SPRINGFIELD – The state’s unemployment rate is above 9 percent, Democrats in the Illinois Capitol have been in charge as budget and pension deficits soared, and Republicans are energized by Mitt Romney making it a close race against President Barack Obama.
Still, the odds are stacked against the Illinois GOP when it comes to challenging Democrats for control of the General Assembly.
Republicans need to pick up a dozen seats – six in the state Senate and six in the House – to win a majority in either chamber for the first time in a decade.
But they’re trying to do that in new legislative districts drawn by Democrats to help Democrats.
Republicans also have relatively few opportunities to make up ground. All 177 House and Senate seats are in play on the Nov. 6 ballot, but nearly half are uncontested.
Of those, according to election records, Democrats are assured 45 seats, Republicans 39.
The GOP is targeting about two dozen races. In the Senate, they’re even pounding a handful of entrenched Democratic incumbents over their votes for increased taxes, budget borrowing and pay raises.
“We have some excellent candidates throughout the state,” said Rep. Sidney Mathias, R-Buffalo Grove, whose race against Rep. Carol Sente, a Vernon Hills Democrat, is the only one in which the new map pitted two incumbents against each other. “People who think we cannot take over the majority should look back two years ago.”
That’s when House Speaker Michael Madigan’s 70-48 Democratic majority shrunk by six. The Republicans chipped away in the Senate, too. Democrats now hold a 35-24 edge there.
Those 2008 gains came during devastating balloting for Democrats across the country in a midterm election. But, while Republicans nationally went “gangbusters,” the party in Illinois achieved relatively little, said Charles Wheeler III, director of the Public Affairs Reporting Program at the University of Illinois at Springfield.
“They picked up a few seats but not anything like the numbers nationally would have suggested,” Wheeler said.
Romney might be nipping at Obama’s heels elsewhere, but the president still is expected to enjoy a comfortable margin in Illinois.
Republicans also face the hurdle of running in districts drawn by the Democratic majority last year after new census data was issued.
“I just don’t see any way that many seats are going to be in play,” Wheeler said.
Republicans believe voters are paying attention and frustrated in a state that remains nearly $9 billion behind in paying bills and has left public pension programs with $85 billion in unfunded liabilities, even after a major income tax increase was passed last year. They believe they can run against an unpopular Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn, an easier opponent to explain to voters than more obscure legislative leaders.
But GOP candidates in more Democratic districts still have to knock on doors in unfriendly neighborhoods, so while they’re not disavowing party labels, they’re playing independent themes strongly.
Bill Albracht, a Vietnam combat-decorated Green Beret and retired Secret Service agent, says the voters he greets listen politely while he runs down his impressive resume.
“And then I say, ‘But what you need to know is that I’ve never run for political office and I don’t owe anybody anything,’ and without fail, they smile,” said Albracht, a Moline Republican taking on Sen. Mike Jacobs, D-East Moline.
Jacobs for his part said he’s “delivered” for the district, bringing tax dollars home, and points out Springfield Democrats in recent years have cut spending and made proper pension payments. He said Republicans such as Albracht want voters to believe they’re moderate when they actually have little interest in compromise in Springfield.
Jacobs is one of six incumbents the Senate GOP is targeting because of their support for the income tax increase and other issues. He’s also vulnerable, they believe, because of shifting political preferences in some parts of the state. In the Quad Cities, where Jacobs’ district is, Democrats with union manufacturing jobs are not as plentiful as they once were.
Mike McElroy, the mayor of Decatur and the Republican candidate for a central Illinois Senate seat, is another candidate promoting independence and ability to work with political opponents in the Capitol. “Not all the good ideas come from one party,” he said.
McElroy takes aim at his opponent, Andy Manar of Bunker Hill, for Manar’s role as a Senate Democratic budget writer during the time Republicans say the state was overspending. Manar focuses on his time as Macoupin County Board chairman, cutting the budget and the size of the board during tough economic times – actions he says were highly unpopular for a Democrat in a solidly blue county.
Illinois as a whole remains solidly blue, too, but the GOP’s campaign message is never say never. A strong Romney showing could make the slight difference some candidates need, they argue.
“At this time, Republicans have a lot to be excited about,” McElroy said. “Momentum is a huge thing.”