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Thursday, Oct. 20, 2011 05:37 am

Democrats are worried, with good reason

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Democratic Congressman Jerry Costello.

Illinois Democrats can be excused for feeling more than a little spooked these days.

And there’s probably no greater example about why they are so worried than the stunning announcement earlier this month that longtime Democratic Congressman Jerry Costello won’t run for reelection.

Shock combined with fear was in almost every Democratic voice the day of Costello’s announcement. If Costello was bailing on them, then things must be even worse than they thought. It didn’t help that there appeared to be no “reason” for his decision. His son, state Rep. Jerry Costello II, immediately defied all expectations by saying he wasn’t interested in the seat, so Costello wasn’t stepping aside for the kid. The congressman wasn’t ill. He didn’t have a job offer. He isn’t under investigation. The widespread conclusion was that it must be the worsening political environment.

And just to drive the point home even further, the national Republicans wildly cheered Costello’s exit and all but taunted him for cowardice for refusing to stand and fight. They confidently predicted victory, and convinced most of the DC media to go along with their theory.

Costello’s new district is fractionally less Democratic than his current one, so the Republican bluster carried some weight out East. The Republicans also pointed with pride to a TV attack ad against Costello they aired last summer as evidence that they pushed him out of the race, without mentioning they’d only spent $20,500 on the miniscule buy.

Costello laughed at all the theories and speculation during a long phone conversation the night of his announcement. No, he said, he hadn’t polled recently, as some had claimed. He wasn’t getting out of the race because he thought he’d lose. And he surely wasn’t dropping out because he thought he might be a drag on his son’s first election next year. In fact, he said, the last poll he took before the 2010 election showed he was the most popular Democrat at all levels in his district.  He ended up winning that race with just shy of 60 percent during the worst Democratic year since 1946.

As to why he’s leaving, Costello said he was just tired of the whole thing, particularly the commute and the time spent away from home. He said he doesn’t want to cash in by lobbying or consulting in DC. He wants to stay close to the Metro East area and teach and explore other opportunities.

Costello was constantly on the phone with legislative mapmakers during the General Assembly’s spring session, sometimes calling several times a day to check on his new district map. A couple of those mapmakers were frustrated that they’d drawn a district Costello himself could win. If they’d known he was leaving, they said, they would’ve made some different choices.

The Congressman scoffed at this notion, claiming he’d done his best with the new map to make sure a conservative Democrat could win the district. He said he’d been discussing retirement with his wife since February or March, so crafting a favorable map for his successor had been a high priority.

Costello also said he had talked to two people about running, but wouldn’t say who they were.

As I write this, however, no Democrat has stepped forward to run except a retired self-employed carpenter who has already campaigned against Costello four times. He’s not exactly an A-Lister.

Instead, the most prominent Democrats in St. Clair County have said they have no interest whatsoever in running. St. Clair is Costello’s home base and is one of the most formidable Democratic Party bastions outside Cook County.

The problem appears to be that the same discouragement Costello has about Washington, D.C., is also felt by the people Costello wants to replace him. Frankly, I don’t blame them. Congress is a completely screwed up mess. And the campaign to get there will be fraught with nasty attacks and uncertainty.

The same thing is happening with Democratic candidate recruiters for the state legislature. They’re having a difficult time finding top-notch candidates because Springfield is about as messed up as Washington, D.C. The state’s economy is in the tank and despite a January income tax hike, the ruling party cannot get a proper handle on the budget. To the average voter, they all look like nincompoops.

A lot can happen in a year, but at this moment in time the Democrats have good reason to be worried.  

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

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