton specifically created a Decatur-area district tailored to elect his chief of staff, Andy Manar, and having raised and spent $3.7 million in 2010 to retain his majority, defending 14 seats, few doubted that 2012 would be a cakewalk. However, thus far in the 2012 election cycle Cullerton has raised only $2.7 million, and he must defend 35 seats.

To the Republicans' rescue came Obama and Governor Pat Quinn. "(Obama's) numbers are just horrendous," said one Democratic state senator. "His 'approvals' are under 40 percent in every Downstate district except Champaign-Urbana, and Quinn's are even worse. Every Downstate (Democratic) senator is in jeopardy."

According to that senator, Quinn's pension "reforms," which take Downstate teachers out of the state pension system, his closing of numerous rural state facilities and his perceived betrayal of public-sector unions with his budget cuts have made the governor a pariah. In short, if the Republicans tie Democratic senators to Quinn, and if the Romney-Ryan ticket piles up 60 percent-plus margins in "battleground" Downstate and Cook County suburban Senate districts, a Democratic wipeout is entirely possible.

In the Far Downstate 59th District, occupied precariously by Democrat Gary Forby, Quinn's polling numbers are 20 percent "favorable" and 76 percent "unfavorable" and Obama is polling "well under 40 percent," according to a Republican Senate staffer. Forby won in 2008 by 2,825 votes, with 51.5 percent of the vote. If Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan sweep the district with more than 60 percent of the vote, Forby is a goner.

The same can be said of six other longtime incumbents: Bill Haine (D-56) of the Metro East Saint Louis suburbs, who was unopposed in 2008; Dave Koehler (D-46) of Peoria, who was unopposed in 2010; Mike Jacobs (D-36) of the Quad Cities area, who was unopposed in 2010; Mike Frerichs (D-52) of Champaign-Urbana, who won with 61.5 percent of the vote in 2010; John Sullivan (D-47) of Quincy, who was unopposed in 2008; and Dan Kotowski (D-28) of Park Ridge, who won with 59.9 percent of the vote in 2008.

All except Kotowski were given "safe" Democratic districts. All voted for Quinn's income tax hike, all voted to raise their own pay, and all voted to increase the state's borrowing and indebtedness. "That ties them to Quinn and makes them vulnerable," the staffer said.

Here's a look at key races:

36th District (Rock Island, Moline, East Moline): Jacobs' father and grandfather were legislators from the area, and he got his Senate seat the time-honored Democratic way: his dad resigned in 2005 and passed it off to him. Jacobs had a tough contest in the March primary against former state representative Mike Boland, getting 53.6 percent of the vote and prevailing 7,158-6,189, an unimpressive margin.

Now he faces Republican Bill Albracht, a former U.S. Secret Service agent and green beret and the recipient of two silver stars and three purple hearts for his service in Vietnam. "He's bullet-proof," the Republican staffer said. "The only way Jacobs can win is to go negative on Albracht. It won't work." But the pro-Quinn Jacobs isn't bulletproof, having shot himself in the foot defending his pay-raise vote: "I didn't take a vow of poverty" to serve, he was quoted as saying. Albracht is the next senator.

56th District (East Saint Louis suburbs, Alton, Collinsville): Haine won this seat in 2002 after serving as the Madison County state's attorney from 1988 to 2002 and as a county board member for 5 years. He is getting a county pension of $133,000 on top of his legislative pay of $76,000, plus free health care for life. When asked by the news media if $209,000 in annual income from public sources, plus revenue from his law practice, which concentrates on workers' comp, wasn't a bit unseemly in hard economic times, Haine scoffed, "I earned it."

Not much longer. The Republican candidate, Wood Ridge Township Supervisor Mike Babcock, is a lock to win. Voter anger toward Haine is palpable and almost epidemic. His votes to raise taxes and his own pay are nails in his coffin, but Haine can look on the bright side: if he loses, he won't have to waste time in Springfield and he can draw state and county pensions of about $160,000.

