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Thursday, Sept. 3, 2009 06:26 am

Hynes challenge could toughen up Quinn

Comptroller Dan Hynes.
There’s been quite a bit of private grumbling by Democratic county party chairpersons and other party leaders about Comptroller Dan Hynes’ decision to run in the February primary against Gov. Pat Quinn.

They worry that Hynes will unnecessarily divide the party yet again and serve as a constant reminder to voters that Quinn was Rod Blagojevich’s mostly silent lieutenant governor for six years. Hynes’ bid, they worry, will only help the Republican Party.

That may very well be true. If Hynes loses the primary after spending millions of dollars tying Rod Blagojevich around Pat Quinn’s neck, then Quinn could be served up on a platter in the general election. The best thing the Republicans have going for them right now in this Democratic state is Rod Blagojevich’s ignominious legacy, so any help they can get from the Democratic Party would be eagerly welcomed.

But a tough primary race could also turn out to be a good thing for Gov. Quinn.

Quinn has never won a top-tier race. He lost a general election to George Ryan for secretary of state in 1994. Two years later, Quinn lost a Democratic primary to Dick Durbin for U.S. Senate.

History shows that Pat Quinn’s campaign skills and instincts are questionable, at best. Nobody really knows if he has what it takes deep down inside to win the big one. A hot primary race will provide an opportunity to test Quinn’s ability to hold off the Republicans next fall. If he loses to Hynes in February, he probably wouldn’t have won in November, either. If he decisively defeats Hynes in February, he may settle some nervous Democratic stomachs.

Quinn is getting better at the game. He hired a top-notch fundraiser in David Rosen, who helped the campaign rake in more than $300,000 in June alone. Trouble is, Quinn has yet to settle on the rest of his senior campaign team, even though the election is now kicking into a much higher gear.

Pat Quinn has always railed against party slatemaking, particularly in Cook County. One of Quinn’s demands during negotiations over the campaign finance reform bill was a provision to prevent the Democratic Party of Illinois from slating and financing candidates. The governor demanded that particular “reform” back when Lisa Madigan, the daughter of the state party chairman, was widely believed to be gearing up to run against Quinn.

But, the other day Quinn refused to join Comptroller Hynes’ request that the Cook County Democratic Central Committee avoid slating statewide candidates. After delivering a long, rambling response which didn’t even come close to answering the question, Quinn was pressed again on the issue and said: “What they do is up to them.” During the slating meeting, Quinn reportedly asked for the party’s endorsement.

So, now that he’s in a position of power and has the advantage of incumbency, Quinn appears to be beginning to understand that he needs to use whatever leverage he can to achieve a win. At least, he demonstrated it on this issue.

The Cook County thing may have been a cynical move, it may not have even been the “right” thing to do, but what some reformer candidates will never understand is that you can’t govern if you don’t win. Quinn has too often been one of “those” candidates. He could get clobbered in the 2010 general election with that sort of attitude.

So, yes, Hynes could definitely harm Quinn and the Democratic chances next year with the upcoming primary battle. Ominously, Hynes’ campaign press releases to date have often attempted to tie Quinn to Blagojevich.

As any loyal party member should do, Hynes ought to think long and hard about how far he can go before he damages his own side, no matter the outcome. The last two Republican gubernatorial primaries were so nasty and divisive that they contributed significantly to their party’s general election losses. And the last time an incumbent Democratic governor lost a primary, in 1976, the Republicans won the governor’s mansion and held on to power for 26 years.

On balance, though, I think Quinn probably needs this primary race. It’ll give us all a chance to see what he’s really made of.
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