CHICAGO--In my recent overview of GOP prospects in 'Big Ten Country,' I identified Illinois as one of the states where Republicans stand to make significant gains in November. Although that analysis remains intact, recent polling has shown both key statewide races very tight, including the gubernatorial race, where Democratic incumbent Pat Quinn has overcome a sizable deficit to pull into a virtual dead heat with Republican Bill Brady. Quinn’s approval rating is abysmal, he has promised to raise taxes, and he served as Rod Blagojevich’s Lt. Governor. His comeback has been largely enabled by a lackluster Brady campaign and a massive ad blitz painting Brady as a nefarious “millionaire politician.”
Several top Illinois Republican strategists I’ve spoken with are concerned, but not panicked, by Quinn’s resurgence. One well-placed source says the polling data he’s seen shows the state’s Democrats “coming home” to Quinn, and expresses misgivings about Brady’s apparent run-out-the-clock strategy. He acknowledges the Democrats’ vastly superior ground game—including a stranglehold on the Cook County machine—as another institutional advantage Quinn will enjoy on Election Day. Brady hails from downstate, which is a mixed blessing. On one hand, non-Chicagoland voters often feel neglected by the Chicago-centric Illinois political class and media and tend to gravitate toward one of their own. On the other hand, Brady cannot win without registering a strong performance in suburban and exurban Chicago.
Still, given Quinn’s questionable competence, tax increase proposals (he calls the idea that Illinois can remain solvent without raising taxes a “fantasy”), and low popularity, Brady is still well positioned to win. To do so, plugged-in Republicans say the Brady campaign and the RGA need to counter Democrats’ advertising blow for blow, and they point to four scheduled gubernatorial debates as critical proving grounds for Brady. The tagline on the anti-Brady attack ads running in the state is “Who is this guy?” If Brady can acceptably answer that question, voters will likely embrace him as a favorable alternative to Quinn. In other words, Brady must overcome the “Devil-we-don’t know” test.
Quinn is also playing with fire by trying to brand Brady as a millionaire and career politician. Yes, Brady has done well for himself, but not because of his lengthy tenure as a part-time State Senator. He’s made his money as a small businessman, running a construction business in Central Illinois. Brady is an employer in a state that is hemorrhaging employers because of crushing, Democrat-created regulations and taxes. Quinn, however, is a career politician and lawyer, and is susceptible to an effective counterattack from Brady. The Brady campaign's strategy is to ask the important question: What have Rod Blogojevich, Pat Quinn, and the Democrats done to address the fiscal disaster facing the state? Most voters will answer this question one of two ways—either by saying “nothing at all,” or by saying “they’ve made it worse.” In other words, if Brady can frame the election as a referendum on Pat Quinn and the Democrats, he wins.
The Illinois Senate race, meanwhile, remains extremely close. Republican insiders are dismayed that Rep. Mark Kirk, their party’s nominee, hasn’t managed to put this contest away. He faces a profoundly weak opponent in Alexi Giannoulias. Giannoulias is a young, brash cookie-cutter Illinois Democrat who used his experience as a top officer at family-owned Broadway Bank as a major selling point in his successful 2006 run for State Treasurer. In that position, he frittered away millions of dollars due to inept mismanagement of a state education fund, yet found it appropriate to buy himself an SUV at taxpayer expense. Meanwhile, his family’s bank—from which he launched his Senate campaign—was seized by the federal government. Part of Broadway Bank’s failure can be attributed to a series of irresponsible multimillion-dollar loans to known mafia members and shady characters like convicted influence-peddler, Tony Rezko. The Chicago Tribune busted Giannoulias for lying about his own personal knowledge of these practices.
So how is Giannoulias still in contention? In addition to Illinois’ deep Democrat trends, Kirk has been tripped up by a series of embellishment faux pas, to which his campaign reacted with shocking paralysis. Kirk’s woeful response to these revelations gave the Chicago media an excuse to pummel him for weeks, and his credibility took a major, lasting hit. In a recent Chicago Tribune survey, voters actually favored failed mob banker Giannoulias over Kirk on questions of honesty and integrity—demonstrating how much damage Kirk inflicted on himself over the summer. GOP insiders take solace in other polling data showing Kirk ahead. They also anticipate upcoming debates with Giannoulias as golden opportunities for Kirk to establish major daylight between the two candidates. Kirk is a skilled debater whose impressive command of a variety of issues will be apparent to voters. Giannoulias’ comparative callowness will be very hard to camouflage in a head-to-head setting.
One Republican operative also cites Chicago’s two major newspaper endorsements as a telling dichotomy in the race. The Chicago Sun-Times, a liberal tabloid, recently apologized for twice endorsing disgraced Gov. Rod Blagojevich. “What were we thinking?” the paper breezily asked its readers in a silly and unserious editorial. Well, what they were thinking was that Rod Blagojevich had a “D” next to his name, which was about as much research as the Sun-Times editorial board conducted before giving Blago their entirely predictable blessing. Republicans should ask voters how long it will be before the Sun-Times visits the apology well again, seeking penance for endorsing a woefully unqualified 34-year-old for the United States Senate.
The Chicago Tribune, by contrast, gave Kirk an exceptionally strong and thoughtful endorsement on its Friday editorial page. The Tribune’s nod may hold greater credibility in many Illinoisans’ eyes, given its independent streak: The paper endorsed President Bush in 2004 and Barack Obama in 2008. One elated Kirk aide told me the Trib editorial was so compelling, it made the case for Kirk “better than Mark sometimes does.” The aide said campaign morale and optimism are high, but tempered, as the race enters its home stretch.
One thing is clear: If Republicans hope to harness lightning in a bottle and win back the Senate, Illinois is a must-have race. President Obama realizes this, and has reportedly told the DSCC to go all-in to protect his former seat. Obama faced the choice of keeping a healthy distance from his embattled former hoops buddy, or ignoring Giannoulias’ baggage and fully embracing him. The president has taken the latter path. If Republicans can win this election, they will enjoy the double satisfaction of dealing a very personal blow to the president.