Illinois primary: how the Scott Brown win has changed strategies

Illinois has been a reliably Democratic state, but the Scott Brown victory in Massachusetts has changed political assumptions.

By MARK GUARINO | Christian Science Monitor Staff Writer / February 2, 2010

Chicago — Scott Brown’s unexpected capture of the Senate seat held for almost 50 years by Edward Kennedy sent tremors throughout the United States. And nowhere is this being felt more right now than in Illinois, which holds primary elections Tuesday for one of its US Senate seats, as well as for governor.

As in Massachusetts, Democrats in Illinois have essentially been guaranteed victory in most races for years. But the Brown victory has thrown such guarantees into question, and the new political landscape in Illinois is prompting both Democrats and Republicans to alter their strategies. This is especially true in the Senate race, which will determine the successor to Sen. Roland Burris. Mr. Burris filled the seat vacated by Barack Obama and served half a term under a shroud of controversy.

“The Democrats are waking up to threat on the other side of the aisle,” says David Morrison, deputy director of the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform. “Republicans have nowhere to go but up. Expect a full-court press to get a seat at the table” in the general election in November, he says.

Illinois Republicans see an opportunity to play on the perceived weaknesses of the Democratic Party. They’re adopting a strategy similar to Brown’s, which portrayed Democrats as out of touch and fiscally inept. And they’re zeroing in on something specific to the state: The impeached governor, Democrat Rod Blagojevich, is expected to go on trial in June.

Republicans here hope that the issues that motivated voters to choose Mr. Brown will also resonate with Illinois voters, especially come November. “It’s gotten to such a level that people are angry. That’s what you saw in Massachusetts, and that’s the same thing you’re going to see in Illinois,” says Dan Venturi, chairman of the Lake County Republican Federation.

US Rep. Mark Kirk is the leading Republican in the Senate race. The Brown win, he says, showed his campaign that its message could reach further than GOP voters.

“Nothing energizes an army more than a chance of success, and the Illinois Republican army has been quite demoralized over the last decade,” Representative Kirk says. “When they saw the Scott Brown victory, where no one expected success, it utterly energized some Republicans, independents, and even some Democrats to help break the one-party rule in Illinois.”

If he wins Tuesday, Kirk says he will make corruption “the central focus” of his campaign. “Things are worse in Illinois than in Massachusetts because underneath every issue in Illinois is corruption,” he says.

But Republicans aren’t the only ones framing the Brown narrative in their favor. Democrats say it’s galvanized their ranks and provided motivation to campaign harder.

“It’s having a major effect…. No one is deluded what a strong candidate Mark Kirk can potentially be,” says Thom Karmik, communications director for Democratic candidate David Hoffman. Since Brown’s win, the Hoffman campaign saw “a serious uptick in fundraising,” and its volunteer base increased from 700 to more than 1,000 people, Mr. Karmik says.

Hoffman, a former Chicago inspector general and federal prosecutor, is emphasizing his record of fighting corruption. A Hoffman victory, says Karmik, would be a win not just for his party but also for “restoring some integrity into politics in Illinois.”

In polls, state Treasurer Alexi Giannoulias has led among the Democratic candidates. But complications have loomed: Despite his relatively short political career – he’s been treasurer for just three years – his opponents portray him as an establishment candidate whose family operates a Chicago bank that once made loans to convicted influence peddler Antoin “Tony” Rezko.

Kati Phillips, spokeswoman for the Giannoulias campaign, brushes the portrayal off, saying, “Voters seem to know the difference between a community banker and a Wall Street corporate banker.”

The Brown victory, she argues, will work in Mr. Giannoulias’s favor. “The way we’re looking at it is: Voters aren’t angry at a political party, voters are angry at Washington. They’re angry at gridlock and the leaders there who don’t listen to them and ignore them much of the time. That’s something we think we can address,” Ms. Phillips says.

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