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No Room for Error: The GOP hopes to chip away at Democratic majorities in the legislature

Illinois Republicans were in a bind. Their Senate candidate had dropped out of the race, and now the party was scrambling to find a replacement or face disaster in a critical election. 

Sounds familiar, right? But this wasn't the U.S. Senate race featuring a GOP import from Maryland. Instead, it was a state Senate race in western Illinois. The Republican nominee had decided he didn't have the stomach for a tough campaign against first-term state Sen. John Sullivan of Rushville. 

Republicans soon found a solid replacement, but the incident was one more headache for GOP legislative leaders who already have a long list of reasons to reach for the aspirin. Legislative districts were drawn by Democrats. President George W. Bush is basically ignoring Illinois, so he won't be around to energize voters. Carpetbagging U.S. Senate candidate Alan Keyes may excite some conservative voters, but he seems certain to alienate moderates. A recent Chicago Tribune poll found that more Illinois voters consider themselves Democrats today than at any time in the past 15 years.

As if that weren't enough, two untested election strategists are in charge of trying to find some way of electing Republican legislators. Sen. Frank Watson of Greenville and Rep. Tom Cross of Oswego took over as the minority leaders of their respective chambers after the 2002 elections proved so disastrous for Republicans up and down the ticket. They've had nearly two years to plan and prepare, but neither has coordinated multiple legislative campaigns before. 

Watson, the more conservative of the two, has followed a combative strategy in the legislature, not shying away from public clashes with Gov. Rod Blagojevich and Senate President Emil Jones, both Chicago Democrats. Cross has been more aggressive, or at least more visible, on campaign matters. Using the Internet creatively, he has tried to make people forget about the scandals that plagued former Republican Gov. George Ryan and his own predecessor in Republican leadership, Rep. Lee Daniels of Elmhurst. Ryan faces federal charges of racketeering, tax fraud and lying to the FBI; prosecutors are looking into whether Daniels misused state employees for political work on state time. "We need to quit playing defense, and we need to quit apologizing for the past," Cross said this summer. 

Democrats control both chambers of the legislature -- 32-26 in the Senate (plus one independent who sides with Democrats) and 66-52 in the House. It would take incredible luck, something in short supply for the Illinois GOP lately, for Republicans to take control of the Senate. House Republicans aren't even hoping to make that kind of jump. The goal this year is to chip away at those Democratic majorities. 

One of the few benefits to Republicans in having a Democratic governor is that lawmakers often take jobs in the administration. That means some entrenched lawmakers have been replaced with newcomers who might be vulnerable, and that's where GOP strategists are focusing their time and money. 

Rep. William Grunloh, an Effingham Democrat, was appointed when veteran Charles Hartke left to become state agriculture director. Now Grunloh faces a powerful challenge from farmer and businessman David Reis of Willow Hill, who ran a strong race against the popular Hartke two years ago. 

Rep. Careen Gordon, a Coal City Democrat, replaced Mary Kay O'Brien, who became a judge. Republicans are bettingon Morris Police Chief Doug Hayse to oust Gordon in a district that, despite O'Brien's past successes, leans Republican. 

In a nearby district, Democratic Rep. Lisa Dugan of Bradley took office when Phil Novak was appointed to the Illinois Pollution Control Board. She faces the Kankakee-Iroquois regional education superintendent, Kay Pangle of Kankakee. 

Those are the races that Cross says he has the highest hopes of winning in November. But if the political stars align, a few other Democratic incumbents might be vulnerable: Rep. Jack Franks of Woodstock, Rep. Kathleen Ryg of Vernon Hills and Rep. Ricca Slone of Peoria Heights. 

Of course, Cross also has to play defense and protect his incumbents. Republican Rep. Elizabeth Coulson of Glenview, in Chicago's prosperous northern suburbs, barely won her race in 2002. Rep. Ruth Munson of Elgin is running in a district that could go either way. Rep. Robert Pritchard of Hinckley, appointed in November after the death of David Wirsing, may have been weakened by a rough primary. Rep. Michael McAuliffe, the only Chicago Republican in the House, is battling Rep. Ralph Capparelli, a Chicago Democrat, in a rare matchup of incumbents. 

Cross has used the Internet to raise money and to publicize House campaigns with ads and a Weblog. He saw opportunities to stir up interest -- and attach his name to hot topics -- by promoting former Bears coach Mike Ditka for the U.S. Senate and backing the University of Illinois' Chief Illiniwek, urging supporters not to "let the Chicago Democrats play politics with the honored symbol."

On the Senate side, Watson needs to pick up four seats to win a majority. That's going to take some doing with only eight Democratic seats up for grabs.

He has two chief targets: Democrats Gary Forby of Benton and John Sullivan of Rushville. Forby took office last year when Larry Woolard went to work for the Blagojevich Administration. Sullivan, the senator whose first opponent, farmer Gary Speckhart, dropped out, won an upset victory two years ago in a Republican-leaning district. 

