Thursday, March 16, 2006

Counting Candidates
Twenty years ago this week--this Saturday is the actual anniversary--Illinois experienced the most extraordinary election in its history, and it was only a primary.

After Republican incumbent Jim Thompson defeated Adlai Stevenson III for governor in 1982, Stevenson didn't promise to seek a rematch right away. He would have been justified, however--Thompson won in a recount by 5,000 votes out of 3.6 million cast. Stevenson was a former U.S. Senator and son of the Adlai who was a former governor and who ran for president in the 50s. While he sat on the sidelines, Neil Hartigan, the state attorney general, became the front-runner in the '86 race, and held that status for almost two years beforehand. But in mid-1985, Stevenson decided to get in. Such was the power of the Stevenson name that Hartigan bailed out within days of Stevenson's announcement, making the March primary just a formality.

Then they counted the votes. Stevenson got the Democratic nomination for governor as expected, but his chosen candidate for lieutenant governor, State Senator George Sangmeister, did not. Neither did Aurelia Pucinski, the party regulars' choice for secretary of state, Illinois' third-highest office. Sangmeister and Pucinski were beaten in the primary by Mark Fairchild and Janice Hart, respectably--followers of Lyndon LaRouche. They'd made no secret of their intentions, running on LaRouche's weird platform, described by one political scientist as "nuclear power, anti-Semitism, Star Wars, militarism, and the imposition of martial law to cope with such menaces as rock music and AIDS. Its arch villains, denounced by militant bands of airport panhandlers, include Jane Fonda, Ralph Nader, and Queen Elizabeth II." They had gone door-to-door in downstate areas, campaigning aggressively while the regular Democratic organization seemed unaware anybody else was running in the primary. Fairchild and Hart likely benefited from their bland, whitebread last names compared to those of their opponents, and in many places, their names appeared first on the ballot. Whatever the reasons for their victory (and several examined are at the link above) the result left the regular Illinois Democratic Party utterly screwed. Stevenson, Sangmeister, and Pucinski ran in November under the banner of the Illinois Solidarity Party, but never had a chance. Thompson was reelected by a wide margin.

Twenty years later, Illinois is having another gubernatorial primary on Tuesday. The action is on the Repug side this time, as five candidates tussle for the nomination. The Illinois Republican Party has its strongholds--and the area I'm visiting today, the collar of counties around Chicago, is probably the strongest--but statewide, it's pretty much a shell, exhibit A being the 2004 disaster, when U.S. Senate nominee Jack "I'm Not the Tom Clancy Hero, I'm the Guy Who Was Married to Seven-of-Nine on Star Trek" Ryan imploded in scandal over the summer, and the party flirted with former Bears coach Mike Ditka and Chicago broadcaster Orion Samuelson before importing Alan Keyes from his home planet to lose by a landslide to Barack Obama.

The lineup includes State Treasurer Judy Baar Topinka, who would have been the strongest Senate candidate to replace Ryan in 2004 if she'd chosen to step in. She's the front-runner. Topinka is being chased by two conservatives who seem to be splitting the hardcore vote. One is a state senator from Bloomington named Bill Brady, who told a talk-show audience last year that "bringing God into the classroom through the principles of the Founding Fathers' design is a good thing." The other is businessman Jim Oberweis, who's making his third straight bid for high office, after coming second in U.S. Senate primaries in 2002 and 2004. (He, too, declined to replace Ryan in 2004.) Oberweis runs a dairy that bears his name--his lawn signs say, "Got Guv?"--and an investment firm. Ron Gidwitz, a Republican insider and former state school board member, would likely give Blagojevich trouble on education, but he's running far behind the others. He and his running mate have a website with the address ILTurnaroundTeam.com--cute, but one wonders how much the policies of the national Republican administration have to do with the need for a "turnaround" in Illinois, and how likely a serious Republican insider like Gidwitz is to do anything about it. The fifth candidate is Andy Moore, a perennial office-seeking gadfly without a chance.

Topinka caused a fuss last week after a candidate debate by referring to her opponents as a "bunch of morons." She's been the target of negative advertising campaigns (accused of being a "liberal" by Oberweis, largely for her pro-choice position, although she supports restrictions on abortion rights and goes down the line with other conservative principles), and her margin is down from what it was earlier this winter, but the latest polling shows her in the lead still. But in Illinois, nothing is over until the votes are counted--and sometimes, that's when the fun really begins.

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