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posted: 8/18/2013 5:00 AM

A fair assessment of politics for 2014

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The Illinois State Fair in Springfield is a grand event for a state whose population is tilting quickly northeast to metropolitan Chicagoland. Its main draw is agriculture (still a huge part of Illinois' economy) and a traditional rural lifestyle featuring the animals -- goats, sheep, pigs, horses and cows.

Speaking of animals, the fair for two days of its run also features old-fashion politics. Both major parties trot out their candidates, who speak to their precinct committeemen, the news media and potential volunteers and donors.

The 2013 fair was somewhat different -- especially for the Democrats. Incumbent Gov. Pat Quinn canceled the usual Director's Lawn rally in favor of a ticket-only Quinn lovefest and rally.

Quinn is facing a primary challenge from William Daley, whose resume includes being a former secretary of commerce under Bill Clinton, a chief of staff to President Obama and a member of Chicago's most famous political family.

The governor's dubious tactics aside, Daley faces an uphill battle to win the 2014 Democratic nomination. It is difficult to defeat an incumbent governor in a primary, though it can be done.

In 1976, Gov. Dan Walker lost his renomination campaign to fellow Democrat Mike Howlett. Key to Howlett's victory was the all-out support he received from Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley (William Daley's dad). Howlett went on to lose the general election to Republican Jim Thompson by the biggest landslide in Illinois gubernatorial history.

Two final points on the Democrats: 1) The big question about Daley -- if this primary campaign remains a two-man race -- is where he is going to find the base votes to challenge Quinn. Chicago? The suburbs? Downstate? Among African-Americans? 2) Few pundits (including me) decades ago would have guessed a scenario where reform-activist Pat Quinn is slated and endorsed over a Daley by the Cook County Democratic Central Committee. Amazing!

Thursday was Republican Day at the fair. The Illinois GOP had the traditional noon rally on the Director's Lawn. The 21st century has not been kind to Illinois Republicans. Internal philosophical differences, changing voter demographics, a Democratic legislative redistricting map and Obama's home-state popularity have severely weakened the Illinois GOP brand. However, one would not know it -- seeing the energy of the party faithful cheering their remaining leaders.

Keying the rally were the spirited speeches of the four Republican gubernatorial candidates. (To be sure, the emotional highlight was a short speech by U.S. Senator Mark Kirk, who despite some lingering effects of his stroke spoke in a clear and strong voice.)

The candidates -- state Sens. Bill Brady and Kirk Dillard, businessman Bruce Rauner and state Treasurer Dan Rutherford -- stressed the state's weak fiscal condition, the high unemployment rate and the Democratic control of state government. They attacked Quinn as weak and ineffective, they demonized House Speaker Michael Madigan and, except for Rauner, trashed Chicago and its politics.

The latter point was somewhat surprising given the 2010 election results. GOP candidate Bill Brady carried 98 of the state's 102 counties against Quinn and lost by over 30,000 votes. Why? Cook County! Quinn trounced Brady by 400,000 votes in Chicago and 100,000 votes in suburban Cook. Republicans bashing the state's largest vote-producing area makes little political sense.

Still, the Republicans had a good time cheering. It has been a long time since these folks have been this optimistic about their political prospects.

Given the above, one has to mention state Comptroller Judy Baar Topinka. No one at the rally had more fun or was more positive than this longtime West suburban politico. Claiming Hollywood had made a movie about her political career called "Warhorse," Topinka in her unique way set the possible direction for the Republican path to 2014 success. She argued the state needs real fiscal reform, not "hopey-dopey change," referring to the Democrats' inability to deal with the state's budget and pension problems. Now I agree "end hopey-dopey change" is not a traditional battle cry, but for many Illinoisans, it fits their mood.

Lastly, my personal fair dining record remains intact -- I did not eat a corn dog or anything else fried. Though analyzing future elections is often a speculative process, there's one thing I am sure about: No one from the Michelin Guide will even attend our state fair.

• Paul Green is director of the Institute for Politics at Roosevelt University in Chicago and Schaumburg.

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