Gizzi On Politics: The Week of February 15, 2010

Illinois (To Be Continued)

Although more than a week has passed since the February 2 Illinois primary, there are still unresolved races and fresh developments in the Prairie State.  

By far the most spectacular development was the resignation of Chicago pawnbroker Steven Lee Cohen as the Democratic nominee for lieutenant governor. Spending more than $2 million of his own money, Cohen won the Democratic primary over four opponents. In the days that followed, there were revelations that Cohen had been arrested in 2005 on charges of threatening a former live-in girlfriend with a knife (the charges were later dropped) and that he had once used steroids.  

Under pressure from state Democratic leaders, the 43-year-old Cohen threw in the towel and resigned the nomination, making a tearful announcement at a Super Bowl party in a Chicago bar. Party leaders are expected to tap State Rep. Art Turner, who placed second to Cohen in the primary, as the running mate for Gov. Pat Quinn.  

The Republican nominee is 27-year-old Jason Plummer, vice president of a family-run lumber company, who also used personal wealth to overcome four older and more politically experienced primary opponents. But Plummer has solid grounding in conservatism, having worked as an intern at the conservative Heritage Foundation and on the staff of former Sen. (1998-2004) Peter Fitzgerald (R.-Ill.). In addition, as a University of Illinois undergraduate, Plummer led a student protest to deny a speaking date to former Weather Underground militant and Obama friend Bill Ayers.  

As to whom Plummer will run with, that is still uncertain. With all precincts now reporting on the seven-candidate Republican primary for governor, conservative State Sen. Bill Brady is clinging to a lead of 420 votes out of more than one million cast. The runner-up, more moderate State Sen. Kirk Dillard, told reporters he would not concede when the margin of difference between himself and Brady was only .0005% of the vote. Estimates of the number of absentee and provisional ballots that remain to be counted range from 1,000 to 5,000. The figure is so uncertain because ballots that are not postmarked at least one day before the primary will be disqualified.  

Perhaps the most interesting Republican U.S. House primary came in the 8th District (suburban Chicago). In the field of five, state and national GOP leaders had backed Long Grove Mayor Maria Rodriguez. But voters gave a strong plurality to Joe Walsh, who formerly worked for the Milton and Rose Friedman Institute and oversaw a privately funded voucher program that sent more than 150 inner-city children to parochial schools.  
“And what got me nominated was the local Tea Party movement—no doubt about it,” Walsh told me days after his nomination. “We have a half-dozen Tea Party groups in the district and I talked to all of them about cutting taxes and reducing government. They provided the ‘boots on the ground’—more than 200 eager volunteers going door-to-door and making phone calls on my behalf. That’s what won the primary for me.”

Looking ahead to the fall race against three-term Democratic Rep. Melissa Bean (lifetime American Conservative Union rating: 25%), Walsh said he had a congratulatory call from the National Republican Congressional Committee and looked forward to their help. But, he added, “No one is going to tell me how to run in November. I won nomination as an insurgent and I will campaign in the general election as an insurgent.”  

After Murtha

No sooner had the sudden death of 36-year Rep. John Murtha (D.-Pa.) become public last week than the maneuvering began over who would succeed him as congressman from the Keystone State’s 12th District.  

Following the funeral of the 77-year-old Murtha and a period of mourning, a vacancy will be declared in his Western Pennsylvania district. Shortly after the district is declared vacant, both major parties are likely to use an “insiders’ mechanism” to select nominees for the special election (almost certain to be held on May 18, the same day as the state’s primaries). “Insiders’ mechanism,” several Pennsylvania sources told me, most likely means that two representatives of the party organizations in each of the district’s nine counties would pick the candidates.  

“And that means that a handful of people will determine the Republican nominee—just like in New York-23,” said Peg Luksik, a veteran conservative activist. Luksik served as a campaign consultant for retired U.S. Army Lt. Col. Bill Russell, who drew 42% of the vote as the GOP nominee against Murtha in ’08 and had been planning to run against Murtha this year.  

By “New York 23,” Luksik was referring to the nationally watched special election last year in New York’s 23rd Congressional District in which a handful of GOP leaders gave the party’s nomination to liberal State Assemblywoman Dede Scozzafava and prompted a massive exodus of Republicans to Conservative hopeful Doug Hoffman, who lost a close general election to Democrat Bill Owen. Luksik was an obviously implying that if the GOP powers-that-be gave the special election nomination to someone other than Russell, that he and his supporters — notably in the growing Tea Party movement — might just stay home on election day.

But in contrast to New York’s Scozzafava, the Pennsylvania Republicans being mentioned for the “establishment” blessing are, to varying degrees, conservative. Washington County businessman Tim Burns and State Rep. Jeff Pyle are the two most frequently talked-about possible special election nominees. Luksik made it clear that whether or not Russell was picked as the GOP nominee for the race expected in May, he would run for in the primary for the nomination for the full term election in November.

Local Democrats seem to have no problem with “insiders” choosing their standard-bearer. Among those mentioned increasingly for the nomination are State Sen. John Wozniak and former Lt. Gov. and 1994 gubernatorial nominee Marc Singel, both of Johnstown.  
Since Murtha was first elected in a special election in 1974, redistricting and the muscle he flexed as a “prince of pork” have made the 12th securely Democratic. But Western Pennsylvania is changing and growing more conservative. Two Republicans, State Sen. Kim Ward and State Rep. Tim Krieger, both of Westmoreland County, recently captured districts that were previously in Democratic hands and the 12th Congressional District has been the site of some huge Tea Parties, one of them drawing more than 7,000 angry participants.  

Given Scott Brown’s victory in Massachusetts, a Republican triumph in what has long been known as “Murtha Country” is not outside the realm of possibility — and would be a sign that in 2010 the times really are changing.