Carol Felsenthal
On politics

This Time, the Illinois Primary Matters

The Illinois primary has suddenly become interesting—in fact, it may be the “stopper” this year, putting away the race for Mitt Romney if he solidifies his momentum and does well. Plus: the brilliant Bears quarterback who gave Mitt his name.

Mitt Romney Rick Santorum

 

Mitt Romney will likely win the primary here on March 20. But if he ends up pulling off another Midwestern industrial state squeaker—as he did in Michigan on February 28 and in Ohio Tuesday night—Rick Santorum will be doing another victory dance and carrying on.

The Illinois primary has suddenly become interesting.

Paul Green, director of Roosevelt University’s  Institute for Politics, calls Illinois “the stopper.”  He told me in a telephone interview Wednesday that  Romney’s current delegate lead (415 to Santorum’s 176; with 1144 needed for the nomination) is ”almost impossible to overcome…. The Illinois primary will be like a really good relief pitcher. It’ll put out the fire.”

Still, in the lead up to Illinois, if Santorum does as well as expected in Kansas (caucus on 3/10) and  in Alabama and Mississippi (primaries on 3/13),  Romney is going to be desperate for a big win here.  “He will have to solidify his momentum and inevitability in Illinois,” Kent Redfield, professor emeritus of political science at the University of Illinois, told me. The suburbs—Kane, Kendall, Lake, McHenry, DuPage and suburban Cook—are Romney country, Redfield said, but downstate could prove fertile territory for Santorum.

And, although after his win in Georgia on Tuesday Newt Gingrich didn’t sound like he’d be hanging up his red ties and loafers anytime soon, should he drop out, Redfield argues, Illinois will look much better for Santorum. (It’s Santorum, not Gingrich, who gets the anyone-but-Romney vote.)

Santorum’s Illinois State Director Jon Zahm argued to me in a telephone interview that Newt, more than Mitt, stood in the way of Rick getting the nomination. “Santorum’s winning in Oklahoma and Tennessee becomes the final stake in Newt. The campaign cannot move ahead…. If he can’t win in Oklahoma and Tennessee where can he win?”  The velocity of Zahm’s argument indicated to me that the Santorum camp recognizes that Gingrich will stick around as long as he feels like it.

Zahm’s obvious anxiety is also fueled by the fact that Santorum’s people failed to collect the required signatures in four of Illinois’ 18 congressional districts—4, 5, and 7 (all in the city) and 13 (downstate). Illinois Republican Party chairman Pat Brady calls the 13th “the most republican district in the state.” Zahm doesn’t seem to care much about the city districts, but he obviously cares about the 13th and blames “human error” for Santorum, effectively, not being on the ballot there.

Illinois has a complicated system for allotting its delegates; it includes 54 that are bound through the primary ballot and 12 additional super delegates. Voters vote in both a beauty contest and then, says Redfield, “They have to go into a list of delegates and select the ones that correspond” to one of the four candidates still battling for the nomination. Paul Green calls the Illinois primary “not one primary, it’s 18 primaries.”

Those I talked to today agreed that there’s unlikely to be an organized effort, like the one attempted in Michigan, to persuade Democrats to request a Republican ballot and vote for Santorum—in an effort to deliver to President Obama a weaker opponent. There’s no history of that here, says Pat Brady, who has endorsed Romney; “It doesn’t happen in Illinois, where Democrats don’t want to be tagged as having pulled a republican ballot”—in case, Brady explains, they need sometime to draw on the party’s patronage system. Ken Redfield offers a less partisan explanation: “There are other races—congressional, legislative, judicial—for which Democrats will want to vote for their party’s candidates.”

But Jon Zahm sees some potential crossover. He could imagine, he tells me, Reagan Democrats asking for a Republican ballot so they could vote for Santorum. Illinois is home to “quite a few of them” he says, locating them on the South Side of Chicago, the 3rd Congressional District, and suburbs such as Oak Lawn. “We’re going to be asking any one who believes in “made in the USA,” who is  pro life, pro traditional marriage, pro more drilling, to vote for us…. Blue collar working Democrats who go to church and have family values can be drawn to Santorum.”

Zahm also believes that  Santorum’s roots in Illinois will give him a boost. He spent his senior year at Carmel Catholic High School in Mundelein, graduating in 1976, while his father worked at the Great Lakes Training Center. (For some attenuated roots of Romney’s via the University of Chicago football team and the Chicago Bears, here’s how the name “Mitt” derives from a brilliant quarterback for both teams).

Whatever results the Illinois primary brings on the presidential level, the competitive, sometimes ugly race should  spike Republican turnout. While Kent Redfield still predicts turnout of less than 20 percent, he says that “having the presidential nominee still hot is worth five percent.”

It will also be worth a lot to the bottom lines of radio and TV stations here; the candidates, especially Romney, will make media buys and so will related Super PACs. If the past predicts the future, many of those ads will be negative—and annoying.

On primary night, Jon Zahm predicts a Santorum victory party. The location is not yet set. but  Zahm favors Elgin, where the state headquarters is located.

At this point, Romney’s Illinois chairman (and Illinois state treasurer) Dan Rutherford,  told me, plans call for Romney to be in Illinois on the evening of the 19th for a Peoria fundraiser with Congressman Aaron Schock, and to stick around on the 20th  for a series of campaign events.  Also not settled, said Rutherford, is which family members or other surrogates will campaign here on Romney’s behalf, although former House Speaker Denny Hastert has been booked for a “fly around.”

The location of the “victory party,” Rutherford says, has also not yet been decided.

If Romney is the nominee, “he’ll give President Obama one hell of a fight,” predicts Paul Green. “None of the others would…. Suburban independents will decide in November.”

It’s a good bet Romney’s party will be at some hotel in suburban Chicago.

 

Photographs: roberthuffstutter/markn3tel (CC by 2.0)

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