Opinion: Could Gitmo topple Democrats in Illinois?

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Only 15 months ago, President Obama carried his home state of Illinois with 62% of the vote against Republican John McCain’s 37%.

Now, the incumbent Gov. Pat Quinn -- who came in after Rod Blagojevich was impeached -- is in trouble, and Cook Political Report calls Obama’s old Senate seat one of five ‘toss-up’ races that Democrats are in danger of losing this November.

Known for its corrupt politics -- Blago’s predecessor, Republican George Ryan, is still in jail on corruption charges -- Illinois is also suffering an economic meltdown, the kind that creates a perfect storm for political upsets. Unemployment is nearing 11%, the state deficit could top $11 billion, and more residents are moving out than in. Voters are also angry about the governor’s proposal for a 50% increase in state income taxes, and his budget-cutting early release of 1,700 state inmates, some of whom have already been re-arrested.

“Democrats are starting to realize that every single Democrat in the country is vulnerable now,” said Jerry Morrison, political director of the state Service Employees International Union. ‘It’s a very angry electorate, a very volatile electorate.’


As for the Senate seat, the leading Democrat is 33-year-old state Treasurer Alexi Giannoulias, a friend and occasional basketball-playing buddy of Obama’s. Republicans are said to be salivating for a Giannouilias victory, so they can attack the finances of his family-owned business, the Broadway Bank, the target of inquiry from regulators.

Meanwhile on the Republican side, Rep. Mark Kirk is leading in the polls. Party insiders were unsure his record as a social moderate and fiscal conservative would fire up the tea party activists so critical to Republican Scott Brown’s upset victory in Massachusetts. But lately Kirk has been moving to the right.

In December, when the Obama administration proposed moving the Guantanamo Bay terror suspects to a correctional facility in Thomson, Ill., Kirk bounced.

‘If your Administration brings Al Qaeda terrorists to Illinois, our state and the Chicago Metropolitan Area will become ground zero for Jihadist terrorist plots, recruitment and radicalization,’ Kirk wrote in a letter to the White House. ‘The United States spent more than $50 million to build the Guantanamo Bay detention facility to keep terrorists away from U.S. soil. Al Qaeda terrorists should stay where they cannot endanger American citizens.’

Brown got a lot of traction in Massachusetts suggesting that U.S. tax dollars shouldn’t go to defend terrorist suspects but to protect Americans. Will Gitmo help Kirk too?

Watch this space.

-- Johanna Neuman

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