46th District (Peoria and suburbs): Koehler is another coddled Democrat -- appointed in 2006, elected with 57.6 percent of the vote in 2006 and unopposed in 2010. His political base is negligible because he thought he was impregnable and never tried to build it. He announced a bid for Congress in 2011, went nowhere, and scurried back to seek re-election. The Republican candidate, Pat Sullivan, is a well known restaurateur and developer, with plenty of money. Koehler's support of Quinn, coupled with an anemic Obama showing in the Peoria area, will ensure Sullivan's win.

52nd District (Champaign-Urbana): In the anti-Bush year of 2006, Frerichs beat a Republican incumbent by 542 votes, but he was re-elected in 2010 by 12,133 votes, with 61.4 percent of the vote. He should be safe, especially with the district's university presence; Obama will win the district at least 55-45 percent. The Republican candidate is John Bambenek, a Tea Party businessman. An amusing sidelight is that the incumbent's cousin, a longtime area entrepreneur, just moved his business to Indiana and was quoted as saying that he saved $90,000 in state taxes and fees. Frerichs will win.

59th District (Far Southern Illinois, Cairo): Forby has always been something of an accidental senator waiting for a train wreck. He was appointed in 2003, and he won with 52.7 percent of the vote in 2004 and with 51.5 percent in 2008. This year is the train wreck. Republican polling in Forby's district shows Romney-Ryan winning by 28 points; Bush-Cheney won by 15 points in 2004, and McCain-Palin won by 7 points in 2008.

More tellingly, Republican poll numbers put Quinn at a 20 percent "favorable" rating and a 76 percent "unfavorable" rating. Forby, with a pro-Quinn voting record, is not just toast in November, he's incinerated ash. There's no way he can survive the coming Republican tsunami. The Republican candidate, pastor and local school board activist Mark Minor, is the next senator.

28th District (northwestern Cook County suburbs, stretching from Park Ridge to Streamwood and Bartlett): Known as "Energizer Danny" because of his relentless door-to-door campaigning, Kotowski is exceedingly vulnerable. He won by 1,434 votes in 2006, upped that to 16,051 votes in 2008, and had Cullerton remap him into a district which is 50 percent new. Kotowski has more than $500,000 in his campaign kitty, but Republican Jim O'Donnell has raised more than $200,000, and he is pounding Kotowski for his income tax hike vote. It's resonating. If Romney beats Obama with more than 55 percent of the vote in the district, O'Donnell wins, but Kotowski maintains a slight edge.

Also in some jeopardy are incumbents Mike Noland (D-22) of Elgin and Linda Holmes (D-42) of Aurora. A possible Democratic gain is in the north Lake County 31st District, where Republican Suzi Schmidt retired. Democrat Melissa Bush, a county board member, faces Republican Joe Neal. The Republicans are blasting Bush for voting to raise property taxes by 9 percent. Neal is favored.

There are six other open seats which were newly created or where the incumbent retired. The Republicans will win the Kane County 25th District (Jim Oberweis). The Democrats will take the Tinley Park/Orland Park 19th District (Mike Hastings), the Rockford 34th District (Steve Stadelman) and the Glenview 9th District (Dan Biss). In the Plainfield/Oswego 49th District, Tea Party favorite Republican Garrett Peck will prevail. On the North Shore, in the Highland Park/Deerfield 29th District, which has a large Jewish population and plenty of independents and which went pro-Obama in 2008, confusion reigns. Republican Arie Friedman, a physician, a veteran and a Tea Party adherent, faces Democrat Julie Morrison. Republican U.S. Senator Mark Kirk won the district by 14 percentage points in 2010. Morrison is favored. Finally, Manar is running well behind Republican Decatur Mayor Mike McElroy in the 48th District.

So here's the math: The Republicans have 20 incumbents plus Neal, and they will take three or four open seats. That gives them 24 or 25 seats. So Cullerton's majority is wholly dependent on at least two of his seven incumbents surviving and no upsets in the open seats.

My prediction: A Cullerton majority of 30-29 in 2013.