Illinois Democrats romp

Democrats rode a wave of voter sentiment for change at the ballot box Tuesday in capturing the governor's office for the first time in three decades and taking unbridled control of Illinois government.

In handing an overwhelming victory in the governor's race to Democrat Rod Blagojevich, a 45-year old congressman from Chicago's North Side, voters also made a statement that they were fed up with scandal that has tainted the GOP.

With 97 percent of precincts reporting across the state, Blagojevich was leading Republican Jim Ryan, the state's attorney general, by 52 percent to 45 percent, with other candidates capturing 3 percent.

Democrats, benefiting from the new legislative districts they drew, also grabbed control of the state Senate after 10 years of Republican control. With powerful House Speaker Michael Madigan maintaining his hold over the state House, Democrats will lead the General Assembly for the first time in a decade.

In the contentious fight for Illinois attorney general, Madigan's daughter, state Sen. Lisa Madigan, defeated Republican Joe Birkett, the DuPage County state's attorney. Other statewide Democratic incumbents easily overwhelmed their Republican opposition. Preventing a complete Democratic sweep, the only statewide GOP incumbent, Treasurer Judy Baar Topinka, defeated challenger state Rep. Tom Dart (D-Chicago).

The victories by the Chicago-led Democratic slate only served to thrust what had been an already dysfunctional Illinois Republican Party into further disarray and created the likelihood of an intense battle developing between its conservative and moderate factions for control over the rebuilding process. Once regarded as a bellwether state in national politics, Illinois has been trending Democratic in recent years. With Blagojevich's victory, Illinois was thrust firmly in the column of Democratic states, giving the party a strong political infrastructure for the 2004 presidential elections in an electoral vote-rich state.

Since Democratic justices already dominated the Illinois Supreme Court, Tuesday's takeover of the governor's mansion and the legislature means the party now controls all three branches of government in the state.

Key to Blagojevich's success was the overwhelming lead he carried over Ryan in Chicago--by 79 percent to 19 percent--as well as in suburban Cook County. The margins the Democrat was able to rack up in Cook County were more than enough to check Ryan's advantage in the collar counties and his totals Downstate.

Blagojevich declared victory with one of the more unusual comments to ever grace a political celebration. In making reference to his love of Elvis Presley, the Democrat said he was "all shook up" and that his heart was filled with "a whole bunch of hunka-hunka burnin' love for each one of you!"

But the Democrat, flanked by a political odd-couple of his running mate, self-styled political reformer Pat Quinn, and his father-in-law, powerful Chicago ward boss Richard Mell, quickly turned serious in pronouncing: "Illinois has voted for change."

"I have seen the anger and I have felt the disappointment in a government that's been more preoccupied with public corruption than public service," Blagojevich told his supporters at A. Finkl & Sons Co., the Near North Side steelworks where his late father worked and where he announced his candidacy in August of last year. "It is time for a government that's as good and as honest and as hard-working as the people of this great state."

Earlier, security guards held him tightly as he leaned off the stage, trying to touch as many of his supporters as he could.

Then, after his acceptance speech, a beaming Blagojevich dove like a movie star into a ropeline and was quickly surrounded by a throng of jubilant supporters.

In marked contrast, some 300 subdued Jim Ryan supporters exchanged tears and supportive embraces in the Hilton & Towers ballroom where Jim Ryan gave his concession speech. Welcomed to the concession stage by thunderous applause, Ryan was escorted afterward out a back entrance. He was ushered into a black van and driven immediately to his home in Elmhurst.

Ryan's campaign was hampered from the beginning by the cloud of scandal that hovered over the incumbent administration of Republican Gov. George Ryan. A federal investigation that began four years ago over the selling of driver's licenses for bribes in the secretary of state's office when George Ryan ran it eventually escalated and resulted in indictments against several top aides and confidants of the governor, although he has not been charged with wrongdoing.

Though Jim Ryan constantly sought to distance himself from the governor, George Ryan frequently attacked the Republican contender for focusing too much of his campaign on scandal. And Blagojevich readily joined in to attack Jim Ryan for failing to use his office of attorney general to root out corruption.

"This was a tough year for Republicans," Jim Ryan told disappointed supporters at the Chicago Hilton and Towers.

"But keep your heads up," he said. "Keep your chins up, because the Republican Party will bounce back. The Republican Party is more resilient than me or any of us. The Republican Party has a lot to be proud of, and we still have a good future ahead of us because we are the party of Lincoln, Reagan and George W. Bush."

Although Blagojevich ran a progressive-sounding campaign, in which he promised hundreds of millions of dollars in new spending for education and other social programs, the new governor will be forced to confront a severe financial crisis the moment he takes office in January.

Financial projections show the state could have a budget gap of as much as $2.5 billion for the fiscal year that begins in July and Blagojevich has promised to make up for the lost revenues and pay for his new initiatives through cutting bureaucratic waste and reprioritizing spending. He has flatly ruled out an increase in taxes, despite a common belief that cuts alone cannot balance the budget.

The race for governor turned bitter from the moment the primary campaign ended on March 19 and each candidate established the themes from which they would attack their opponent in the following seven months.

Blagojevich used his primary nomination speech to hammer at Jim Ryan as "a different kind of Republican, out of step with the mainstream values of Illinois" and a member of "the radical right."

Blagojevich also ushered in a phrase that became one of the Democrat's mantras in assessing Jim Ryan's job performance as attorney general, saying "you cannot lead by being asleep at the switch."

Jim Ryan tried to go after Blagojevich's character by noting the Democrat hadn't "even thanked his supporters yet and he's already attacking me." And the Republican immediately raised questions about the influence of Blagojevich's father-in-law, Mell, the alderman of Chicago's 33rd Ward.

"Do I have a powerful alderman as a member of my family to help raise all [Blagojevich's] money?" Ryan asked. "He spent millions and millions of dollars. Where did that come from? Come on, let's get real."

Both candidates for governor won their primary nominations in March, but encountered scars along the way.

Jim Ryan found his two Republican opponents--state Sen. Patrick O'Malley of Palos Park and Lt. Gov. Corinne Wood--setting the tenor for the attacks he would endure in the general election from Blagojevich.

With O'Malley as the strong conservative and Wood as the social moderate, Jim Ryan found himself being hammered from both ends of the Republican political spectrum. O'Malley contended Jim Ryan wasn't conservative enough and Wood argued that he was "extreme" in his opposition to abortion rights.

Moreover, O'Malley helped write a battle plan for Blagojevich in the fall with extensive TV advertising that sought to link the unpopularity of George Ryan to Jim Ryan, including a commercial in which the face of the governor morphed into that of the attorney general.

As he did in the general election, Blagojevich ran a ferocious fundraising operation, which allowed him to take over the war of the TV airwaves, including Downstate. The Democratic Party's unsuccessful 1998 nominee, former U.S. Rep. Glenn Poshard of Marion, endorsed Vallas in the primary and blamed Blagojevich's liberalism on gay rights and gun control as a factor in his loss.

Ironically, on the eve of Election Day, at a huge rally in Downstate Marion, it was Poshard who led the introductions of Blagojevich to an eager crowd.

Tribune staff reporters John Chase, David Mendell and James Janega contributed to this report.