Presidential Undertow May Sink Democrats in State Senate Races
With the 2012 election roughly ten weeks away, the good news for Democrats is that Illinois is still a “blue” – meaning solidly Democratic – state.
The bad news is that Illinois is considerably less blue than in 2008, when Barack Obama carried his home state 3,419,348-2,031,179, a spectacular plurality of 1,388,169 votes (61.9 percent), which was exceeded only by Obama’s 2004 U.S. Senate margin of 2,206,766 votes (69.9 percent).
But the really horrific news for the Democrats is that Illinois, south of I-80 and generally west of the Fox River Valley, has become a “red” – meaning solidly Republican – state.
And the biggest loser in 2012 will not be Obama, who will win Illinois, albeit by a much-reduced margin, probably not much more than 500,000 votes, but Illinois Senate President John Cullerton (D), who may find his 35-24 state senate majority wither to, at best, 30-29, or, at worst, to a minority.
That wasn’t supposed to happen. Democrats controlled the entire redistricting process, mapped three Republican incumbents out into oblivion, created four new “open” districts, and were confident that they could squish the Republican minority as low as 21. In fact, Cullerton specifically created a Decatur-area district tailored to elect his chief-of-staff, Andy Manar. And, having raised and spent $3.7 million in 2010 to retain his majority, defending 14 seats, few doubted that 2012 would be a cakewalk. But, thus far in the 2012 cycle, Cullerton has raised only $2.7 million, and must defend 35 seats.
But, to the Republicans’ rescue, came Obama and Governor Pat Quinn (D). “(Obama’s) numbers are just horrendous,” said one Democratic state senator who requested anonymity. “His ‘approvals’ are under 40 percent in every Downstate district except Champaign-Urbana. And Quinn’s are even worse. Every Downstate (Democratic) senator is in jeopardy.”
According to that senator, Quinn’s pension “reforms,” which take Downstate teachers out of the state pension system, his closure of numerous rural state facilities, and his perceived betrayal of public-sector unions with his budget cuts, have made the governor a pariah. In short, if Republicans tie Democratic senators to Quinn, and if the Romney-Ryan ticket piles up 60 percent-plus margins in “battleground” Downstate and Cook County suburban senate districts, then a Democratic wipe-out is entirely possible.
In the far Downstate 59th District, occupied precariously by Gary Forby (D), Quinn’s polling numbers, according to a Republican senate staffer, are 20 percent “favorable” and 76 percent “unfavorable.” And, he added, Obama is polling “well under 40 percent.” In 2008, Forby won by 2,825 votes (51.5 percent). If Romney-Ryan sweeps the district with more than 60 percent, Forby is a goner.
The same can be said of six other longtime Democratic incumbents: Bill Haine (D-56), of the Metro East Saint Louis suburbs, who was unopposed in 2008; Dave Koehler (D-46), of Peoria, who was unopposed in 2010; Mike Jacobs (D-36), of the Quad Cities area, who was unopposed in 2010; Mike Frerichs (D-52), from Champaign-Urbana, who won with 61.5 percent in 2010; John Sullivan (D-47), of Quincy, who was unopposed in 2008; and Dan Kotowski (D-28), of Park Ridge, who won with 59.9 percent in 2008.
All, excepting Kotowski, were given “safe” Democratic districts. All voted for Quinn’s income tax hike; all voted to raise their own pay; all voted to increase the state’s borrowing and indebtedness. “That ties them to Quinn, and makes them vulnerable,” said the staffer.
Here’s a look at key races:
36th District (Rock Island, Moline, East Moline): Jacobs’ father and grandfather were legislators from the area, and he got his senate seat the time-honored Democratic way: His dad resigned in 2005 and passed it off to young Jacobs. In the 2012 primary, Jacobs had a tough contest against Mike Boland, a former state representative, and prevailed 7,158-6,189 (53.6 percent), an unimpressive margin.
Now he faces Bill Albracht (R), a former U.S. Secret Service agent, ex-Green Beret, and recipient of two silver stars and three gold stars. “He’s (Albracht) bullet-proof,” said the Republican staffer. “The only way Jacobs can win is to go negative on Albracht. It won’t work.” But the pro-Quinn Jacobs isn’t bullet-proof, having shot himself in the foot defending his pay-raise vote: “I didn’t take a vow of poverty” to serve, he was quoted as saying. Albracht is the next senator.
56th District (East Saint Louis suburbs, Alton, Collinsville): Haine won this seat in 2002 after serving as Madison County state’s attorney for 24 years (1988-2002) and a county board member for five years. He is now getting a county pension of $133,000, on top of his legislative pay of $76,000, plus free health care for life. When asked by the news media if $209,000 in annual income from public sources, plus revenue from his law practice, which concentrates in workers’ comp, wasn’t a bit unseemly in hard economic times, Haine scoffed: “I earned it.”
