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Self-Destruction in Illinois

Democrats melt down in Obama’s home state.

Jun 21, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 38 • By FRED BARNES
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Self-Destruction in Illinois

Bill Brady, GOP candidate for governor

Credit: Seth Perlma

Chicago

Obamaland is crumbling. Democrats have firmly controlled Illinois, the president’s home state, for nearly a decade, turning it into what one Republican called “a deep blue state.” But this has changed almost overnight. In the midterm elections on November 2, Democrats stand to lose the governorship, Obama’s old Senate seat, two to four House seats, and any number of state legislative seats and down-ticket statewide offices. 

Democrats have been hit by a perfect storm, mostly of their own making. Illinois rivals California and New York as a fiscal and economic basket case. Democratic misrule has reached epic proportions, with the school districts, vendors, and doctors who treat Medicaid patients going unpaid for months. Unfunded state liabilities are mounting. And on top of all that, the trial of impeached former governor Rod Blagojevich, already dominating the news, is expected to continue for months.

“Who would have guessed two years ago that Illinois would be in play,” says veteran Republican official Pat Durante. “Thank you, Democrats, for screwing things up.”

Republicans had little to do with creating the political environment from which they are likely to benefit. Jerry Clarke, campaign manager for Republican gubernatorial candidate Bill Brady, told me prospects for Republicans haven’t been this rosy in Illinois since 1946, when they picked up five House seats and made substantial gains in the state legislature. (Nationally, Republicans netted 55 House seats and 13 in the Senate in 1946, taking control of both chambers.)

Republicans have put together a strong slate of candidates. Brady, 49, was expected to finish a distant third or fourth in the gubernatorial primary on February 2. TV stations failed to send correspondents or crews to cover him on election night. They had to interview him on Skype, the computer phone service. Brady prevailed by 193 votes (out of 750,000). He appears to have unified Republicans behind his candidacy.

Brady won the primary thanks to a simple if risky strategy. He’s a homebuilder from downstate Bloomington and has been a state legislator since 1992. He ran unsuccessfully for governor in 2006. This cycle, he concentrated on downstate voters, letting three well-known Republicans from the Chicago area split the vote there. Brady got 50 percent of the downstate vote, just enough to win when added to the small vote he received upstate.

Now he’s devoting most of his time—80 percent, he says—to the Chicago suburbs and “collar counties” that were once a Republican stronghold. There’s a rough formula for a Republican victory in Illinois: Offset a 500,000 vote loss in Chicago by winning by 250,000 votes in inner suburbs and by another 250,000 in the outer suburbs, then rely on the downstate vote. For Brady, the hard part will be breaking even upstate.

Brady’s views are identical to Ronald Reagan’s, which means he’s a bit more conservative than the last three Republican governors and probably the state as well. He opposes legalized abortion except when the life of the mother is threatened—Reagan’s position exactly. And just like Reagan, Democrats are attacking him as a right-wing extremist.

Brady and Republican strategists are convinced such attacks are irrelevant to voters this year. “I’m talking about the issues that resonate with people—jobs, spending, taxes,” Brady says. He favors cuts in spending, a tax decrease of $1 billion, and a reduction in the size and authority of the state government in Springfield. “Government that has too much power leads to corruption,” Brady says. Four of the past six Illinois governors were indicted. George Ryan, the Republican governor from 1999 to 2003, is in jail.

Since 2003, Illinois has been ruled by an oligarchy of Chicago Democrats, led by Rod Blagojevich (until his impeachment last year), House speaker Mike Madigan, and Senate president John Cullerton. Pat Quinn succeeded Blagojevich as governor. Madigan’s daughter Lisa is attorney general. All of them, along with treasurer Alexi Giannoulias, auditor Tom Hynes, and secretary of state Jesse White, live within a few miles of each other in Chicago.

Their reign has been disastrous for Illinois. This year’s deficit is $12.8 billion. The pension fund for state workers has an unfunded liability of $77.8 billion, and $20 billion in payments on bonds are also unfunded. The state’s credit rating is plunging. One school district announced last week it’d deliver no more property tax revenues to Springfield until the state sends long-overdue education funds.

Illinois suffers from a net loss in migration: More people are leaving than arriving from out of state. The unemployment rate is 11.7 percent, two points higher than the national rate. Governors like Chris Christie of New Jersey and Mitch Daniels of Indiana make unflattering comments about Illinois.

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