Why Illinois Dems Won't Permit Special Election

Days after the sensational arrest of Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich earlier this month and the announcement of allegations of his attempt to “sell” the Senate seat of President-elect Barack Obama, Democratic leaders in the state legislature appeared headed toward stripping the embattled governor of his power to appoint a senator.  A “snap” special election, such as that which is used to fill Senate vacancies in Massachusetts and Oregon, seemed the alternative plan.  

Editorials in newspapers all over the state, from the Chicago Tribune to downstate papers, supported the proposed special election, and a Rasmussen Poll showed that 66% of Illinois voters wanted to choose Obama’s successor themselves.

But then, State Senate President Emil Jones and House Speaker Mike Madigan choked.  There was no vote on the special election measure and, as of today, Blagojevich can appoint whomever he wants to the vacant Senate seat.  

Why?  The excuse offered by Jones, Madigan and other Democratic legislators is that election officials claim that the state, which is drenched in red ink, cannot afford the estimated $30 million it would cost to hold a special election.  But many Republicans I spoke to say this is a “red herring.”  That cost would be considerably less, I am told, if special primaries and then a special election were held in conjunction with the two sets of municipal elections to be held in Illinois in ’09; a primary during the February set of municipal elections and a special election during the next round of municipal races in April.

And while no one will offer any details, there is a nervousness that Blagojevich will begin “singing like a canary” and naming names of others he was dealing with in the alleged “Senate seat for sale” scandal for which he may eventually do jail time.

“You have to remember that Madigan, Jones, Mayor Daley, Richard Mell [Chicago ward boss and Blagojevich’s estranged father-in-law] created Rod,”  one elected official in Illinois who requested anonymity told me, “They thought they had a puppet they could maneuver and, with what he might reveal if pushed, they instead have a Frankenstein monster on their hands.”

The same elected official told me to “keep your eye on Mayor Daley’s ‘Claude Rains’ routine” — likening the mayor’s statement of surprise over Blagojevich’s scheming to that of Capt. Louis Renault (Rains in the movie “Casablanca”) saying he was “shocked” to learn there was gambling going on in Ricks’ café.  

While Blagojevich may well do his “singing” in court, Democratic Party sachems would almost certainly rather he do that later rather than sooner and certainly not if their eventual candidate is going to be facing the voters next year rather than in 2010 (when Obama’s Senate term is up).

At this point, even the Washington Post suspects that Democrats are holding up a special election because they fear that under the present political circumstances, a Republican could win the Senate seat.  Most of the prominent Democrats mentioned for the seat have been tied to Blagojevich, the exceptions being Secretary of State Jesse White, Rep. Melissa Bean, and former Secretary of Commerce William Daley, brother of the mayor.

Among Republicans, the two names mentioned should a special election be held are Reps. Mark Kirk and Peter Roskam.  Both would not have to give up their House seats if the contest is held in ’09 instead of 2010.  Given that Chicago-area Kirk is a moderate who has taken stands for gun control, abortion, and gay rights, betting in a primary is increasingly on the conservative Roskam, protégé of and successor to the late Rep.  Henry Hyde.   A conservative on fiscal and social issues, Roskam has served in both the state House and Senate and won his first term in Congress with 51% of the vote over Iraq War veteran Tammy Duckworth.  

This year, Roskam was re-elected with 58% of the vote over Democrat Jill Morganthaler, Army spokeswoman during the Abu Graib affair.  In both contests, Roskam proved himself a potent fund-raiser:  $3.4 million raised in ’06 and $2.2 million in ’08.  His donar list numbers about 6,000 individuals.    

A Republican senator from Illinois?  It could happen in the Blagosphere.