Not much longer. The Republican candidate, Wood Ridge Township supervisor Mike Babcock, is a lock to win. Voter anger toward Haine is palpable and almost epidemic. His votes to hike taxes and his own pay are nails in his coffin. But Haine can look on the bright side: If he loses, he won’t have to waste time in Springfield, and he can draw state and county pensions of about $160,000.
46th District (Peoria and suburbs): Koehler is another coddled Democrat – appointed in 2006, elected with 57.6 percent in 2006, and unopposed in 2010. His political base is negligible, because he thought he was impregnable and never tried to build it. He announced a bid for Congress in 2011, went nowhere, and scurried back to seek re-election. The Republican, Pat Sullivan, is a well-known restaurateur and developer, with plenty of money. Koehler’s support of Quinn, coupled with an anemic Obama showing in the Peoria area, will insure Sullivan’s win.
52nd District (Champaign-Urbana): Frerichs, in the anti-Bush year of 2006, beat a Republican incumbent by 542 votes, but was re-elected in 2010 by 12,133 votes (61.4 percent). He should be safe, especially with the district’s university presence; Obama will win here at least 55-45 percent. The Republican is John Bambenek, a Tea Party businessman. An amusing sidelight is that the incumbent’s cousin, a longtime area entrepreneur, just moved his business to Indiana, and was quoted as saying that he saved $90,000 in state taxes and fees. Frerichs will win.
59th District (far southern Illinois, Cairo): Forby has always been something of an accidental senator waiting for a train wreck. He was appointed in 2003, won with 52.7 percent in 2004, and 51.5 percent in 2008. This year is the train wreck. Republican polling in Forby’s district shows Romney-Ryan winning by 28 points; in 2004, Bush-Cheney won by 15 points, and in 2008, McCain-Palin won by 7 points.
More tellingly, Republican poll numbers put Quinn at a 20 percent “favorable,” and a 76 percent “unfavorable.” Forby, with a pro-Quinn voting record, is not just toast in 2012, he’s incinerated ash. There’s no way he can survive the coming Republican tsunami. The Republican, pastor and local school board activist Mark Minor, is the next senator.
28th District (northwestern Cook County suburbs, stretching from Park Ridge to Streamwood and Bartlett): Known as “Energizer Danny” because of his relentless door-to-door campaigning, Kotowski is exceedingly vulnerable. He won by 1,434 votes in 2006, upped that to 16,051 in 2008, and let Cullerton remap him into a district which is 50 percent new. Kotowski has over $500,000 in his campaign kitty, but Republican Jim O’Donnell has raised over $200,000, and is pounding Kotowski for his income tax hike vote. It’s resonating. If Romney beats Obama by more than 55 percent, O’Donnell wins. But Kotowski maintains a slight edge.
Also in some jeopardy are Democratic incumbents Mike Noland (D-22), of Elgin, and Linda Holmes (D-42), of Aurora. A possible Democratic gain is in the north Lake County 31st District, where Suzi Schmidt (R) retired. Melissa Bush (D), a county board member, faces Joe Neal (R). Republicans are blasting Bush for voting to raise property taxes by nine percent. Neal is favored.
There are six other “open” seats, where the incumbent retired or were newly-created. Republicans will win the Kane County 25th District (Jim Oberweis). Democrats will take the Tinley Park/Orland Park 19th District (Mike Hastings), Rockford 34th District (Steve Stadelman), and Glenview 9th District (Dan Biss). In the Plainfield/Oswego 49th District, Tea Party favorite Garrett Peck (R) will prevail. On the North Shore, in the Highland Park/Deerfield 29th District, which has a large Jewish population, plenty of independents, and pro-Obama in 2008, confusion reigns. Arie Friedman, a Jewish Republican physician, veteran and Tea Party adherent, faces gentile Democrat Julie Morrison. U.S. Senator Mark Kirk (R) won the district by 14 percent in 2010.Morrison is favored. And Cullerton’s top aide, Manar, is running well behind Decatur Mayor Mike McElroy (R) in the 48th District.
So here’s the math: Republicans have 20 incumbents, plus Neal, and will take 3-4 open seats. That gives them 24-25 seats. So Cullerton’s majority is wholly dependent on at least two of his seven incumbents surviving, and no upsets in the open seats.
Russ Stewart is a political analyst for the Chicago Daily Observer
E-mail Russ@russstewart.com or visit his website at www.russstewart.com