December 19, 2012


In Cook County's once-Republican North Shore and northwest suburbs, all politics is national. This directly contradicts Tip O'Neill's famously ancient maxim that "all politics is local."

The area has become Illinois' equivalent of New England, namely, a Republican wasteland. Candidate quality doesn't matter. Money spent doesn't matter. Any Democrat, however flawed, can and will beat any Republican, however stellar. The Republican brand, nationally and locally, has become monstrously repulsive.

Especially discouraging and psychologically devastating for the Republicans were the defeats on Nov. 6 of Jim O'Donnell, Susan Sweeney and Sid Mathias.

All were perceived by Springfield Republican strategists as likely winners. All were amply funded. All had attackable -- and theoretically beatable -- Democratic foes, but all were essentially beaten by two factors. One factor was the injection of abortion into the election conversation by numbskulls like Todd Akin of Missouri. Akin's stupidity reinforced the perception of the Republicans as the party of intolerance. The other factor was the lack of a clear, coherent Republican message about how, amid incontrovertible Democratic incompetence in state government, they would solve the Springfield mess.

In the 28th Illinois Senate District, which stretches from Park Ridge west to Roselle, O'Donnell self-funded about $150,000 and spent $375,000, while incumbent Democrat Dan Kotowski spent $1.5 million, including gobs of money from Senate President John Cullerton's campaign committee. Kotowski provided the key 30th vote to pass the state income tax hike, and his district was completely redrawn, but it mattered not. Kotowski triumphed easily, 44,647-33,206, getting 57.3 percent of the vote and winning by a margin of 11,441 votes.

In once-Republican Maine Township (Park Ridge and Des Plaines), where both O'Donnell and Kotowski reside, the Democrat swept the 41 precincts 12,884-9,446, getting 57.6 percent of the vote. In the new western areas, Kotowski won 17,602-13,760 (with 56.1 percent of the vote) in the 54 Schaumburg Township precincts (Schaumburg, Streamwood, Roselle) and 11,545-7,549 (with 57.4 percent) in the 14 DuPage County precincts.

O'Donnell attacked Kotowski was a big spender and a tax hiker. Kotowski attacked O'Donnell as a bloated, Mitt Romney-like plutocrat and a Republican. Given those caricatures, it wasn't even close.

"It was a mean, nasty campaign," O'Donnell said, adding that Kotowski spent $400,000 on cable television ads. "He claimed that the company I work for got a $5 million 'backroom deal' grant from the Blagojevich Administration, that the company got a $10,000 property tax break, that I was an 'extremist' because I was endorsed by the pro-life Family PAC and Jack Roser's PAC, and that I wanted to criminalize abortion, with no exceptions. It was all lies."

But it worked. Kotowski, who was first elected in 2006, deftly deflected O'Donnell's onslaught. Raising taxes was "fiscal reform," he said. He was trying to "cut" spending. Everybody -- meaning not just the Democrats -- was responsible for the state's fiscal crisis. The "culture of corruption" applied to both parties, even though the Democrats have run the state government since 2002. "When people met him door-to-door, he talked like a Republican," joked O'Donnell. "They thought he was a Republican." But the last laugh was on O'Donnell.

According to Republican insiders, O'Donnell was "cut loose" in mid-October, when polls showed him losing. O'Donnell said he expected at least $300,000 in Springfield money for direct mail, with a deluge of attack pieces in the western end of the district, but it never materialized. "I anticipated more help," O'Donnell said tactfully and ruefully.

Kotowski, known as "Energizer Danny" for his relentless campaign regimen, simply outworked and outspent O'Donnell. The northwest suburban district had elected Republicans to the state Senate from the 1870s until 2006. O'Donnell was the Republicans' last-gasp chance to retake the seat. Kotowski is now safe until at least 2022.

In the 55th Illinois House district, which takes in the eastern half of Kotowski's Senate district, liberal, pro-choice Des Plaines Republican Rosemary Mulligan had securely held the seat since 1992, and House Republican leader Tom Cross wanted to get rid of her. After Mulligan's ineptitude in securing nominating signatures got her knocked off the primary ballot, Cross recruited Sweeney, an obscure area teacher who was pro-life on abortion. Cross' workers easily got Sweeney more write-in votes than Mulligan in the primary.

However, Illinois House Speaker Mike Madigan recruited Des Plaines Mayor Marty Moylan, a fiscally conservative but pro-choice Democrat who was not anathema to area Republicans, and Moylan won nearly every precinct in Des Plaines.

