CHICAGO – Candidates for Jesse Jackson Jr.'s former congressional seat made their final push for votes Monday ahead of a high-stakes primary, but turnout was expected to be paltry despite the lurid headlines surrounding the disgraced Chicago Democrat and millions in outside super PAC money driven largely by the guns debate.
The front-runners – former state Rep. Robin Kelly, former U.S. Rep. Debbie Halvorson and Chicago Alderman Anthony Beale – made a flurry stops at train stations, strip malls and diners all over the district that spans Chicago's South Side, south suburbs and some rural areas. They faced a truncated campaign season, the frenzy for endorsements once locked up by Jackson and even a potential Election Day winter storm.
But Danny Armstrong, 51, who had voted previously for Jackson, remained undecided between Beale and Kelly and was considering whether to even vote at all. Jackson pleaded guilty this month to illegally spending campaign funds and became the third consecutive congressman in the district to leave office under an ethical or legal cloud.
"I feel let down," said Armstrong, who works as a school bus aide and at a bowling alley.
Early voting numbers showed reluctance to get to the polls.
In Chicago, fewer than 2,800 voters, or roughly 2 percent of registered voters in the district, cast early ballots. In suburban Cook County – the bulk of the district's voting population – it was nearly 2 percent.
The last time the Chicago area had a special primary election for Congress was 2009 after Rahm Emanuel left his seat to take a job as White House chief of staff. Roughly 18 percent of registered Chicago voters in the district including North Side neighborhoods voted. In suburban Cook County, the percentage was far less.
Further complicating things Tuesday could be an impending winter storm. The National Weather Service issued a warning for much of northern Illinois predicting up to 6 inches of snow. Election officials said they were communicating with streets and sanitation workers about keeping pathways to polling places clear.
"We hope the voters appreciate, that given a low turnout contest, your ballot has more power than it normally it does," said Jim Allen, spokesman for the Chicago Board of Election Commissioners.
Voters haven't seen an open primary since 1995 when Jackson first won office. His November resignation created a rare opening in the strongly Democratic territory and the Democratic winner of Tuesday's primary is expected to cruise through the April 9 election. There are 14 Democrats and four Republicans running.
The shortened campaign season has been fierce; it wasn't unusual for candidates to attend multiple debates on a single day.
While the state's most high-profile Democrats who once backed Jackson stayed out of the race, Kelly did secure union endorsements and those from other longtime U.S. Reps. Danny Davis and Bobby Rush. Also several high-profile candidates dropped out of the race: State Sen. Donne Trotter, state Sen. Toi Hutchinson and state Sen. Napoleon Harris, a former NFL player.
Although the issue of ethics has hung over the district with Jackson's legal saga in court, it's taken a back seat to guns.
Kelly, who wants an assault weapons ban, made guns her top issue, and New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg's super PAC, Independence USA, poured more than $2 million into adds supporting her and blasting Halvorson. The ads note Halvorson once received an "A'' rating from the National Rifle Association. Halvorson supports universal background checks and gun registration but opposes a ban.
Political experts say the ads are a big factor in the race.
Political consultant Don Rose said in a race with more than a dozen candidates – many with close positions on major issues – the ads have been "really the only thing you can call a factor."
However, the ads could end up helping Halvorson, either drawing supporters of gun rights to the polls or with a sympathy vote from voters turned off by the negative tone.
"That's really where it's all centered," Rose said. "That spot is either going to work, or it's not ... It won't turn a loser into a winner, but in any close election it could make a difference."
Kelly says she was focused on guns long before Bloomberg's involvement and that her record in public office as a state legislator and in the Illinois treasurer's office made her well-suited for the job. She may also have another advantage: Her name is listed first on the ballot and Halvorson's is toward the bottom.
Other candidates said they're focus on a range of issues, particularly unemployment.
"I'm not a one-issue candidate," said Beale, who opened up an office south of Chicago to draw new supporters outside his city base.
Still neither candidates nor election officials were banking on a big turnout.
Tuesday's special primary coincides with municipal elections in the non-urban parts of the district. Suburban voters – areas where Halvorson has a base – may be more motivated to get to the polls. Halvorson unsuccessfully challenged Jackson in a 2012 primary.
Chicago voter Angela Craig, a retiree, was also undecided on who to vote for but she liked Kelly's attention to guns. However, she still felt she needed more time to study the candidates and felt a little cheated with the timing of the primary, just three months after Jackson resigned.
"It's such short notice," she said, adding the congressional office is "going to take a lot of cleaning up."
Sophia Tareen can be reached at http://twitter.com/sophiatareen
Associated Press writer Sara Burnett contributed to this report.