- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 18, 2010

CHICAGO | The last decade was not a good one for Illinois Republicans. They lost a Senate seat, their party’s last governor went to prison, and they were shut out of every statewide office.

But the recent surprise win by Republican Scott Brown in the Massachusetts Senate race and a string of setbacks for Illinois Democrats have the state GOP giddy about its chances to claim the next big electoral prizes: President Obama’s former Senate seat and ousted Gov. Rod R. Blagojevich’s old job.

For a change, Republicans have reason to feel confident. This year’s races are likely to be fought against the backdrop of Mr. Blagojevich’s corruption trial - a point Republicans are sure to highlight - and the state’s finances are in shambles, with a deficit likely to reach $13 billion this year.

“This year the stars seem to be lining up for us,” Illinois Republican Party Chairman Pat Brady said.

If Republicans can’t win in Illinois this year, it’s hard to imagine when they could be victorious in the state, where Democrats control the governor’s mansion, every statewide office and the legislature.

“If the Republicans don’t win in November, we’re in for a long, long decade,” said state Sen. Kirk Dillard, of Hinsdale, who is hoping to be the Republican candidate for governor.

The GOP is counting on five-term U.S. Rep. Mark Steven Kirk from the Chicago suburbs, a moderate on issues such as gun control and abortion, to win Mr. Obama’s old Senate seat.

Mr. Kirk, 50, is up against 33-year-old Democrat Alexi Giannoulias, Illinois’ first-term state treasurer, His last job was at his family’s bank, which is now in financial trouble. Sen. Roland W. Burris, who was appointed to Mr. Obama’s seat by the scandal-tainted Mr. Blagojevich, opted not to run for a full term under heavy pressure from Democratic Party leaders.

In the Illinois governor’s race, the Republicans still haven’t settled on a nominee - the Feb. 2 primary ended in a virtual tie with state Sen. Bill Brady of Bloomington just a few hundred votes ahead of Mr. Dillard. But incumbent Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn is vulnerable for several reasons, not least of which because he has proposed raising income taxes to help close the huge budget deficit.

Mr. Quinn’s decision to release some inmates early from prison also turned into a public relations disaster that nearly cost him the nomination in the Democratic primary earlier this month. And the party suffered yet another black eye when its nominee for lieutenant governor, Scott Lee Cohen, dropped out after it became widely known that he was accused of abusing his former wife and arrested for holding a knife to the throat of a former girlfriend. Mr. Cohen has denied the reports, and charges stemming from his arrest were dropped when the girlfriend did not show up in court.

“Every Democrat I know, every politically knowledgeable and interested Democrat is worried. The combination of factors is potentially pretty lethal,” said John Schmidt, a Chicago attorney who ran unsuccessfully in 1998 for the Democratic nomination for governor. Mr. Schmidt supported Mr. Quinn’s opponent in the primary.

But the Republican outlook isn’t entirely rosy. The party is no stranger to scandal - voters will remember that the last Republican governor, George Ryan, was sent to prison for racketeering and fraud. And Mr. Quinn got lucky when Mr. Cohen resigned and will be allowed to choose his own running mate.

Furthermore, if Mr. Brady emerges as the Republican nominee, the party will have to sell a conservative downstate lawmaker to Chicago-area voters he barely courted during his primary campaign. Mr. Brady received only 5 percent of the Republican vote in Cook County, where Chicago is located.

Illinois Democrats have echoed their national party’s claim that for all the Republican Party’s criticism, it hasn’t offered real solutions for fixing the economy and getting people back to work. Democrats point out they got rid of Mr. Blagojevich when he was arrested, they passed a major public-works program after years of gridlock and they approved significant ethics legislation.

“What are their solutions beyond being the party of no?” said state Rep. David E. Miller, the Democratic nominee for Illinois comptroller. “I think people don’t want to see partisan bickering right now. People are looking for solutions.”

Mr. Quinn, like several other Democrats, said voters must be reminded that the Republicans’ no-tax-increase pledge would require devastating budget cuts to health care and human services.

“We can’t allow them to win,” the governor said.

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