Illinois Primary Elections Will Help Define the Change Voters Want

A sign of change to come.

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By Peter Roff, Thomas Jefferson Street blog

The conventional wisdom, following the Republican victories in the 2009 Virginia and New Jersey gubernatorial contests and in the Massachusetts special election for the United States Senate seat once held by Edward M. Kennedy, is that the American electorate is hungry for change. But, like the change that Barack Obama promised during the 2008 presidential campaign, it is a change that is so far undefined, ambiguous, perhaps even inconsistent, differing from state to state and race to race.

Beyond the sense that some portion of the electorate--most visibly but not exclusively defined by the tea party movement--has adopted a "throw the bums out mentality," the only thing that can really be said about this hunger for change is that the voters want something different than what they've got because what they've got, in their minds at least, isn't working.

After Tuesday, when both the Republicans and Democrats go to the polls in Illinois, we may have a better idea of where things are headed.

One race to watch is the Democratic gubernatorial primary, where Pat Quinn--who became governor following the resignation of Rod Blagojevich--is struggling to win the nomination against Comptroller Dan Hynes. Both are formidable political figures with long resumes. Quinn came into office as the "Mr. Clean" who was going to clean up Blagojevich's mess. It hasn't happened--the state government is in economic shambles and Blagojevich doesn't even go on trial until this coming summer. Hynes, who is not exactly a political outsider himself, is trying to capitalize on the voters' sense of discontent but has issues of his own to deal with.

The Republican contest for the U.S. Senate nomination being waged between U.S. Rep. Mark Kirk, a moderate-to-liberal Republican and conservative Pat Hughes, who has tried but failed to make the race about ideology, may be equally telling.

Right now Kirk, who has managed to bring both wings of the Illinois Republican Party together because he looks like a strong candidate in the general election, has a substantial lead in the polls. If the Republicans, especially the conservatives, are willing to get behind Kirk because they think he can win--overlooking his vote in favor of the cap and trade bill for example--then it is arguable that the change they want can be achieved simply by replacing a pro-Obama vote with an anti-Obama vote and that ideology is a secondary consideration.

Another race to watch is in the GOP primary for the state 14th Congressional District, where Ethan Hastert, son of former U.S. House Speaker Dennis Hastert, is vying for the nomination against State Sen. Randy Hultgren. In other years, the Hastert name would have been an asset--in this environment it may just as easily be a curse. Hultgren has tried to make the race an ideological one, claiming he is more reliably conservative than Hastert, but there is little evidence thus far that the charge is sticking. It will be interesting to see, once the results are in, whether the perception that Hastert is an insider helped or hurt his candidacy.

Once the returns are in, it may be easier to see what kind of change may be in the offing in November and if there is, in fact, any kind of overarching theme we can look to be repeated on down the line. 

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