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Thursday, Jan. 29, 2004 01:25 am

Guilt by association

John Sullivan, a Democrat from Rushville, was the biggest surprise winner of the 2002 election in Illinois. Political observers still wonder how Sullivan beat Laura Kent Donahue, a popular Republican state senator, in a Republican-leaning district.

Sullivan was a factor in why Senate Republicans refused to cooperate with the Democrats during last year's session: They wanted to force him to vote for the governor's more controversial bills. Democrats hold a slim majority in the Senate, and the GOP goal was to keep all their votes off the big Democratic bills. They hoped that a Democratic split would develop, forcing Sullivan to support his leadership on controversial issues. The Republicans then could use Sullivan's votes against him during his re-election campaign.

But the Democrats held together like a brick wall, and Sullivan was able to vote the politically safe way every time. As a result, there's just not a lot in his voting record to attack. So, when Sullivan's opponent officially kicked off his campaign, Republicans resorted to guilt by association.

Gary Speckhart, a farmer and banker, announced he's running against Sullivan in order to bring western Illinois "values" back to the Senate. According to the Quincy Herald-Whig, the Republican challenger slammed Democrats for considering bills to require sex education for kindergarten students, create a jobs program for ex-cons, and give driver's licenses to illegal aliens. "We need a state senator," Speckhart said, "who fights against the machine. . . who fights for us, one who is a strong voice for the values and priorities of western Illinois."

Across the state, recently appointed state Rep. Bill Grunloh, D-Effingham, has been building a solidly conservative reputation in a Republican-majority district. Not long after being appointed, Grunloh announced that he had worked out a deal to restore funding for a state program that accredits private and religious schools. Then, Grunloh held a press conference in front of a giant cross to unveil a bill that would allow the Ten Commandments to be displayed in public buildings.

And late last fall, Grunloh introduced legislation that would allow employers to opt out of providing insurance coverage for contraception if it would "abridge or violate" their conscience. Grunloh recently announced plans to sponsor a state constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriages.

So, instead of attacking Grunloh, his Republican opponent struck at Gov. Rod Blagojevich for spending $6.5 million on a Chicago community center for "gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgenders" while not spending money to finish the Grayville state prison. "This is not only offensive to those of us with strong moral values," Reis said, "but an assault on the taxpayers of Illinois."

Are these sorts of attacks effective? Eventually, the Republicans will have to tie their opponents directly to what they portray as a lapse of statehouse morality. That may not work, considering the incumbents' conservatism. But because Sullivan and Grunloh are newcomers, they haven't had a chance to make sure their voters really understand that they aren't like the Democrats who are doing those "immoral" things.

Several downstate Democratic senators have been worrying for months about the impression their newly empowered party is making on their conservative constituents. Many have predicted that the Republicans would do just what they're doing now.

If these attacks are seen as a real threat, any overtly liberal bills (particularly the gay rights bill that's sitting in the Senate) are probably doomed this year. But, as Sullivan's opponent showed, even bills that are introduced and never move an inch could be used as ammunition. There's probably nothing the downstaters can do about that.