Another possibility is Sen. Patrick Welch of Peru, the Energizer Bunny of the Illinois Senate. Election after election, Republicans try to stop him, but he just keeps going and going. He got nearly 58 percent of the votes in his district last time around."This time around the dynamics have changed for Sen. Welch. He is part of the leadership team in the Senate and part of pushing an anti-jobs agenda that has really been dominated by Chicago," says Brian McFadden, Watson's chief of staff. Other longshot targets for the Republicans are Sen. Susan Garrett of Lake Forest and Sen. William Haine of Alton. 

Only three Republican-held seats are contested. Democrats think their best shot at knocking someone off is Sen. Pamela Althoff of McHenry. 

Legislative races often turn on the small things: constituent services, face-to-face visits, votes on bills of purely local interest. That doesn't keep strategists and reporters from looking for statewide issues, however. Tom Cross thinks he's found a couple. "It's all over jobs and Chicago Democrats," he says. 

He wants to make sure economic worries are at the forefront of people's minds when they enter the voting booth and that they link those worries to the Chicagoans who dominate Illinois government. Blagojevich, despite massive deficits, has avoided raising sales or income taxes, but he and the Democrat-controlled legislature have raised business taxes and fees while also raising the minimum wage and taking other steps that are costing Illinois jobs -- at least, that's the Republican argument. The record-setting overtime legislative session that resulted from clashes among Democratic leaders also provides ammunition for an anti-Chicago campaign. 

Aaron Schock, the Peoria school board president battling incumbent Democrat Ricca Slone for a House seat, raised the issue in an early debate. "I think first and foremost you have to have a lawmaker who will stand up to the Chicago lawmakers ... who will say no to Speaker Michael Madigan," he said. 

Tom Ernst, the Quincy park board member who filled the vacancy in the Senate race against Sullivan, has criticized his opponent as a puppet of Chicago Democrats who will vote against the district's needs when ordered to -- for instance, supporting a budget proposal that cut funding to Western Illinois University. "My opponent doesn't seem to be able to say no to Emil Jones and Gov. Blagojevich," Ernst says.

Of course, the attack-the-Chicago-Democrats strategy is blunted a bit because Watson and Cross teamed up with Madigan to oppose Jones and Blagojevich and get a budget that made cuts elsewhere. But that's the kind of detail that gets forgotten when election season rolls around. 

The strategy also won't work in every district. Elizabeth Coulson says such partisan attacks aren't her style and wouldn't go over well with her suburban district's many independent voters, who are perfectly willing to swing back and forth between Republican and Democratic candidates. Sixty percent of them 
backed Treasurer Judy Baar Topinka, a Republican, two years ago, 

Coulson says, but only 38 percent supported George W. Bush when he last ran. Coulson's emphasis over the years has been health care, and she says she intends to focus this fall on that issue -- one of growing interest nationally. She will be talking about costly malpractice lawsuits that may be driving doctors out of business, a problem that Republicans, especially in the Senate, championed during the spring legislative session. Despite a lot of talk from both parties, disputes over whether to cap malpractice damages prevented any compromise from emerging. "It makes everybody look bad that nothing got done," Coulson says. Expect other Republicans to join her in hammering away at the need for actionin this area. 

A big unknown in the legislative races is the campaign of Alan Keyes. He was recruited to run for the U.S. Senate against Democrat Barack Obama at least partly on the theory that he would ensure the most conservative voters come to the polls and then vote for Republican legislative candidates. "I think that will help us in districts all over the state. I want him in as many of our downstate districts as he's willing to come into," Watson says.

But it's not clear how Keyes can help in the key state Senate races. Welch's district has been electing a Democrat for years; Sullivan's district repeatedly backed a moderate Republican in Laura Kent Donohue before he ousted her. There's no sign that firebrand conservatives are hiding in those districts, just waiting for the right candidate to come along. Gary Forby's southern Illinois district probably is more conservative on Keyesian positions against abortion, gun control and gay rights, but then so is Forby. A Keyes voter could very well find Forby acceptable, too.

Then there are districts, such as Coulson's House district, where Keyes could be a liability. His rhetoric -- labeling the vice president's gay daughter a selfish hedonist, for instance, or equating terrorists and women who get abortions -- has already divided party leaders, and it could do the same to voters. Moderate Republicans may stay away from the polls altogether, and independents may decide they want no part of a party that would nominate Keyes. That doesn't sound like a recipe for success at a time when, according to the Tribune poll, 42 percent of Illinois voters now call themselves Democrats and only 29 percent say they are Republicans. 

Cross, who says Keyes should be an asset in legislative races, acknowledges voters in some districts may be turned off. But those voters are "sophisticated enough that they don't care who is at the top of the ticket." Essentially, he is betting that Keyes is just enough of a galvanizing figure to energize some Republicans but not enough to repulse others. 

That doesn't leave much room for error. But then this election season has never given Cross and Watson room for error. 

Christopher Wills is the Statehouse bureau chief for the Associated Press.

Illinois Issues, October 2004

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