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updated: 11/7/2010 9:03 PM

The Illinois Senator who could have beaten Pat Quinn

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  • State Sen. Kirk Dillard, shown during his Republican primary campaign for governor last February, believes he would have defeated Gov. Pat Quinn in the general election Nov. 2.

      State Sen. Kirk Dillard, shown during his Republican primary campaign for governor last February, believes he would have defeated Gov. Pat Quinn in the general election Nov. 2.
    JOE LEWNARD | Staff Photographer


Illinois Republicans didn't lose the election for governor by 19,000 votes last week when Bill Brady conceded to Pat Quinn.

They lost the state's top elected position by 193 votes last February when Bill Brady won the GOP primary.

Amid a national Democrat "shellacking" by Republicans (to use President Barack Obama's word), the Illinois GOP was overcome by fumes.

You can't blame Brady. He was probably as surprised as anyone that a resident nearer to the party fringe, not to mention one from downstate, won the primary back then. Especially against a more moderate, big-city state senator named Kirk Dillard.

So, now that it's over, I returned to the man who lost the opportunity to run against Quinn last Tuesday and asked this question:

How do you think the numbers would have differed in a Dillard-Quinn election?

"I would have beaten Pat Quinn," the Hinsdale Republican told me.

Dillard didn't say that in an "I told you so," sour-grapes kind of way. It was a matter-of-fact declaration.

You'd be hard-pressed to find evidence to dispute that.

"I had the experience of managing state government well as Jim Edgar's chief of staff during a recession, a plan to make Illinois a 'destination economy' for job creation, 'best in class' education platform and a suburban base," Dillard recalled from his stump speech.

Brady was far less attractive than Dillard would have been to the GOP middle and to Chicagoans, who voted more than 75 percent in favor of Quinn. Even though Chicago is a solid Democratic voting bloc, you would think in the first election after Chicagoan Rod Blagojevich went down in flames the GOP's man would have done better.

Quinn was Blago's lieutenant governor and running mate, but that connection was never adequately exploited by Brady. I don't know whether it would have been by Dillard, but something tells me he would have been more aware of the location of his opponent's jugular.

After all, if Dillard could survive doing a commercial for Barack Obama in the Iowa presidential caucuses and not be strung up by his Brooks Bros. necktie, then he has the political brawn to have taken down Quinn.

Dillard, considered a keen political realist, says he had more than just "strong downstate roots." He says he had "a unique ability to reach into the minority community and Chicago white ethnic voters." Brady did not reach minorities or Chicagoans and did not do as well downstate as he should have.

So, what happened? What does it say about the GOP in Illinois that the party cannot win the biggest state position during a national "shellacking," not to mention coming off a Democrat like Blago and against Blago's former right-hand man?

To that question, Dillard is more diplomatic.

"Bill Brady ran hard, and I tried to help him by the manner in which I conceded last spring and by reassuring my base that he was a normal business and family man," Dillard said. "While it's disappointing for the Illinois GOP in a national 'shellacking' not to have won the governor's race, we did pick up four congressional seats, several seats in the General Assembly and took back two constitutional office positions."

Looking back on the minuscule margin by which he lost the primary and witnessing what turned out to be a terrible showing for Brady, Dillard could be forgiven if he was bitter and asking, "Why me?"

But he isn't, at least not publicly, and he wouldn't bite on my question about whether he is angry and counting 193 votes in his sleep?

"I believe firmly that God opens doors when he closes a window," he said. "I have a great wife, healthy children, understanding law partners, and losing a governor's race while it stings for a while is not the end of my life."

Considering the state of the state, aren't you actually happy you're not the guy with "Governor" before your name and inheriting a $13 billion hole?

"Following the primary, Governor Edgar consoled me by exclaiming that I would live an extra 10 years because the stress of cleaning up the state's mess is gigantic," he said.

But then he gave this addendum: "I wish I were the incoming governor because I love challenges and thought I was uniquely experienced dealing with the state budget and the legislature to make Illinois work again."

I finished by asking Dillard whether he heard the big sigh of relief from House Speaker Mike Madigan, a Chicago Democrat, when Quinn finally won. In Springfield, Madigan is considered the state's real puppeteer who controls all government strings.

"Thanks for thinking of me," Dillard said. "I look forward, not backward. I'm going to focus on the future and try to offer Governor Quinn and my colleagues substantive ideas."

So, he's not governor, but he is a leader with stateliness, and that is a quality Illinois lacks.

• Chuck Goudie, whose column appears each Monday, is the chief investigative reporter at ABC-7 News in Chicago. The views in this column are his own and not those of WLS-TV. He can be reached by e-mail at and followed at