Illinois Dems fret about governor, not president

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Illinois Democrats aren’t as worried about President Obama dragging them down at the top of the ticket as they are about the likelihood embattled Gov. Pat Quinn (D) could cost them several competitive congressional races.

After a brutal 2010 cycle in the Land of Lincoln, Democrats succeeded in winning back four seats in 2012, with the help of their hometown hero leading the ticket as well as reshaped district lines. 

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But this year it’s Quinn, not Obama, atop the ballot, and his uphill race against Republican Bruce Rauner in the solidly liberal state could be Democrats’ undoing in a difficult midterm climate.

At least four Illinois races this cycle are competitive, and Republicans are optimistic they can pick up at least one to two seats, especially with a robust GOP turnout operation backed by the wealthy Rauner.

One-term former GOP Reps. Bob Dold and Bobby Schilling are both in close rematches against Democratic Reps. Brad Schneider and Cheri Bustos, respectively. Republicans also hope to knock off freshman Rep. Bill Enyart (D) after unsuccessfully targeting the open downstate district in 2012, contending GOP state Rep. Mike Bost’s campaign is on the upswing. 

Meanwhile, Republicans are playing defense in Republican freshman Rep. Rodney Davis’s race against former Judge Ann Callis (D).

With the exception of the Dold vs. Schneider race in the 10th District — which takes in Chicago’s North Shore suburbs — all the top contests are outside of the immediate Chicago area. The GOP-aligned American Action Network released an automated poll last week that showed Dold up 42 percent to 39 percent in the rematch. But in the governor’s race, in a district Obama won by 17 points, Rauner was leading Quinn 49 percent to 37 percent. Republicans expect similar, or even worse numbers, in from their governor in other districts in the state. 

To most, it’s shocking that Quinn is even his party’s nominee again. Long expected to face a primary challenge, Attorney General Lisa Madigan passed on the race and former White House chief of staff Bill Daley suddenly withdrew. Quinn sailed to renomination, though recent polls have showed him narrowly trailing Rauner, a venture capitalist. Of most concern to Democrats: Quinn’s approval ratings are downright dismal.

Since taking over from convicted ex-Gov. Rod Blagojevich (D) in 2009 and winning a term outright the following year, Quinn has struggled with the state’s financial woes. Most recently, a federal probe into an anti-violence initiative his critics have called a “political slush fund” threatens to further undermine the reformer image he’s tried to cultivate.

“Obviously, Quinn is very unpopular, and that’s a big issue. You always have to take the top of the ticket into account when you look at these races,” one national Democratic strategist recently told me.

“It is what it is,” said the Democrat, somewhat resigned. “It’s one of those uncontrollable factors that a Democratic candidate or a group trying to help them has no control over. You hope for the best.”

“It’s still long ways off, and lots of things can happen, but we have an enthusiasm problem. Really, in our job as Democrats, we have to do a better job of defining Rauner and what the world looks like with a Rauner administration,” said an Illinois-based Democratic strategist, who was very downtrodden on their chances in several of the top races. “Am I concerned? You bet.”

Democrats say they know Republicans will make Quinn the bogeyman for their incumbents and candidates down ballot this year, and rightly so.

“We can tie Quinn to every single congressional race,” said one national GOP strategist.

Democrats’ one saving grace could be Sen. Dick Durbin (D). The Senate majority whip is up for reelection but faces only nominal GOP opposition for a fourth term. As a downstate native who hails from Springfield, he’s always had a good image around the state and is a valuable elder statesman and party fundraiser.

“Even in these sort of wipe-out years, Durbin still held out in his district in central Illinois and continues to run strong in these challenging years,” said the Illinois consultant. “I think Durbin will be a help. I think you’ll see him be courted to campaign with many of these candidates, and I hope he can help with some of the fundraising as well.”

Republicans have their own damaged governor they have to worry about in Pennsylvania. For several cycles, Democrats have tried, to no avail, to flip several competitive House seats in the Keystone State. But with Republican Gov. Tom Corbett a political dead man walking, Democrats hope they could finally have a chance.

Polls have consistently shown Corbett trailing Democrat Tom Wolf by 20 or more points. That has given Democrats renewed hope in two suburban Philadelphia seats that have continually vexed them.

Their best opportunity is against perpetual target, centrist Rep. Mike Fitzpatrick (R). GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney narrowly won the Bucks County district two years ago by just 255 votes, while Fitzpatrick cruised to a 14-point victory.

National Democrats think they’ve finally found the right type of candidate in Iraq and Afghanistan Army veteran Kevin Strouse. Fitzpatrick was ousted in the Democratic wave of 2006 but reelected in the GOP tsunami in 2010. Republicans are optimistic the favorable national climate would outweigh any Corbett drag. 

The retirement of another centrist Republican, Rep. Jim Gerlach, has given Democrats new hope in the southeast Pennsylvania district. This seat leans more toward the GOP than the Fitzpatrick district, and Democrats are running physician Manan Trivedi again, who lost to Gerlach twice before. Chester County Commissioner Ryan Costello should be able to keep the seat in Republican hands, but Corbett certainly won’t give him any help in doing so.

It might be worse for Republicans to lose a Pennsylvania seat in a midterm year that would be even more difficult to hold with presidential turnout.

And if Democrats do lose Illinois seats, they will certainly be competitive again in 2016 and beyond. But with Democrats already facing a 17-seat deficit, Quinn will certainly do more harm than good for them in 2014.