One year after President Barack Obama took the oath of office and pundits declared the beginning of Democratic ascendancy, the national political landscape has been dramatically transformed. Republican State Senator Scott Brown's stunning victory over Attorney General Martha Coakley yesterday in the Massachusetts special election to replace the deceased liberal lion, Senator Edward Kennedy, represents a "shot heard around the world," or at least the nation, as Obama and his Democratic Party face midterm grades this November.
Illinois has party primaries of its own looming in less than two weeks, a verdict that sets the stage for a marathon that ends in November with statewide elections that will produce a new Governor and U.S. Senator, not to mention a host of freshman constitutional officers, state legislators, and local government officials. To what extent does Brown's victory last evening foreshadow the short-term future of Illinois politics? Critical variables to consider include the passage of time, the responses of both parties, the extent to which statewide races are nationalized, and the quality of individual candidates' campaigns.
I would like to begin with the caveat that nine months is an eternity in politics. One need look no further than my opening line for words of caution. Should the economy continue its recovery, particularly through rising employment figures, President Obama and his Democratic Party will fare far better than recent electoral debacles in Massachusetts, New Jersey, and Virginia.
Moreover, health care reform is front and center at this juncture. Brown's victory places its passage in peril, and Massachusetts voters, according to a Republican-commissioned poll, shun the legislation, while a plurality voted for Brown to stop it dead in its tracks. Should the measure die, or even be resurrected and successfully signed into law, passions could subside and be directed toward other issues like job creation and financial reform to the benefit of Obama and the Democrats.
Turning to the national parties and their state counterparts in Illinois, it is incumbent upon the Democrats to circumvent the blame game that has already begun in Massachusetts and turn to their larger test this November. They still retain the White House for at least three more years, control strong majorities in Congress (the shattering of the filibuster-proof majority in the Senate acknowledged), and also hold a majority of the nation's governor seats and state legislatures. Losses in midterm elections of a presidency are not inevitable, but typical, and Democrats should focus on minimizing attrition and maintaining the balance of power in Washington and state capitols across the country.
Republicans, on the other hand, must move beyond being the "party of no" (Brown campaigned as the 41st vote against health care reform), offering an affirmative agenda that tackles the major issues of the day: economic growth, deficit spending, financial reform, climate change, and yes, health care. New Gingrich's "Contract with America" in 1994 is instructive, as it formulated a positive agenda that effectively nationalized a midterm election and yielded Republican control of Congress for the first time in forty years.
The GOP must also field qualified candidates for offices up and down the ballot. The only way to leverage a national tidal wave in your direction is to have party members in position to benefit. Scott Brown is case in point. A little-known state senator leveraged national angst, local discontent, and a flailing campaign staged by his opponent to return his seat to Republican control for the first time since 1952 when Senator Henry Cabot Lodge lost to a young, charismatic congressman by the name of John F. Kennedy.
In Illinois, the GOP has a plethora of candidates contesting the major statewide offices, but less representation at the local level. The party will have to ensure that candidates are slated for open seats after the February 2 primary to position itself for electoral fruits parallel to those borne by Brown.
It is likely that the major statewide races in Illinois will attract national attention. The contest for who will fill President Obama's former Senate seat is sure to be fierce, as Republicans will target this is a toss-up favoring the challenger, while Democrats will play defense to avoid embarrassment, not to mention a dwindling majority. Former Governor Rod Blagojevich's trial beginning this summer will also draw an unfavorable spotlight on the state, at the same time highlighting the race to replace him.
Further down the ballot, however, I expect local issues to predominate, although a similar anti-incumbent fervor could grip a state fed up with endemic corruption and fiscal crisis. Given that Democrats control all of the state's constitutional offices and strong majorities in the legislature, the party runs of the risk of bearing the blunt of the blame for an angry electorate.
The national landscape and positioning of political parties aside, former House Speaker Tip O'Neil's contention that "all politics is local" still resonates. One cannot ignore the individual campaigns that candidates orchestrate over the course of the coming spring, summer, and fall. Republican Senate candidate and current Congressman Mark Kirk is a strong local example of this phenomenon. He won repeatedly in a district that voted for three consecutive Democratic presidents, fending off tough challenges in 2006 and 2008 through independent positioning and stellar fundraising.
Back in Massachusetts, Martha Coakley ran an above-the-fray campaign that assumed she was a shoo-in from the day she won the Democratic nomination in December. Only late-breaking polls revealing a tightening race awoke her from her "long winter's nap," and late miscues further undermined her credibility with independents and even members of her own party. Calling former Red Sox great Curt Shilling a "Yankee fan" is the Illinois equivalent of accusing Mike Ditka of being a closet Packer backer.
Illinois candidates would be wise to study the Bears' roster in advance of their November midterm exam graded by state voters.
Note: The McCormick Freedom Project is a nonpartisan organization that engages in educational activity and does not support or oppose any candidate for public office.