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Ends and Means: The Biggest Concern for Most Legislative Incumbents Might be Remembering to Vote

Charles N. Wheeler III
WUIS/Illinois Issues


Read the letters to the editor in the daily newspaper or listen to local talk radio, and you can't help but conclude that citizens seem pretty darn unhappy with the job performance of the Illinois General Assembly and Gov. Rod Blagojevich.

Given such apparent public dissatisfaction, one reasonably might expect to see a groundswell of challenges to sitting lawmakers in the 2008 elections, mounted by disgruntled citizens hoping to oust incumbents they see as incompetent at best and downright crooked at worst.

Yet when the filing deadline for the February 5 primary was approved — the earliest in state history — the biggest concern for most incumbents seeking another term would seem to be remembering to vote for themselves in February and again on November 4 to assure victory.

In fact, fewer than one in five current lawmakers who filed for re-election face primary challengers, while almost 55 percent were the only candidates to file in their districts, assuring them of their party nomination and most likely clearing the way for automatic victory in the general election. Opposing party leaders still may appoint someone to run under their banner in November, but such latecomers rarely do well.

The numbers tell the story. In the Senate, where 40 seats are up, 12 of 23 Democrat and nine of 14 Republican incumbents have free rides — 57 percent. (One Democrat and two Republicans are not seeking new terms.) Only six Democrats and one Republican — 19 percent — have primary challengers.

In the House, where all 118 seats are up, 35 of 64 Democrat and 24 of 45 GOP officeholders have no opponents, either in February or in November — 54 percent. (Three Democrats and six Republicans are leaving office.) Just 19 Democrats and two Republicans — 19 percent — have intraparty contests.

Combining the numbers for the two chambers, 55 percent of incumbents were unchallenged when filing closed, while 19 percent had primary rivals. Democrats were five times as likely to face party battles as Republicans, with three-quarters of the party fights in 15 House and four Senate districts in Chicago and the suburbs where the majority of voters are African American or Hispanic.

Could this be another front in the ongoing power struggle between Blagojevich and House Speaker Michael Madigan, an effort by the governor to replace pro-Madigan minority lawmakers with newly minted representatives he could control?

While popular among conspiracy theorists, that analysis is weakened by recent polls showing that the governor's popularity is waning in the minority community. For example, the Chicago-based Glengariff Group reported last month that Blagojevich's job approval rating dropped to just 38 percent among African Americans from 81 percent in May, part of an overall sharp decline for the governor among Democrats and Chicagoans. So the governor's blessing might not carry a lot of weight these days.

History also suggests that a falling out among top Democrats isn't needed to spark heated primary battles in minority districts. In 2004, for example, 13 of 19 House Democrats with March challengers represented majority black or Hispanic districts. Back then, Blagojevich and Madigan were on good terms; the speaker and Senate President Emil Jones Jr., also a Chicago Democrat, had just guided to passage the rookie governor's entire first-year program. Two years later, when Madigan and Jones were co-chairing the Blagojevich campaign for a second term, 12 of the 14 House Democrats facing primary challenges represented minority districts. The evidence seems clear: Rivalries among local political leaders and ward organizations can engender primary challenges to incumbent lawmakers without meddling from the top.

But competition is relative, right? So maybe the overall 2008 numbers are higher than usual, proof of a disgruntled electorate stirring itself. In fact, 2008 filings pretty much mirror the experience of the last two election cycles. In 2006, for example, 57 percent of the 148 incumbent lawmakers seeking re-election had no opposition after filing, while only 18 percent had primary opposition. Two years earlier, in 2004, 57 percent of 138 sitting lawmakers were looking at free rides after filing and just 16 percent faced party rivals.

Just because the number of insurgent candidates hasn't mushroomed doesn't mean all the signs of voter dissatisfaction are misleading, however.

"The general citizenry has got to think long and hard about getting ready to run," explains Chris Mooney, a political studies professor at the University of Illinois whose specialty is legislative politics. "People are not saying, 'I'm throwing down my shovel and heading to the state capital.' It's a lot of work getting on the ballot."

The state's earlier primary date — moved to early February from mid-March — also may have limited the number of challengers, Mooney says. "People were just not geared up for it."

Moreover, "incumbent protection gerrymandering" discourages would-be candidates, Mooney believes. Whichever party controls the mapmaking, legislative district boundaries are drawn to maximize the number of districts the party can expect to win, while minimizing its rival's chances. Few districts wind up being competitive. 

Rather than looking at candidate filings, Mooney expects the impact of citizen disenchantment to be seen at the polls, where voters can translate their feelings into action, perhaps by voting against incumbents across the board.

But a "throw the bums out" spirit could be dampened by the earlier primary date. While mid-March weather can be iffy, a pleasant forecast is much more likely than Illinoisans will face in early February. The prospect of cold, snowy weather might discourage turnout, always a benefit to incumbents who can count on hard-core partisans to vote.

A pretty safe bet, though, is that the cast of the 96th General Assembly will bear a striking resemblance to the current crew, whatever misgivings voters might have about its performance.


Combining the numbers for the two chambers, 55 percent of incumbents were unchallenged when filing closed, while 19 percent had primary rivals.

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


Illinois Issues, January 2008

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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