Prairie State Prophecy

Chicago, Ill. (April 27-28) — At a dinner at the Park Ridge Country Club in suburban Chicago with a group of prominent area business leaders and a breakfast the next morning with two Republican political consultants in nearby Des Plaines, I found that two questions dominated the talk of state politics: Would Democrat Rod Blagojevich overcome dissension within his own party, including a very public feud with his own father-in-law (a fellow Chicago pol), to become the first Democratic governor of Illinois to be re-elected since 1964? Or would Judy Baar Topinka overcome the great animosity toward her among her fellow Republicans and go on to become the first challenger to oust a sitting governor of the Prairie State since 1972?

In short, the grass-roots activists of both major parties in Illinois are not exactly enamored of their nominees for governor this year. The race is further complicated by the renegade candidacy of Democratic State Sen. James Meeks of Chicago. An African-American who opposes abortion and gay marriage and supports a massive increase in spending for public schools, Meeks insisted last week that he would go ahead with his third-party bid for governor and has been encouraged by recent polls. According to a just-completed Lester and Associates survey, Blagojevich leads State Treasurer Topinka 47% to 40% statewide. When Meeks is tossed into the equation, the same survey showed Blagojevich leading Topinka 41% to 34%, followed by Meeks with 12%.

But the Lester poll also showed that, when Illinois voters learned of Meeks’ conservative social-issue stands, Blagojevich dropped to 37%, while Republican Topinka and Independent Meeks were tied with 25%. As pundit Rich Miller concluded in the a recent Daily Southtown column, "[t]his is also pretty much exactly where Meeks said he needed to be to even consider a run."

That Meeks’ social-issue stands would enhance his standing at the expense of Topinka is not really a surprise. Moderate GOPer Topinka was long at daggers’ ends with pro-life Republicans during her tenure as state party chairman. In the recent primary for governor, Topinka topped the field with 37% of the vote against four opponents, all of whom took conservative stands on abortion and other social issues.

For weeks after the primary, Topinka considered hiring a conservative to quarterback her fall campaign. One out-of-state prospect, who is a veteran of Jack Kemp’s 1988 presidential bid, was thought to be an excellent choice for bridging the chasm between Topinka and her party’s dominant conservative base. But she finally opted for state Senate GOP chief of staff Brian McFadden, a comfortable member of the GOP’s moderate establishment.

As veteran Daily Herald columnist Eric Krol put it: "Judy Baar Topinka apparently didn’t learn many strategic lessons from the Bush Administration’s experience in Iraq. The U.S. invasion was a relatively easy triumph, but Bush was roundly criticized for not having a solid post-victory plan for stability."