Day of decision

Will national Republican wave drown state's Democratic strength?

Tuesday, November 02, 2010

Voters on Tuesday will pick someone new for a U.S. Senate seat long enveloped in high drama, elect the state's first governor since the last one was thrown out and decide whether Illinois will join what the pundits predict will be a national Republican surge.

Assaulted by millions of dollars in attack ads via television, telephone and mailbox, voters may be guided more by the "t" words — trust, truth and taxation — than a tea party movement.

A moribund Republican Party hopes to capitalize on Democratic controversies to capture President Barack Obama's old Senate seat and reclaim some control over state government.

The fallout from the Rod Blagojevich era also means voters will encounter a couple of quirks when they hit the polls: They'll have to vote twice for U.S. Senate and decide whether they want to adopt a new, but complicated, method for recalling wayward governors.

In midterm federal elections viewed as a referendum on the White House, the Senate contest could be a repudiation of a home-state president or a Democratic stand against a projected Republican national wave.

Symbolism aside, the race could have an immediate impact in Washington, since voters will also choose a replacement fo Sen. Roland Burris to finish the last month of Obama's term. The new senator could make a difference in an end-of-year congressional vote on tax cuts.

The allegations that Blagojevich sought to sell an appointment to Obama's seat for personal gain were never a major issue in the Senate race between Democrat Alexi Giannoulias and Republican Mark Kirk. But truth and trust were central issues, along with a fortune in television advertising that focused on Kirk's acknowledgment that he embellished his resume and Giannoulias' role at his failed family bank.

The rhetoric has been no less scathing in the tight race for governor, the first election for an Illinois chief executive since Blagojevich was ousted in January 2009 following his arrest on corruption charges.

Republicans suffered politically the last eight years following the scandals that sent George Ryan, the last GOP governor, to prison, and are looking to make a comeback with an eye to their future in what has become a reliably blue state. The next governor will have a major say in redrawing the state legislature's political boundaries, which largely determines control of the General Assembly for the next decade.

First and foremost, though, the next governor will have to deal with a budget deficit of more than $13 billion and a seemingly insurmountable stack of unpaid bills. Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn has proposed a politically dangerous income-tax hike while Republican challenger Bill Brady, a state senator from Bloomington, has proposed unspecified budget cuts.

Facing concerns about employment and a damaged economy, surveys have shown the mood of voters to be both fickle and volatile following the 2008 election that gave Democrats single-party control of Washington and the 2006 elections that gave Democrats one-party rule of every major statewide office.

Democrats hope to hold onto their majorities in the General Assembly, while Republicans will try to whittle away at a dozen seats that could make the difference in the Illinois House.

At least four of 19 congressional seats are in play, including three held by Democrats. There's the open North Shore 10th District, the southwest suburban 11th, the far west suburban 14th and the western Illinois 17th along the Mississippi River. Democrats currently hold a 12-7 majority in the delegation.

"Illinois has often been written off in past elections as safe Democratic, but that's not necessarily true this time," said David Yepsen, who heads the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale. "Democrats are having to play defense."

Whether the negativity of the long campaigns discouraged or motivated voters won't be known until the polls close. But the time for TV ads is done, and it's now a test of the major parties' get-out-the-vote programs. Election authorities forecast turnout below 50 percent for a midterm, nonpresidential year.

One key will be turnout in Democrat-heavy Chicago, particularly among African-American voters who came out in big numbers for Obama's presidential run two years ago.

For Republicans, turnout in the traditionally GOP-leaning collar counties also needs to be motivated and significant, along with strong support downstate. But Republicans also need a large number of independent voters from the collar counties and in suburban Cook County outside the city to overcome the Democratic vote.

There also are questions about so-called ballot integrity programs that some Republicans have said they will conduct in areas that have had a previous history of vote fraud. Democrats have vowed to challenge anything they see as an attempt at voter intimidation.

The tea party movement is not expected to play as significant a role as it has in other states. Illinois' first-in-the-nation primary was held before the movement could play an impact. But pockets of tea party activism do exist, and some Republicans have readily catered to the movement's desire for less government and lower spending and taxation.