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Last week, Representative John Fritchey (D-Chicago) reported on his blog, Dome-Icile, that former 43rd Ward (Lincoln Park) Alderman Edwin Eisendrath would indeed be challenging incumbent governor Rod Blagojevich in the 2006 gubernatorial Democratic primary this March. There is a slice of irony in that, since Blagojevich is one of Rep. Fritchey's constituents. Since then, Eisendrath, who also served President Clinton as the Midwest region Housing and Urban Development director, has announced he would make a final decision on whether or not to run over the next few weeks.

Eisendrath's potential entry into the race makes what was once a straightforward election into something quite confusing. Pundits will probably write him off due to Blagojevich's $14 million head start and his strong backing by elements of labor, specifically the Service Employees (SEIU). However, Blagojevich's low approval rating, mixed performance among key elements of the Democratic electorate, and the uncertain voting preferences of an Illinois electorate looking at an imploded GOP and faltering Democratic Party make prognostications impossible and the inevitable unforeseeable. In other words, having a competitive Democratic Primary really makes my life a lot more complicated.

Eisendrath is independently wealthy, and disaffection with Blagojevich among Illinois voters is high enough that there's no reason to think he won't choose to run. A superficial look over his years at HUD show no real scandals or failures, although Eisendrath would have been one of the original players behind the efforts to relocate public housing residents, which depending on your point of view could be a liability among several Democratic primary constituencies.

According to Survey USA, one of the most accurate national polling outfits, Blagojevich rates only a 41 percent approval rating, although this number may have improved since the unveiling of the trailblazing AllKids health plan, which will insure every child in the state. Worse, some 53 percent of Illinoisans disapprove of Blagojevich's work. This can be attributed to a public feud with his father-in-law and political patron Ald. Richard Mell (33rd), which has led to an on-going investigation into state hiring practices, as well as general disaffection from Downstate voters who feel Blagojevich has by-and-large neglected them. According to SUSA, the governor rates only a 32 percent approval Downstate. Importantly, it was the Downstate vote that carried Blagojevich through the primaries in 2002.

In 2002, Blagojevich relied on prodigious fundraising, garnering early support from public sector and trade unions. Combined, the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), SEIU, the International Brotherhood of Teamsters (IBT), Construction and General Laborers Council, the Carpenters (UBC), the Illinois Education Association (IEA) and the Teachers (IFT) gave Blagojevich a combined $2.9 million, including more than $500,000 in the primaries, a veritable fortune when you consider Illinois election laws allow a candidate to use labor donations however they like. All of these organizations also spent considerable sums reaching out to their own members and pounding the pavement all over the state to get the vote out. Overall, labor has given Blagojevich roughly $4.3million. (There were other services — those who attended Blagojevich's victory party at Finkl & Sons Steel will also remember the generous amounts of beer escorted in by the Teamsters.) This early cash advantage and the enormous army provided by organized labor boosted turnout and forced the other candidates to alter their own messages and strategies to match Blagojevich's.

So besides providing for an All-Names Primary (likely the top five candidates from both parties would be Blagojevich, Eisendrath, Baar-Topinka, Rauschenberg and Oberweis), what does the possible entry of Eisendrath mean for Illinois, and an Illinois Democratic Party just beginning to come together after a series of bloody budget fights and contentious investigations? And what does this mean for the Illinois GOP, last seen running and hiding from Alan Keyes?

Unfortunately, the recent history of Illinois politics offers little in the way precedent.

First, there is the problem of Blagojevich's mixed popularity.

According to this most recent SUSA poll, Blagojevich's approval rating is highest among self-identified Democrats (55 percent), and he is performing well among several core Democratic constituencies: African-Americans (59 percent), Latinos (53 percent), and Cook County residents (52 percent). Although those numbers would bode well in a general election, they mean little in a primary, when a good candidate could easily appeal to the base of primary voters.

And although Blagojevich is surely popular with several categories of union members (construction and service) the purely public sector workers and teachers are likely less happy with his performance, after several cuts, pension restructures, and more recently a contentious fight with AFSCME over the splitting of the Department of Corrections. Coupled with the recent split in the AFL-CIO, leading to the creation of a new coalition called Change To Win, this mixed record with Illinois' most powerful labor unions could spell trouble in any primary fight.

Next, there is the sensitive nature of the Illinois electorate over the last few cycles.

A purely quantitative analysis of the electorate doesn't work out, either, since the last few elections were so unusual. Since Illinois voters don't register with a political party, the only way to guess the total number of partisan voters is by looking at the previous election — but the Republican primaries since 1998 have been so strange that it is difficult to make any projections about how voters are going to identify in 2006. Between 2000 and 2002, Democratic primary voters increased by over 50 percent, from 810,00 to 1.25 million. Meanwhile between 2002 and 2004, Republican primary voters decreased by about a third, from 920,000 to 670,000. So what does this mean? Well, nothing. While the Democrats had a high-profile primary in 2004, the Republicans had unappealing candidates and an unopposed incumbent president; and while the Republicans drove down turnout in 2002 thanks to an ugly race and a wildly unpopular incumbent governor in George Ryan, the Democrats had three very popular figures and a generally positive statewide effort.

