While most political observers believe President Barack Obama will win Illinois in 2012, the Democrat-controlled state could still be an important place for Mitt Romney and other GOP presidential hopefuls in the coming weeks.
Over the weekend, statistician and New York Times writer Nate Silver tweeted that "Illinois a perfect battle between the Romney coalition in the Chicago suburbs and the Santorum coalition downstate," and that the Land of Lincoln "could be way more important to the nomination process than most people realize."
Traditionally, the Illinois presidential primary doesn't hold much weight, but as the Chicago Tribune reported last week, the delegates at stake on March 20 could be very valuable to candidates seeking the GOP nomination:
Illinois will have a presidential preference ballot, but as always, it’s only a beauty contest. What matters are the 54 presidential nominating delegates that will be directly elected by Republican voters from each of the state’s new 18 congressional districts. Romney, Ron Paul and Gingrich each filed full slates of delegates, while Santorum filed only 44 delegate contenders, unable to field candidates in four congressional districts.
The total of 69 delegates at stake in Illinois is the second-largest number in the early going of the Republican primary season, which runs through June, behind Georgia’s 76 delegates and ahead of Ohio’s 66 delegates.
While Silver believes Santorum could find some momentum downstate, several others disagree.
“(Santorum) has no infrastructure, he’s got really no money and I think his message is wrong for us to beat Barack Obama and I think people are figuring that out,” Illinois Republican Party Chairman Pat Brady said in an interview with WJBC last week.
Brady, a Romney supporter, added that Santorum has focused too much on social issues, and blamed Democrats for the close call in Michigan.
“There was some hanky panky going on with the Democrats,” Brady told WJBC. “This is the first time in 40 years has actually gotten involved in (an opponent’s) primary, not since Nixon."
Greg Hinz of Crain's Chicago Business also thinks Romney has Illinois locked up -- and reported that the former Massachusetts governor could spend election day in Illinois.
"Mr. Romney often spends election nights in places where he thinks he's going to do well, and there's much reason to put Illinois in that category," Hinz wrote. "For one, the state's political establishment's toes collectively curl up at the prospect of nominating one of the other candidates: Ron Paul, Newt Gingrich or Rick Santorum. And Illinois Republicans have a long tradition of generally doing what the leadership tells them to do."
The day before the Illinois primary, Romney is slated to appear at a fundraising event with U.S. Rep. Aaron Schock (R-IL) in Peoria, the Tribune reports. He will reportedly head to Chicago the next day.