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Republican Leaders Pouring Money Into Illinois Races

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SPRINGFIELD, Ill. — The state that launched Barack Obama toward the White House could deliver a painful rebuke in November by handing Democrats a series of major defeats, thanks to a combination of bad politics and bad luck.

Obama buddy Alexi Giannoulias, the Illinois treasurer, is struggling to capture the president's former Senate seat against a Republican opponent damaged by his false claims about military accomplishments.

Gov. Pat Quinn, successor to former governor and convicted felon Rod Blagojevich, trails a little-known conservative who readily admits he doesn't have a plan to solve the state's crippling budget crisis.

And Democratic members of Congress find themselves on the defensive against challengers with little money or name recognition but plenty of anti-incumbent fervor on their side.

The prospect of victory in such a Democratic stronghold – where Democrats hold both Senate seats and every statewide office – has energized Republicans. National political committees, including one linked to Republican strategist Karl Rove, are pouring money into the state.

"Certainly the Republicans nationally have put a bullseye on Illinois. They would like nothing better than to win here," said state Rep. Jay Hoffman, a member of the state's Democratic Central Committee.

Hoffman doubts Republicans will see the big victories they're hoping for, but he acknowledges voters in Obama's home state are frustrated with government, which Democrats dominate both in Washington and the state capital.

Voters talk about scrambling to find a job or worrying about losing one. They resent struggling to pay their bills while corporations get government bailouts. Unemployment in Illinois has risen two percentage points since January 2009, to 10.1 percent, and a recent Chicago Tribune poll found that only 4 in 10 Illinois voters have some faith the federal government will make the right decisions affecting them.

"Jobs should be the No. 1 on the agenda at the White House right now, but I don't think it is. I think he's too busy going socialist," said Chuck Portwood, manager of a union hall in Decatur, Ill.

Those feelings pose a challenge to Democrats nationwide. In Illinois, Democrats also face a backlash over corruption and near-paralysis at the state Capitol, where legislators have been unable to balance the budget. Republicans never miss a chance to link their opponents to Blagojevich, both his corruption charges and the crushing deficit he left behind.

In the Senate race, Republicans call Giannoulias "a failed mob banker" because his family's bank, before it went under, issued loans to people with ties to organized crime.

The attacks kept Giannoulias, a 34-year-old with only one previous election on his resume, from surging even after the disclosure that Republican opponent Mark Kirk made false or exaggerated claims about his experience as a Naval Reserve intelligence officer.

Voters are left with two damaged candidates.

"Unfortunately, I live in Illinois. Our choices aren't the best," said Terry Snower, who owns an industrial supply business and lives in Chicago's northern suburbs. "I don't really think either of them deserves to be senator."

Illinois, once closely balanced between the parties, has been leaning more Democratic for years. The Democratic presidential nominee has carried Illinois since 1992. Democrats have controlled both legislative chambers since 2002. Four years ago, they won every statewide office.

Now, however, Democrats face tough battles up and down the ballot.

Both Obama and his wife plan visits in the first half of October to aid Giannoulias' campaign. The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee recently put an additional $235,000 into ads criticizing Kirk.

Voter frustrations and tea party activism have put three Democratic member of Congress on the defensive. One represents a traditionally Democratic district in western Illinois but the others, in distant Chicago suburbs, are in Republican-leaning territory and seem most vulnerable.

The conservative American Future Fund recently spent $132,000 on television ads attacking Democratic Rep. Debbie Halvorson.

The GOP challengers focus on the incumbents' support for Obama policies like the health care overhaul, accusing them of expanding government.

Quinn, the Democratic candidate for governor, has his own baggage.

He was Blagojevich's running mate in two elections and succeeded him after Blagojevich's arrest. The two were never best friends politically, but Quinn is now paying a price for vouching for Blagojevich's honesty.

Quinn also inherited the worst budget crisis in Illinois history – a deficit of roughly $13 billion. Quinn has made painful budget cuts, angering some voters, and called for higher income taxes, angering others. Republican opponent Bill Brady avoids that problem by ruling out any tax increases while adamantly refusing to say where he would cut spending.

Then there are the policy decisions that have hurt Quinn: a program of early release for prison inmates that accidentally included violent offenders; raises given to his staff when the state wasn't paying its bills.

The result is a wide lead in the polls for Brady, who holds conservative beliefs – such as opposing abortion even in cases of rape and incest – that conventional wisdom says are out of sync with most Illinois voters.

Some Democrats say Brady will fade if voters learn more about him.

"I firmly believe Brady's polling numbers are based on 'He's not Pat Quinn.' It's not because of what Bill Brady stands for," said state Sen. Terry Link, another member of the Democratic Central Committee.

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