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Miller: Legislative candidates pin hopes on congressional races

Updated: November 9, 2012 6:12AM



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 candidates lower on the ballot must struggle mightily to rise above the noise and get their messages heard by distracted voters.

And because there are no statewide races in Illinois this year, 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 this year to cushion the blow from the top, and down-ballot candidates are increasingly placing their hopes on those contests.

After 2010, downstate Illinois looked like highly fertile ground for the Republican Party. If the GOP had fielded better candidates in the Metro East area near St. Louis, for instance, they might have picked up more seats in the Legislature.

But 2010 is little more than a memory these days, and although downstate still has several opportunities for Republicans, the north and northwest Chicago suburbs appear to be gaining importance. Lots of proud ticket-splitters in that area, along with some viable Republican congressional incumbents (Bob Dold and Joe Walsh), means it could be fertile ground for the Republicans.

The 29th Senate District might be one example. Arie Friedman (R-Highland Park) is running as a moderate Republican. He was slammed hard 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 Senate district in the bag, along with both of its House districts (Reps. 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 three races. If Dold’s lead evaporates, then the GOP candidates further down on the ballot are probably cooked. If Dold hangs in there, the others 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 Morrison, of Deerfield, 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 such as taxes. That worked well for U.S. Sen. Mark Kirk in the area when he was a congressman, and Dold has positioned himself the same way.

Friedman has a history of being 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.

Jacobs has made some major missteps in his career and has real problems with his Democratic base. And even though President Barack Obama will win the Senate 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 U.S. Rep. Bobby Schilling’s race against Cheri Bustos. The latest We Ask America poll taken last week had Schilling (R-17th) leading by about 2 1/2 points, while Obama led by about 7 points in the district.

This explains why the Illinois 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 in his home state and create some of their own momentum in the congressional races to avoid a down-ballot disaster.

Obama helped the Republicans by performing badly in the first presidential debate Wednesday night against Mitt Romney. As a result, he lost some ground nationally and 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 Obama doesn’t regain his footing, it could mean that Republicans running for Congress and the Legislature won’t have to push so hard against the wind.

Rich Miller also publishes Capitol Fax, a daily political newsletter, and CapitolFax.com.



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