Eisendrath has good progressive credentials and would probably perform well in Lakefront Wards where Democratic primary voters tend to be socially liberal — Blagojevich's approval rating among Pro-Choice voters is below 50 percent, and among liberals is a decent but not striking 54 percent. Ironically, Eisendrath's former ward, the 43rd, was one of Blagojevich's worst North Side wards, where he garnered only 27 percent of the vote. Eisendrath may also try to woo labor support from among those Blagojevich has alienated, which in Illinois has enormous ramifications in primaries. This is the major threat across the board: if Eisendrath can make it look competitive, there are a lot of people from almost every possible voting constituency that would take the opportunity to go after the Governor.

Further, Blagojevich's popularity in the Collar Counties (DuPage, Kane, Lake, McHenry, and Will County) is a dismal 35 percent — this while Democratic share of the primary voters in those areas has increased. Between 1998 and 2002, Democrats went from 28 percent of Lake County's primary voters to more than 40 percent. While Eisendrath has no natural constituency in those counties, his cash and ability to invent himself and his message independently could prove to be a real thorn in the incumbent's side, forcing him to spend more money that he'd like in the primaries, sapping him for the general election.

The point is that it isn't just self-identified Democrats who will be voting in the Democratic primary in 2006 — but likely a large number of independents and a smattering of Republicans, too. And among independents, only 37 percent think the Gov is doing a good job.

If the Republican electorate is energized by the prospect of taking the governorship back from a politician they despise (at a 74 percent clip), that kind of competitive primary could spell trouble.

On the other hand, as Illinois generally trends more Democratic, the incumbent governor is afforded an interesting opportunity.

If more of these moderate suburban and Downstate voters turn out in the Democratic primary, Blagojevich would be able to do the counter-intuitive — run to the right of his opponent in the primaries. Now that'd be interesting.

There're some other ways Blagojevich could lock this thing up — and 14,000,000 of them are right in the bank.

Surely Eisendrath is weighing all of these factors as he moves towards his announcement. One thing is for certain — a group of nerds a whole lot smarter than me are crunching these numbers as we speak and whatever side they're on, they're probably not happy.

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Comments

mike / November 23, 2005 1:55 PM

I keep saying this, but ... "don't blame me, I voted for Vallas."

alex / November 26, 2005 2:16 AM

blago is such a mess. The AllKids health plan should be interesting to see how it plays in the polls. Personally, I can't see it doing much for the guy.

Another Fritchey constituent / November 28, 2005 4:17 PM

Ramsin -- thanks for what is absolutely one of your most insightful columns. Nice mix of data analysis and on-the-street point of view.

One quibble and one comment -- perhaps you can expand here or in another column:

You say that "some 53 percent of Illinoisans disapprove of Blagojevich's work. This can be attributed to a public feud with his father-in-law and political patron Ald. Richard Mell (33rd)."

Why/how can you back up this as the primary reason for Blago's drop in the polls? Perhaps you know something or have an insight you did not print.

It seems to me that a recently overheard analysis seems accurate:
If you voted for Blago in 2002 for fiscal reasons, you will vote for him again in 2006. If, however, you voted for Blago because you wanted to see the end of "business as usual in Springfield," you'll vote for somone else.

In your view, how big is the good-goverment ("goo-goos," in an earlier era) voting block? Will it be bigger in the Dem primary, or in the general election?

Looking forward to reading your response. Happy/merry!

Ramsin / November 29, 2005 12:53 AM

Well, what I wrote was:

This can be attributed to a public feud with his father-in-law and political patron Ald. Richard Mell (33rd), which has led to an on-going investigation into state hiring practices, as well as general disaffection from Downstate voters who feel Blagojevich has by-and-large neglected them.

Perhaps better wording would have been to add, "among other things," to the end of that. Blagojevich's drop in personal approval ratings probably stems for a myriad of things to hit his office, from contract and hiring scandals etc., but the feud with Ald. Mell led to the accusations against Chris Kelly, which led to the wider investigation of state hiring practices. This is probably where the "goo-goo" reaction against Blagojevich comes from--of course, if he's cleared of any nefarious practices, that could all just go away.

I think its fair to say that people will be happy with his fiscal performance--and with a powerful campaign message machine, we'll be swamped with that for the entire campaign season. There are alot of "but ifs" to wait and see about.

Thanks for the kind words.

Andrew / November 29, 2005 11:36 PM

[On Ramsin's request, we're running this column two weeks in a row.]

Emerson Dameron / November 30, 2005 10:53 AM

Big Rod has tripped over his shoelaces a few times, but I'm hoping he, or someone, keeps the fucking loathsome Judy Baar Topinka away from the governorship.

I'll vote for him if his campaign slogan is "Testicular Fortitude."

Steve / December 2, 2005 3:28 PM

Oh but Emerson, don't we all miss those pseudo-campaign ads she used to appear in for the College Illinois plan?

Hon. John Fritchey / December 2, 2005 9:40 PM

Ramsin,

First off, nice writing my friend. You have some good talent and display it well.

Depending on what the final ballot looks like, there are so many potential variables that may occur, that it is virtually impossible to predict just how things will play out in many of these races, ranging from Governor to Cook County Board President to the Sheriff's office.

It should be a very interesting several months.

Keep up the good work.

just a guy / December 3, 2005 11:25 PM

get on board, boys. i recruited a dozen people last night to jump on for eisendrath in chicago. thats in addition to those with campaign commitments in st. charles, bloomington, rockford, and peoria. theres a lot of energy to be tapped out there, and i think this guys about to make things interesting.

 

About the Author(s)

Ramsin Canon covers and works in politics in Chicago. If you have a tip, a borderline illegal leak, or a story that needs to be told, contact him at .

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