There's not a lot that a state legislative candidate can do when his or her party's presidential nominee starts to tank.
The presidential race drives turnout to the point where down-ballot candidates must struggle mightily to rise above the noise and get their messages heard by distracted voters.
And since there are no statewide races in Illinois this year here, that means there are no truly high-profile campaigns to "break up" any presidential advantage or momentum. Congressional races are all that state legislators have now to cushion the blow from the top, and down-ballot candidates are increasingly pinning their hopes on those contests.
After 2010, downstate looked like highly fertile ground for the GOP. Had the Republican Party fielded better candidates in the Metro East near St. Louis, for instance, they might have picked up more seats.
But 2010 is little more than a memory these days, and although downstate still has several opportunities for Republicans, the northern and northwest Chicago suburbs appear to be gaining importance. Lots of proud ticket-splitters in the region, along with some viable Republican congressional incumbents (Bob Dold, Judy Biggert and Joe Walsh), mean the region could be at least somewhat fertile ground for the GOP.
The 29th Senate District might be one example. Arie Friedman (R-Highland Park) is running as a moderate Republican. He was slammed hard late last month by the conservative Illinois Family Institute for claiming to be pro-choice, which the Republicans actually loved. They believe the attack will help Friedman with more moderate voters, and that's the path to victory.
The Democrats thought they had this one in the bag, along with both of its House districts (Rep. Elaine Nekritz and Scott Drury). But the area's congressional races (especially Dold) have the Republicans believing they're at least in the hunt in all three legislative contests.
Polling shows single-digit advantages for the Democrats in those legislative battles. If Congressman Dold's lead evaporates, then the down-ballot Republicans probably are cooked. If he hangs in there, the down-ballot Republicans might at least have a shot. So far, Dold appears to be holding his own. The latest We Ask America poll taken last week had Dold up by almost four points.
The Senate Republicans are hammering Friedman's Democratic opponent, Julie Morris, in the mailboxes these days. Two recent mailers highlighted Morrison's struggles on three separate occasions to answer questions about where she stood on the state income tax increase.
The Republicans believe that once north suburban voters have "checked the boxes" on abortion, guns and other social issues, they're open to listening to fiscal messages, like taxes. That worked well for Mark Kirk in the area when he was congressman, and Dold has positioned himself the same way. Friedman has a history of being a conservative, however, so this is somewhat of a GOP makeover attempt and the Democrats are saying voters won't buy into it. They may very well be right. The Republicans may have needed a more moderate candidate there.
What looks to be a fairly close congressional race in the Quad Cities/Rockford/Peoria region is working to the Democrats' disadvantage in state Sen. Mike Jacobs' (D-East Moline) district.
Sen. Jacobs has made some major missteps in his career, so he has real problems with his Democratic base. And even though Obama will win his district by a sizable margin, Jacobs still is struggling hard to defeat Republican Bill Albracht. And Albracht is being helped against the prevailing presidential winds by GOP Congressman Bobby Schilling's race against Cheri Bustos. The latest We Ask America poll taken last week had Schilling leading by about two and a half points, while Obama led by about 7 points in the district.
This explains why the state Republican Party chairman recently declared that most of his organization's energy would be focused on congressional races this year. Simply put, the Republicans have to break up Obama's momentum high up on his home-state ticket and create some of their own momentum in the congressional races to avoid a down-ballot disaster.
For his part, Obama helped the Republicans by performing badly in his first presidential debate against Mitt Romney. As a result, he lost ground nationally, and right here in Illinois.
That doesn't mean Obama will lose Illinois (or even the election – George W. Bush badly lost his first 2004 debate to John Kerry and still won), but if he doesn't regain his footing it could mean that Republicans running for Congress and state legislature won't have to push so hard against the wind.
• Rich Miller also publishes Capitol Fax, a daily political newsletter, and CapitolFax.com.