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Three of Illinois' Biggest Political Blunders of the Last 40 Years

03/04/2015 02:58 pm ET | Updated May 04, 2015

Any Illinoisan can tell you there have been a lot of political missteps in the state's history. But which ones were the biggest, and what effect did they have on the state's political landscape as a whole? But for a few twists of fate and different decisions, Illinois' political landscape today might have looked a whole lot different.

Had Democratic Party leaders backed Gov. Dan Walker for reelection in 1976, would Democrats have locked up the governor's office as Republicans did?

Would Rod Blagojevich still be a free man if not for downstate Democratic voters?

Could Adlai Stevenson have won if his party had he paid more attention to the down-ballot names in the 1986 Democratic primary? How could the same party let the same thing happen again 24 years later?

So many hypotheticals. They all derive from some of the greatest political gaffes in Illinois politics of the last four decades.

This list is not inclusive, nor are these events ranked by import or consequence.

(Got other nominees for great Illinois political screw-ups? Send them to comments@rebootillinois.com.)

1976: Rejecting the Power of Incumbency

In 1972 Illinois Democrats won back the governor's office when Dan Walker defeated Richard Ogilvie. But Walker had been a frequent, vocal critic of Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley, who also was Cook County Democratic Party Chairman. Daley refused to support Walker's reelection. Democrats instead selected Secretary of State Michael J. Howlett as their candidate, knocking out Walker in the Democratic primary by a healthy 18-point margin.

But the general election was another story. Howlett lost to Thompson by a landslide of 30 percentage points. It would be 26 years before another Democrat would hold the governor's office.

Three decades later this cautionary tale would be invoked as Gov. Rod Blagojevich -- who was spectacularly unpopular with his own party but had a spectacularly large campaign fund -- earned party support for his 2006 reelection bid.

1986: LaRouche Lament

In 1982 former U.S. Sen. Adlai Stevenson III lost one of the closest gubernatorial elections in Illinois history to Republican incumbent Jim Thompson. Thompson defeated Stevenson by 5,074 votes -- a margin of 0.14 percentage point. Four years later the stage was set for a rematch.

That all changed when the March 18, 1986, primary votes came in. While Stevenson easily won the Democratic nomination to face Thompson a second time, his handpicked candidates for lieutenant governor and secretary of state, George Sangmeister and Aurelia Pucinski, respectively, both lost. And they didn't lose to run-of-the-mill Democrats. They lost to candidates who ran as Democrats but really were affiliated with ultraconservative fringe figure Lyndon R. LaRouche.

Lieutenant governor candidate Mark J. Fairchild and Democratic secretary of state nominee Janice Hart were among some 700 candidates nationwide fielded by the LaRouche organization. The obscurity of Democratic candidates Sangmeister and Pucinski and voter turnout of only 25 percent are believed to have helped Fairchild and Hart make it onto Stevenson's ticket.

Stevenson refused to appear on the same ticket at the LaRouche candidates and ran instead as the candidate of the Solidarity Party.

(LaRouche, incidentally, is still alive, well and dispensing the kind of political analysis for which he is famous. Listen to his explanation of space and science here and you'll understand why Stevenson was doomed when two LaRouche disciples landed on his ticket.)

2002: Downstate for Rod

They couldn't pronounce his name, which could barely fit on a conventional bumper sticker, but downstate Democrats in the 2002 gubernatorial primary went for the populist appeal of a Chicago congressman named Blagojevich over the more solidly credentialed Paul Vallas.

In the years since, downstaters frequently came to complain about Blagojevich and his Chicago cronies being the source of Illinois' political angst. But Blagojevich became the Democratic nominee for governor in 2002 by a mere 25,469 votes -- 1.2 percentage points -- and it was downstate votes that made him the winner.

In Cook County Blagojevich came in third to Vallas (behind Roland Burris) by 55,486 votes. In all five collar counties, Vallas handily defeated Blagojevich. All told, greater Chicagoland Democrats wanted Vallas as their nominee by a margin of nearly 85,000 votes over Blagojevich. Downstate Democrats turned that 85,000-vote loss into a 25,000-vote win for the man now serving time in Littleton, Colorado. Sorry, downstate Dems. Blago's all yours.

(See two more modern Illinois political hiccups at Reboot Illinois.)

Illinois politicians even have trouble at the national level. U.S. Rep. Aaron Schock, from Peoria, has seen weeks of media and watchdog scrutiny for his high-spending habits. Schock finally hired two lawyers and a PR firm after it was reported that he had used taxpayer funds to pay for private flights and Katy Perry concert tickets for his interns.

(Read the whole list of Shock's woes at Reboot Illinois.)

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