Illinois Scene Of Several Key Races
By Dave McKinney, Special to Stateline
With less than two months left before Illinoisans head to the polls, Democratic Vice President Al Gore appears to have a slight edge over Republican Texas Gov. George W. Bush.
However, the race is a long from over and is by no means the only crucial campaign under way in the Land of Lincoln.
Democrats and Republicans are scrapping over a trio of hotly-contested congressional races, while the outcome of about a dozen targeted seats in the General Assembly could dictate which parties run the Illinois House and Senate.
Historically, Illinois has been a nearly foolproof barometer of what the nation thinks of its presidential hopefuls. In all but two of the 25 presidential campaigns in the past century, Illinois voters picked the winning candidate.
If recent polls are any indication, Illinois voters are leaning toward Gore, though the amount of his lead varies widely.
In a Chicago Sun-Times poll published this past weekend, Gore earned 44 percent to 40 percent for Bush. With a margin of error of 3.9 percent, that measurement represents a dead heat.
A separate statewide poll by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch showed Gore with a commanding 15-point lead over Bush among Illinois voters - a margin at least one political observer disagreed with.
"I think it is in a dead heat or very close to it," Loyola University professor Alan Gitelson said of the Illinois presidential campaign
One potential disadvantage for Bush is an ongoing credibility problem his Illinois campaign chairman, Gov. George Ryan is confronting. Bush has distanced himself from Ryan at several recent public events because of the governor's inability to quell a federal bribery probe involving his old office, secretary of state. The investigation has resulted in more than three dozen criminal convictions.
Ryan's campaign fund took in at least $170,000 in tainted contributions linked to the illegal sale of drivers licenses when he was secretary of state. The Republican has not been charged with wrongdoing and has denied knowledge of those donations.
While few believe Ryan's difficulties will rub off on Bush in Illinois, Gitelson says Ryan's inability to cheerlead for the Texas governor could dampen GOP get-out-the-vote efforts in an election where turnout is already predicted at record lows.
Separate of the presidential campaign are three congressional races drawing attention and money from outside the state. The combatants in those match-ups are:
- Republican Mark Steven Kirk, of Kenilworth, who's running against four-term Democratic state Rep. Lauren Beth Gash, of Highland Park. They're vying to succeed retiring U.S. Rep. John Porter (R-Wilmette) in Chicago's northern suburbs. Kirk is a former Porter aide. Libertarian Alan M. Perlman also is in the race. Twelve-term GOP state Rep. Timothy Johnson, of Sidney, whose opponent is Democrat F. Michael "Mike" Kelleher, of Normal. The winner replaces retiring U.S. Rep. Thomas Ewing in a rural, downstate district that has historically voted Republican.
- Republican Mark Baker, of Quincy, who's battling Democratic incumbent U.S. Rep. Lane Evans, of Rock Island. The two candidates went at each other in a 1998 race that Evans narrowly won by a 52 percent to 48 percent spread.
- In the General Assembly, Republicans are hoping to net four seats from the Democrats in a bid to retake control of the House for the first time since 1997. In the Senate, Democrats need three seats to win that chamber from the GOP, which has been in control since 1993. Among the dozen or so targeted statehouse races, many are in Chicago's suburbs. Republicans are trying to unseat incumbent first-term representatives Jack Franks, of Woodstock, and Susan Garrett, of Lake Forest, in districts that have leaned Republican in the past.
- A top GOP target in the Senate, where Republicans aim to pad their 32-27 majority, is first-term Sen. Terry Link, of Vernon Hills, who also represents a GOP-leaning district.