The Madigan/Moylan machine spent $700,000, while the Cross/Sweeney operation spent $600,000. It was a bit closer than the Kotowski contest, but Moylan won 19,087-16,802, getting 53.2 percent of the vote and winning by a margin of 2,285 votes. Numerous outside groups, like the pro-abortion Personal PAC and organized labor, weighed in for Moylan, a trade union member. The Republicans went negative on Moylan, ripping him as a tax raiser during his tenure as mayor, while the Democrats slammed Sweeney as an "extremist" and Mulligan, the Maine Township Republican committeeman, endorsed Moylan.

Despite the political consensus fostered by Mulligan's string of 10 victories that an anti-abortion Republican could not win, Sweeney, of Park Ridge, ran surprisingly well in the 41 Maine Township precincts. She lost the township 11,930-10,653, a margin of just 1,277 votes, but she also lost the 24 Elk Grove Township precincts (Mount Prospect and part of Des Plaines) 7,426-6,034, a margin of 1,392 votes. In sum, Moylan was beatable, but Sweeney was unelectable.

Moylan's multiplicity of mailers hit Sweeney's "extremist" positions, claiming that she supported concealed carry guns, opposed a ban on assault rifles, opposed abortion with no exceptions, praised Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker's employee union reforms, and denied global warming. In short, Sweeney was portrayed as a crackpot, and it worked.

Moylan promises to be an "independent." We'll see, but he will be tough to beat in 2014.

In the 59th House district, 14-year incumbent Mathias, a popular former Buffalo Grove mayor, was the target of Madigan's remap. In Mathias' old 53rd District, almost 85 percent of the population was south of Lake Cook Road, meaning in Cook County, not Lake County. It included Arlington Heights, Prospect Heights and the south half of Buffalo Grove. Mathias was re-elected in 2010 with 64.6 percent of the vote, and even in the Obama sweep of 2008 he managed a 52.5 percent victory. Being well known, pro-choice, Jewish and fiscally conservative, Mathias was a perfect fit for the district.

For 2012, Mathias was drawn into the new 59th District, which excised almost all of Cook County, absorbed all of Buffalo Grove and put him up against Democratic incumbent Carol Sente of Vernon Hills, who was appointed to replace in 2009 Kathy Ryg. Sente won in 2010 with just 52.9 percent of the vote after Ryg was re-elected in 2008 with 63.7 percent. Clearly, Sente was beatable.

However, geography and money sunk Mathias in November. In the presidential year of 2008, in Mathias' old 53rd District, 41,480 votes were cast in Cook County and 4,503 were cast in Lake County. Mathias won the former by 3,026 votes and the latter by 519 votes. In 2010 the vote totals were 30,455 and 3,230, respectively.

This year, after the remap, only seven Cook County precincts remained in the new 59th District, while 56 were in Lake County. On Nov. 6, 11,326 votes were cast in Cook County and 35,327 were cast in Lake County. Mathias lost the Wheeling Township precincts (south Buffalo Grove and some of Arlington Heights) to Sente by 1,094 votes, and he lost the Lake County precincts to Sente by 3,795 votes.

According to state disclosures, Mathias spent about $250,000 and Sente spent $450,000. If Mathias couldn't keep the seat, it's gone forever.

The Civic Committee of the Commercial Club of Chicago, a pro-business entity, in November called the state's $86 billion-plus unfunded pension situation  "unfixable."

"Democrats are the root of the problem, the cause of the problem, and are incapable of fixing the problem," a Republican campaign consultant said about Illinois' pension, debt and spending woes. He said that the Republican leaders in the General Assembly -- Christine Radagno in the Senate and Tom Cross in the House -- offered no coherent solutions similar to the "Contract with America" of 1994. "It was every candidate messaging for themselves, with the party funding the negative advertising," he added.

The result was disastrous. The Republicans have acquired the indelible patina of losers. The proverbial ashes of defeat are everywhere. Losing discourages the donor base. Losing depresses candidate recruitment. Losing saps rank-and-file enthusiasm. In short, over the past 12 years, losing has become a self-fulfilling prophecy: no money, poor candidates, no precinct workers, and no optimism.

In 2000 the Republicans held 10 of 32 New England House seats and five of 16 Senate seats. Now it's one of 30 and two of 16. In 2000, in the area stretching from the Lakefront to Elgin, north of Devon Avenue, the Republicans held all five suburban-only Senate seats and nine of 12 House seats; now the Democrats hold four of six Senate seats and 9 of 12 House seats.

After this year's debacle, the Republicans are convinced that it can't get any worse. Don't bet on it.