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Wednesday, Nov. 15, 2006 10:03 pm

Shrinking minority

GOP gets clubbed in legislative races, especially in the Senate

Untitled Document The Nov. 7 election gave Illinois Senate President Emil Jones more bragging rights than anyone else at the Statehouse. Jones’ Democrats picked up five seats on Tuesday, giving them one more than the minimum needed for a veto-proof majority. Jones’ 37 seats compares to just 22 for the Senate Republicans. To say that the Senate Republicans are now irrelevant for at least the next two years would be putting it mildly. The Senate Republicans won’t be able to stop anything, including bills for new state construction-bond programs, which require a minimum of 36 votes. The GOP focus will likely turn to the House Republicans, who could use their continued ability to hold up a bond bill as a major bargaining chip. For the past two years, the Republicans have tried to “starve” the Democrats and Gov. Rod Blagojevich politically by withholding votes from a construction-bond bill. No projects, no press releases, no glowing news stories meant that the playing field was more level, went the logic. That obviously didn’t work. Blagojevich won by nine points, the House Democrats appear to have picked up one seat, and the Democrats swept the state. A capital bill now looks likely. As the House Republicans contemplate their future role, the finger-pointing among the Senate Republicans has already begun. Supporters of Senate GOP leader Frank Watson point to the Democratic wave and the weakest statewide Republican ticket in memory as big reasons for their heavy losses last week. But there is another aspect. Watson ousted longtime Republican state Sen. Adeline Geo-Karis in the GOP primary because he worried that she would lose the general election. That strategy backfired badly: Geo-Karis endorsed the Democratic candidate, who won. Watson spent hundreds of thousands of dollars in a futile attempt to defeat Democratic state Sen. Deanna Demuzio, the widow of a longtime Democratic state senator. It turned out that the Demuzio name is still platinum in her district, and Watson’s GOP candidate was a total unknown from the wrong end of the district. Demuzio won with just under 60 percent of the vote. Watson also spent hundreds of thousands in an attempt to take out a Peoria Democratic candidate who had been handpicked by retiring state Sen. George Shadid, a local icon. Shadid’s endorsement of Dave Koehler was worth its weight in gold, and Koehler took almost 58 percent. The Senate GOP leader’s failure to see Democratic surges, such as a supposedly sure-thing contest in Will and Kane counties pitting Republican Terri Ann Wintermute against Democrat Linda Holmes, has shaken some Republicans to the core.
Watson’s decision to move his female candidates rightward on abortion and stem-cell research and attack all of their Democratic opponents for opposing parental notification is also up for debate. Everything else, from the quality of Republican TV ads and their candidate recruitment to their message in general, is fair game now. So Watson took a shot and it didn’t work. His candidates were outclassed by one of the most extraordinary crops of Democratic hopefuls I’ve seen fielded at any one time, the Democrats had their most successful election since Watergate, mega rock star Barack Obama personally campaigned or appeared in direct mail for all of the Senate Democratic hopefuls, and — bada-bing, bada-boom — the Republicans are left with 22 seats and they’re now more irrelevant than an electric blanket in Baghdad. The joke going around last week was that Watson’s punishment for losing so many races ought to be another two years as minority leader. Barring something extreme, such as a gubernatorial indictment (and the Republicans really ought to stop basing their political hopes on this “event”), 2008 could be yet another good Democratic year as the presidential election rolls through a solidly blue state. So something does have to change, even if Watson survives a possible coup attempt. Former House Republican Leader Lee Daniels went from being on the victim end of a veto-proof majority in 1990 to the Speaker’s podium in four years. But Daniels had a Republican-drawn legislative district map and the ’94 national GOP landslide to thank — and he still lost the majority two years later. The Senate Republicans are dealing with a Democrat-drawn map; a dysfunctional, divided, and unpopular Republican Party; and a bunch of new Democratic lawmakers who are known for innovation and hard work. It doesn’t take much to figure out that the future is not all that bright for the Senate Repubs right now, no matter who is in charge.

Rich Miller publishes Capitol Fax, a daily political newsletter, and thecapitolfaxblog.com.
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