Illinois State Treasurer Alexi Giannoulias (AP Photo)
By CHRISTOPHER WILLS
If the Massachusetts special election was a kick in the shins for President Barack Obama, the political turmoil in Illinois, his home state, is a pain in the neck that never seems to go away.
His former Senate seat, already stained by an ethics scandal, is a major takeover target for Republicans. So is the governor’s office.
Going into Tuesday’s Illinois primary, the first of the 2010 campaign season, Democrats are in disarray, with no political heavyweights in their lineup for the Senate seat that Obama gave up for the White House.
Losing it would be a bigger personal embarrassment for the president than Republican Scott Brown’s upset victory in Massachusetts, which took away the late Edward M. Kennedy’s Senate seat.
The front-runner for the Democratic Senate nomination in Illinois, state Treasurer Alexi Giannoulias, describes Obama as his mentor. He is only 33 and hasn’t served a full term in office, and his only previous experience was working for a family bank now in financial trouble.
Mark Kirk, a five-term member of Congress who supports abortion rights and gun control, is by far the leading candidate for the GOP Senate nomination, but he has infuriated some conservative Tea Party activists.
Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn is in danger of losing in the primary because of his association with disgraced former Gov. Rod Blagojevich, who was expelled from office.
Quinn twice ran as lieutenant governor on the same ticket as Blagojevich. He has also taken heat for proposing a tax increase to clean up the state’s financial mess and for working with Obama to move terror suspects from Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, to an Illinois prison. His effort to cut costs by letting some nonviolent inmates out of prison turned out to include releasing violent offenders — some of whom have been accused of serious new crimes.
Whether or not Quinn survives the primary, Republicans see a strong shot at winning back the governor’s office.
“Massachusetts was more of a referendum on Obama. In Illinois, it’s going to be a referendum on Democratic incompetence,” said Pat Brady, chairman of the Illinois Republican Party.
In Massachusetts, Brown made his opposition to Obama policies, particularly health care overhaul, a centerpiece of his campaign. Obama had little choice but appear there two days before the special election on behalf of Brown’s Democratic opponent, state Attorney General Martha Coakley.
Since then, Illinois Republicans have mentioned the Massachusetts upset at every opportunity.
“I believe Illinois is ready for a Scott Brown experience,” Adam Andrzejewski, one of six contenders for the GOP gubernatorial nomination, said in a recent debate.
But the political situation in the two states are dissimilar. To start with, the Illinois primary will choose each party’s nominees, not decide who holds office. More importantly, there is little evidence that Illinois voters see the primary races as a referendum on Obama’s policies.
“I don’t think you can send messages that way,” Daniela Silaides, a Chicago Democrat, said after casting an early vote this week. “At the end of the day, we all have to work together. I don’t think that’s the effective way to get it done.”
Blagojevich, not Obama, has been the central figure in Illinois. The former governor was arrested and tossed out of office a year ago over a long list of corruption charges, including the allegation that he tried to sell Obama’s Senate seat to the highest bidder.
Before he left office, Blagojevich appointed Roland Burris to fill Obama’s Senate seat, which led to a Senate ethics investigation and left Burris so politically crippled that he decided not to run for a full term.
Republicans use Blagojevich, who left behind the biggest budget deficit in Illinois history, as a symbol of Democratic mismanagement. Whether talking about candidates for governor or Senate, they argue that any Democrat who supported Blagojevich or his policies — or simply criticized him too mildly — should not hold office.
Republicans have reason to be optimistic. Officials from both parties say Illinois voters are frustrated by rising unemployment and are angry about gridlock in Washington and corruption in state government. Since Democrats control all major offices in Illinois, that anger seems likely to be directed at them.
“I think you’re going to see a lot of people voting against incumbents,” said Bob Schillerstrom, who recently dropped out of the Republican primary for governor.
The White House claims not to be worried. Presidential adviser David Axelrod noted recently that voters won’t decide until November, which he called “an eternity” in politics.
John Penn, the Democratic chairman in McLean County, a heavily Republican section of central Illinois, acknowledges voters are worried and angry, but he thinks they want candidates who will be practical and work together, not just sit back and point fingers at the president.
“If I was running for office,” Penn said, “I wouldn’t divorce myself from Obama, especially in Illinois.”