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Ends and Means: The GOP proved a bigger loser than the hapless Cubs

Charles N. Wheeler III
WUIS/Illinois Issues

Making a campaign stop in Bloom-ington the Sunday before last month's general election, Republican Judy Baar Topinka suggested her Democratic opponent, Gov. Rod Blagojevich, should switch jobs and run for manager of the Chicago Cubs.

"They're a bunch of losers, too, and need some help," she explained.

 Ouch. The gratuitous slap at Wrigley's Lovable Losers left even hard-core Cardinal fans in central Illinois scratching their heads.

"What was she thinking?" as the governor's spinmeisters would put it.

Voters are quite willing to ignore campaign mudslinging when it's directed at one's opponent — Blagojevich spent millions to blacken Topinka's reputation, a critical factor in his victory — but fans don't take kindly to a politician trash-talking their favorites.

The verbal gaffe seemed an appropriate finale for a campaign that never got untracked, reinforcing the Blagojevich campaign's depiction of Topinka as someone lacking the polish and finesse expected of a chief executive.

By the time the votes were counted a few days later, Topinka and her GOP colleagues proved bigger losers than the hapless Cubs, who finished the 2006 baseball campaign with the third-worst record in the majors.

Democrats swept the six constitutional offices by wide margins — marking the first time in 68 years the party can claim all statewide offices. With 41 percent, the GOP treasurer hopeful, state Sen. Christine Radogno, was the only Republican to crack the 40 percent mark, in losing by almost 430,000 votes to political newcomer Alexi Giannoulias.

Green Party candidate Rich Whitney, a Carbondale civil rights attorney, posted a record showing for a third-party gubernatorial candidate, with more than 352,000 votes, almost 10.4 percent. In the campaign's closing days, Topinka's camp sought to portray Whitney as a spoiler who would siphon away votes she needed to oust the incumbent. But even had every Whitney voter marked for the Republican — a highly unlikely scenario — she still would have fallen more than 1,000 votes short of Blagojevich.

The governor slipped a couple of percentage points in Chicago, but still swamped Topinka by almost 400,000 votes, 77 percent to 15 percent, with Whitney pulling the remainder.

The governor's victory came amid ongoing federal investigations into his administration's hiring and contracting practices, and in the wake of the indictment of one close adviser and the guilty plea of another major campaign donor on corruption charges. But a steady, six-month drumbeat of negative Blagojevich TV spots torpedoed whatever advantage the looming scandals might have given Topinka; many voters told pollsters neither could be trusted to clean up state government, but they liked the governor's health care and education policies.

Perhaps the biggest surprise in the contest, though, was Blagojevich's showing in Chicago's suburbs, long considered Republican turf. In improving his overall vote margin by more than 100,000 over 2002, the governor claimed the suburbs by some 61,000 votes, including pluralities in two traditionally GOP counties, Lake and Will. Indeed, Blagojevich pulled almost 9,000 votes more in the suburbs than he did four years ago, although almost 30,000 more suburbanites voted in 2002.

The governor slipped a couple of percentage points in Chicago, but still swamped Topinka by almost 400,000 votes, 77 percent to 15 percent, with Whitney pulling the remainder.

Outside the metropolitan area, Topinka carried 67 of the 96 downstate counties, winning 48 percent of the vote. The treasurer fared best in central Illinois, taking 54 percent of the vote, for a margin of almost 120,000, including 68 percent in Sangamon County, home to Springfield, to Blagojevich's 21 percent. But her downstate lead of almost 107,000 was far offset by Blagojevich's 460,000-vote cushion in the metropolitan area, giving the governor a 353,429-vote win.

Despite his solid victory, Blagojevich ran well behind the rest of the Democratic ticket. Giannoulias polled almost 1.7 million votes — roughly 100,000 more than Blagojevich — to beat Radogno, while three other Democratic incumbents — Attorney General Lisa Madigan, Secretary of State Jesse White and Comptroller Dan Hynes — all topped 2 million votes in posting easy wins.

The most impressive showing came from Madigan, who thumped her GOP rival, Tazewell County State's Attorney Stewart Umholtz, with almost 2.5 million votes to 820,000, more than a 3-to-1 margin. Madigan lost only two counties — Umholtz's home base of Tazewell and tiny Edwards in southeastern Illinois — by a total of less than 2,500 votes. She even pulled 65 percent of the vote in DuPage County, an almost unheard-of showing for a Democrat. White and Hynes also carried the GOP stronghold, possibly the best showing there ever for a Democratic ticket.

Moreover, Democrats bolstered their already-solid majorities in the Illinois General Assembly, including gaining an unprecedented 37 seats in the Senate, to the Republicans' 22. Senate President Emil Jones, a Chicago Democrat, added five seats, all in districts without an elected GOP incumbent in the race. Four of the Democratic Senate gains — and the single House pickup, for a 66-52 majority — came in suburban areas, including several in which ongoing demographic changes, especially growing Hispanic numbers, are likely to enhance Democratic strength in the future.

One possible bright spot for Republicans might have been the party's success in holding a couple of suburban congressional seats under strong Democratic challenge. But even that small victory was tempered by a national anti-GOP wave that carried Democrats to majorities in both the U.S. Senate and the U. S. House, spelling the end of Rep. J. Dennis Hastert's eight-year tenure as speaker.

The ultimate irony, though, may have been that Topinka herself couldn't beat the Cubbies' anemic .407 winning percentage — she finished with just 39.6 percent of the vote. 

Charles N. Wheeler III is director of the Public Affairs Reporting program at the University of Illinois at Springfield.

Illinois Issues, December 2006

The former director of the Public Affairs Reporting (PAR) graduate program is Professor Charles N. Wheeler III, a veteran newsman who came to the University of Illinois at Springfield following a 24-year career at the Chicago Sun-Times.
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