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An Illinois election could be special indeed

If voters decide the Illinois Senate vacancy, it could be a revealing glimpse into where the parties, and Obama, now stand.
/ Source: National Journal

The fate of Gov. Rod Blagojevich may have Springfield, Ill., in a tizzy, but it's the fate of President-elect Barack Obama's Senate seat that has Washington captivated, especially since it may provide the GOP with its first opportunity to take advantage of Democrats' misfortune.

In the immediate wake of prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald's press conference on Dec. 9, Democrats and Republicans united around the idea of stripping the Illinois governor of his ability to appoint Obama's successor. But just how that new senator will get to Washington is quickly becoming a polarizing issue. While many Democrats have embraced the idea of a special election -- in fact, Sen. Richard Durbin was one of the first to suggest it -- other prominent Democrats have cooled to the idea, worried that it could give Republicans an opportunity to pick up what should be a safe Democratic seat. Instead, they'd like to see the power to appoint the newest senator in the state go to Democratic Lt. Gov. Pat Quinn.

Illinois Republicans, meanwhile, seem to have awakened from their moribund state and are actively pushing for a special election. They've even started running an ad on cable TV ("People's Seat") that tells viewers they "deserve more than another power grab" by Quinn, and "deserve a special election" to "give the 'people's seat' back to Illinois."

Political concerns aren't the only complications for a special election. The state's county clerks have begun to balk at the high cost, which has been estimated at anywhere from $30 million to $50 million.

There was talk over the weekend that Blagojevich may be convinced to sign away his power to appoint a new senator as long as there was a special election provision. In other words, if he can't have this appointment, then no one else can, either. But on Monday night, the state legislature, which is controlled by Democrats, adjourned until Jan. 12 without putting forward a special election plan.

So, just how worried should Democrats be -- or how hopeful should Republicans really get -- if a special election actually does happen? After all, Illinois Republicans haven't won a Senate race -- or even fielded a serious contender -- in 10 years.

First, there's the "guilt by association" theory. Republicans hope anyone with a "D" behind his or her name can be associated with the disgraced governor. There are certainly some for whom that could be the case: Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. may have done nothing wrong or illegal, but the mere fact that he's been linked with Blagojevich at all puts his statewide hopes on ice. That most Democrats have kept their distance from Blagojevich over the last couple of years, however, makes it harder to tie the unpopular governor to his own colleagues. In fact, Quinn says he hasn't talked to his boss since 2007.

The bigger problem for Democrats is that a crowded field makes for an unpredictable outcome. At this point, almost every Democrat in the delegation has been mentioned as a potential contender. Most of them represent Chicago, including Reps. Danny Davis, Jan Schakowsky, Luis Gutierrez and Jackson. This leaves a very appealing niche for a non-Chicago candidate. Rep. Melissa Bean, a moderate from the northwest suburbs, would likely lose in a one-on-one contest against a Chicago liberal. But a field crowded with Chicago-based candidates gives her an opening.

Another intriguing candidate is Attorney General Lisa Madigan. On Sunday, she told "Meet The Press" moderator David Gregory that she hadn't "even thought about" the Senate seat. By Monday morning, however, Madigan told a local radio station that she's not interested in the seat "at this point." Still, the fact that a special election isn't likely to take place until April makes "at this time" a very flexible statement indeed.

Among Republicans, Rep. Mark Kirk is mentioned most often. His moderate profile and ability to succeed in a Democratic stronghold make him an appealing pick. Also interested, however, is Rep. Peter Roskam. Like Kirk, Roskam comes from the Chicago suburbs, but he's more socially conservative, which would give him an advantage in a primary.

The quality of the candidates who emerge from the primaries would be important. But just how much money the candidates and their respective campaign committees can raise is also a valid question. Kirk, Roskam and Bean have faced competitive elections in the last two cycles and thus have a proven history of raising significant funds for a general election. Madigan has state name ID, but she's not had to raise money under federal election law, which is much more restrictive than raising money for state elections.

A special election also puts Obama in a tough spot. While he managed to stay out of the fray in the recent Georgia Senate runoff, there's little chance he could avoid getting involved this time. By April or May, Obama would also be well into his first term. He could be riding high or struggling badly. Either way, a special election for his seat could be seen as a referendum on his first few months in office.

In the end, we may never get the chance to see a special election. In that case, the question becomes just how effective the GOP will be in helping to create a grassroots backlash to the appointment process. This could help give them an advantage in November 2010, when the person who ultimately fills this seat has to defend it. It could also help other governors facing a Senate vacancy, like David Paterson in New York and Ruth Ann Minner in Delaware, assess just what kind of backlash they or their appointees may feel in the future.