CHICAGO – Anyone in Illinois who’s turned on a TV in recent weeks knows the race for governor is shaping up as a no-holds-barred, no-expenses-spared slugfest. While the contest between Democratic incumbent Pat Quinn and Republican businessman Bruce Rauner could be one of the hardest fought and closely watched races in the nation, there’s plenty more at stake up and down the Nov. 4 ballot.
As the campaign heats up after Labor Day, here are five things to watch for as the election nears:
WILL GOP LEAVE DEMS RED-FACED?
National Republicans see Illinois and a vulnerable Quinn as a prime opportunity to pick up a governorship in one of the Midwest’s last remaining Democratic strongholds. The added bonus, they say, is that winning the top job in Barack Obama’s home state would send a strong message that voters are rejecting Democrats’ agenda. Both parties and their allies are funneling millions into the race, as Democrats try to paint Rauner as an out-of-touch multimillionaire and Republicans blame Quinn for Illinois’ lagging economy and ongoing political controversies.
BATTLEGROUND COOK COUNTY
Both sides said Cook County will be the key battleground and are sending in foot soldiers to saturate Chicago and its inner suburbs to secure votes. Why? Look no further than the 2010 election. Quinn defeated Republican state Sen. Bill Brady by just under 32,000 votes, despite winning just four of Illinois’ 102 counties. But he won big in Cook – taking 64 percent, or about 500,000 more votes than Brady. This time, Quinn knows he has to do as well or better. But Rauner is aggressively courting Cook County voters, including the area’s large minority populations.
DAIRY MAGNATE VS. SENATE’S NO. 2
U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, the second-ranking Senate Democrat, faces a challenge from state Sen. Jim Oberweis, who’s familiar to voters because of a chain of dairies that bear his family name – and a string of failed runs for office before securing his statehouse seat. Oberweis has acknowledged he’s made mistakes in his previous bids – including flying over Soldier Field during a TV commercial to criticize people who enter the U.S. illegally – but so far he’s avoided gaffes this time. He’s instead focused on labeling Durbin as a career politician who doesn’t know how to turn the economy around. Durbin said he’ll tout his record of creating jobs in Illinois, including getting the federal Bureau of Prisons to reopen the shuttered Thomson Correctional Center.
Also hotly contested this year are races for state treasurer, comptroller and a handful of congressional seats. Republican state Rep. Tom Cross, a former House GOP leader from Oswego, is taking on state Sen. Mike Frerichs of Champaign for treasurer in a contest that has seen more controversy than usual, including accusations of financial mismanagement and unpaid taxes. In the comptroller’s race, Republican Judy Baar Topinka faces a challenge from Lt. Gov. Sheila Simon, who decided not to run again with Quinn. Each of them offers a little history: the long-serving Topinka is familiar to voters from previous stints in the state Senate and as state treasurer, and the banjo-playing Simon is the daughter of the late U.S. Sen. Paul Simon.
Democrats who control the state Legislature have worked up a number of ways to entice voters to the polls – a matter of particular concern in an off-year election, when people are more likely to stay home. On the campaign trail, they will be busy promoting several referendums, including non-binding questions asking voters if Illinois should raise the minimum wage to $10 per hour and impose an additional tax on millionaires. They also gave an OK to same-day voter registration – but only for this year. Critics said the moves were cynical attempts to bring out an otherwise uninspired Democratic base.