Illinois held its primary on Tuesday and the usual run of rogues and rascals vied with each other for the opportunity to make their fame and fortune purloining the public purse. Since the opportunities for graft and corruption in the state are nearly endless, one wag suggested that instead of the winners posing for the traditional picture taken in victory, they should make things easy on the voter and get their mug shot taken at the same time.
The Democratic nominee for lieutenant governor is Scott Lee Cohen, a pawnbroker and cleaning supply distributor by trade who financed his campaign from his own personal fortune. Cohen was arrested in 2005 on domestic battery charges, which were thrown out when his accuser failed to show up in court. This upstanding citizen could be a heartbeat — or an impeachment inquiry — away from the governor’s office. Just ask current Governor Pat Quinn, who slipped into the top job from his lieutenant governor’s post when disgraced former Governor Rod Blagojevich was impeached for, among other things, trying to sell the Senate seat vacated by Barack Obama.
Perhaps it is symptomatic of the times that both the Republican and Democratic gubernatorial primaries ended the night too close to call. The fact is, there was not much excitement generated by any of the top-tier candidates for either governor or senator as evidenced by the paltry turnout of less than 30% of eligible voters. This compared to a usual primary turnout of more than 35%.
But if passions were at a low ebb, election night made up for it with some real nail-biters.
In the Democratic governor’s race, Quinn leads Comptroller Dan Hynes by a scant 7,300 votes with two percent of the precincts left to count. Quinn has lengthened his lead slightly since Tuesday night, when Hynes defiantly refused to concede. The governor took a call of congratulations from President Obama this morning, but this one has a ways to go before it’s over. While there is no automatic mechanism for a recount, once the results are certified on March 5, Hynes is free to petition the state Supreme Court for relief. Between now and then, the raw totals will be eyeballed for errors. If Hynes feels he has a case, he can try his luck with the courts.
On the Republican side, an interesting race developed between state senators Kirk Dillard and Bill Brady. Brady is a traditional conservative Republican socially and fiscally, while Dillard earned the enmity of almost everyone in the GOP establishment when he actually cut a campaign commercial for Barack Obama just prior to the Iowa caucuses. It was an upstate vs. downstate race, with Brady’s roots in Bloomington and Dillard cutting his political teeth in the south Chicago suburbs.
Dillard is the more pragmatic of the two candidates but is conservative enough for most Illinois voters. He was endorsed by the last Illinois governor not serving prison time or indicted — fellow moderate conservative Jim Edgar. With 99% of the precincts counted, he trails Brady by a mere 509 votes. How much do you think he is regretting making that Obama commercial now?
An interesting side note to the race was the late endorsement by Rush Limbaugh of Adam Andrzejewski, who generated some excitement from online conservatives the last few weeks of the campaign. Showing support in the single digits in a December poll, Andrzejewski surged to within a couple of percentage points of the frontrunners before falling back and finishing with 15%.
Another endorser of Andrzejewski was Lech Walesa, founder of the Polish anti-Communist party Solidarity and Cold War icon. In the end, the movement conservative vote was badly split between Andrzejewski and well known political commentator Dan Proft, thus leaving Brady, Dillard, and former GOP state chairman Andy McKenna to duke it out down the stretch.
Either Brady or Dillard will offer the Democratic nominee a strong race given the temper of the voter in this state. To make matters worse for the Democrats, the trial of Blagojevich opens in June and is expected to last all summer. Set to testify for the prosecution is President Obama’s good friend and benefactor Tony Rezko, while other prominent Democrats’ names will swirl around the proceedings, dragging the entire party through the mud. How much of an effect this will have on the two major races in the fall for governor and U.S. senator is unknown.
The Senate race for both parties turned out to be anti-climactic. Rep. Mark Kirk breezed to an easy win in the Republican primary, while Alexi Giannoulias, the one-term state treasurer and sometime basketball playing pal of the president, got the nod in the Democratic contest.
There were murmurs from the White House that the president didn’t want his friend to run. Giannoulias was vice president of loans at his family bank, which is now under a consent order from federal regulators that will force the firm to raise about $76 million in capital.
The struggling bank is the least of Giannoulias’ worries. While the chief loan officer there, he granted loans to several shady characters with ties to organized crime. And while state treasurer, Giannoulias lost $150 million in the college loan fund he was responsible for overseeing.
But the real reason the White House wanted to keep Giannoulias from a high-profile Senate race is the history between the two men and the Giannoulias family bank — Broadway Bank — that has played a role in Obama’s political career. The president kept his personal and campaign accounts at Giannoulias’ bank, and it is believed by some that the bank engineered a sweetheart loan deal for the Obama’s first townhouse in Chicago.
The pro quo to that quid was Senator Obama’s endorsement in 2006 of the 29-year-old Giannoulias for state treasurer. A total political unknown who had never run for office, never even voted before, was endorsed by a political heavyweight like Obama.
All of this and more is likely to come out in the race against the attractive GOP candidate Mark Kirk, who doesn’t set conservatives in the state on fire, but who handily won his primary, garnering 57% of the vote against a weak field of five other candidates. There is some grumbling from the right about Kirk, who voted for TARP and is pro-choice. He is also an unabashed moderate who is pro-environment and “pro-science.” Interestingly, Kirk also became the first sitting congressman since World War II to go on active duty and serve overseas in a war zone.
But antipathy to Kirk sets up the possibility already being discussed among conservatives in the state to field a third-party candidate. Kirk has promised to build bridges to the right, but they may not be in the mood to reciprocate. However the ballot procedures in Illinois for third-party candidates are daunting, so unless the right can find a self-funding candidate or raise a lot of money quickly, this effort seems doomed to failure.
As in the gubernatorial race, the GOP finds itself sitting pretty. Despite a big edge in registration, the Republicans almost matched the Democrats in turnout for the primary, demonstrating an enthusiasm lacking on the other side. Neither side will be hurting for money, but the “X” factor will be the president himself. He is expected to campaign for his old friend, but Obama will probably stay close to Chicago and its suburbs in his appearances where he still enjoys huge popularity.
The stars are aligning for a big GOP celebration on election night in November. But in a state as blue as Illinois, a lot can happen between now and election day that could rekindle the voters’ loyalty to the Democrats and frustrate the Republicans in their efforts once again.