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Airbags

Since Rod Blagojevich's campaign went wide with paid media in April, Judy Baar Topinka's numbers have steadily slipped; immediately after winning the Republican primary in March, polls showed the scrappy State Treasurer with a considerable lead on the incumbent.

Blagojevich wasted no time, taking Judy on in an impromptu debate on WGN-TV, during which Judy looked exasperated and looking for guidance off-camera. His campaign began running ads tying her to convicted former Governor George H. Ryan, of whom Judy was a close ally. It didn't help that the Ryan trial was reaching its apogee just as Blagojevich's paid media hit saturation.

Currently Topinka trails Blagojevich by about 4 percent across most polls.

Although Blagojevich's approval ratings stay stagnant near 40 percent, and a few points behind Judy's, that doesn't translate to her electoral success. As Topinka has become more vociferous in her frontal assaults on Blagojevich — calling the governor "Public Official A" in a televised debate, referring to the indictment of Joe Cari — Blagojevich has stepped up the paid advertising tying Topinka to Ryan and questioning her ethics regarding taking campaign donations from the same financial institutions she invests the state's money in.

Topinka's campaign strategy, given that the Treasurer's office doesn't create a very sexy public service record, is to play up Blagojevich's perceived ethical shortfalls — his fundraising from state contractors and alleged political hiring — and paint him as an irresponsible spender who will lay a burden on "our children."

This general strategy has emerged because in order to win, Topinka has to unite some pretty disparate voting blocs. The only way she can hope to counter the heavy Democratic vote that will come out of Chicago and near suburban Cook is to bring together economic conservatives of the outer-ring Cook suburbs and collar counties, social conservatives, good-government reformers and "soccer moms" — in other words suburban women with children, as well as moderate Democrats disappointed in the scandals that have trailed Blagojevich basically since his election.

The problem is, Topinka's political background won't support a coalition among these. Coming from the Thompson-Edgar-Ryan wing of the party, her cred as a fiscal conservative is spotty, and her support of GLBT and reproductive rights makes her anathema to the social conservatives who so solidly vote in non-presidential year elections. "Disaffected Democrats" is hardly a reliable voting bloc, and theories about voters casting protest votes rarely prove out.

So making Blagojevich toxic is her best bet — mudslinging. The problem for Topinka, as Blagojevich's campaign has so adroitly demonstrated, is that his enormous campaign warchest allows him to match her blow for blow. Moreso — he can almost instantly fund a week of media saturation. For every commercial she runs, he can run three or four. His control of the governor's office also gives him an avenue for touting his record and initiatives for the future — for free. Blagojevich's campaign has sent a message: keep up the dirty business and we'll just hit back, until we're both so dirty that the incumbent's advantage comes into play.

In other words, if Topinka hopes to win by making Blagojevich unelectable, she needs a strong outside force — what they call a "third party verifier" in the business — to prove it. She can't afford, literally, to do it on her own, because Blagojevich has the resources to out-unelectable her. If they just sink into the muck, Blagojevich has the natural advantage of incumbency and, in this Illinois, the Democratic Party.

Blagojevich's latest round of ads tie Topinka to George W. Bush, George Ryan's deficits, and George Ryan's scandals. The first is a jab meant to take away the Democratic protest vote; the second a body blow meant to weaken support among suburban fiscal conservatives — and that last a lethal cross that basically neutralizes Topinka's whole campaign.

Judy doesn't need a miracle — far from it — but an indictment would help.

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Comments

Mike Jones / June 28, 2006 11:46 AM

Richard, where have you been? Good to see you back. As usual, good insight, although I think that "silver spoon" remark might have rubbed some people the wrong way.

 

About the Author(s)

Richard F. Carnahan is a true South Side Sox fan who's played a bit part in Chicago politics more than once over the years. Contact him at rfc@gapersblock.com.

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