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Ex-Governor Casts a Shadow Over GOP Race

Times Staff Writer

In the buildup to today’s Republican primary election for governor in Illinois, it has been all but impossible to ignore the campaign bluster over the George H. Ryan factor.

Judy Baar Topinka, the state treasurer and onetime leader of the Illinois Republican Party, is leading the polls in the five-way fight and is seen as the party’s best chance to unseat incumbent Democrat Rod Blagojevich.

But for months she has been fighting rivals’ attempts to connect her to Ryan, who awaits a federal jury’s verdict in his criminal case on corruption charges.

The connection: She held a statewide office while Ryan was governor and agreed with him on some political issues. One recent ad by a rival, businessman Jim Oberweis, showed Topinka and Ryan dancing together at a state fair, implying that Topinka was dancing the “pay to play polka.”

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“You’ve got to be kidding me,” said Topinka, 62. “I’ve been treasurer for several governors. I’ve been kicked out of George Ryan’s office because he didn’t like what I was telling him. So now I’m his best friend because I danced with the man?”

Oberweis has had to battle against his own connections to Ryan. He has admitted that he sought Ryan’s support while making a bid in the 2004 GOP primary for U.S. Senate. And one of Oberweis’ deputy campaign managers, Brad Roseberry, was subpoenaed to testify at Ryan’s trial. Roseberry told jurors that, while on the clock as a state employee, he spent the majority of his time campaigning for Ryan and other GOP candidates.

Amid all the finger pointing and campaign tactics, some political observers here wonder if the taint of the scandal will again be the downfall of the state party.

“You have the previous Republican governor waiting to hear his fate in one of the biggest corruption trials in recent history. And his party is using the corruption issue on each other as well as against the current governor, who’s a Democrat,” said Paul M. Green, a political science professor at Roosevelt University in Chicago.

“The whole thing is bordering on the absurd.”

A few years ago, the predominantly rural sections of the state and the counties ringing the Democratic-dominated city of Chicago were Republican strongholds.

But after Ryan was indicted on corruption and racketeering conspiracy charges in 2003 that strength crumbled. In the last general election, the party endured an embarrassing showing in the U.S. Senate race and was soundly beaten by Democrat Barack Obama.

The state GOP lost the governorship in 2002, after having held it for 25 years, when Blagojevich based much of his race focusing on Ryan’s alleged crimes. Before that election, the party held almost all top statewide offices.

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Today, it has only Topinka’s.

According to a Chicago Tribune poll last week, Topinka has 36% of the vote, a 15 percentage point lead over her challengers. Topinka, a moderate who wants to cut state spending, has alienated some of the more conservative state factions by supporting embryonic stem cell research and antidiscrimination laws for gays.

“The majority of our state is a red state. But we need to go red entirely,” Topinka said. “We’ve got to improve the state’s economy and clean up state politics.”

Indeed, the Illinois GOP isn’t the only party wrestling with talk of corruption.

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Blagojevich, who ran as a reformer, was interviewed by federal investigators late last year after his father-in-law, Chicago alderman Richard F. Mell, alleged that the governor’s office was swapping political appointments for campaign donations. Mell recanted the allegation, but federal authorities are still looking into it and other matters.

On the federal level, the GOP -- struggling with an increasingly unpopular war in Iraq and sharp criticism over government response to Hurricane Katrina -- is fighting to gain as many of the 25 open congressional seats as possible this fall and to prevent the Democratic Party from picking up the 15 seats it needs to take control of the U.S. House of Representatives.

Illinois voters will weigh in on one of those highly coveted congressional seats today.

In the 6th District, candidates from both parties are vying to replace retiring U.S. Rep. Henry J. Hyde, the GOP incumbent who has served for 32 years.

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This race has been so closely watched that Obama and fellow Senators John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) and Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-New York) have campaigned in support of candidate L. Tammy Duckworth, an Army major and helicopter pilot who lost both legs in a rocket-propelled grenade attack in Iraq.

The district’s location, which includes western DuPage County and southwest Cook County, is key: DuPage is one of the counties around Chicago that traditionally had been Republican turf. But in the wake of the Ryan trial, and a shift in regional economic and residential demographics, Democrats have gained ground in these areas.

The mood also is grim among Ohio Republicans, due in part to a wide-ranging investigation triggered by a $50-million investment of public money in rare coins.

Gov. Robert A. Taft, a second-term Republican, became Ohio’s first governor to be convicted of a crime last August, when he pleaded no contest to violating state ethics laws by failing to report golf outings and about $6,000 in other gifts. A poll later put his approval rating at 15%. After that, Taft said he wouldn’t endorse a single candidate in the primary. Some political observers have joked that Taft might best serve the GOP by endorsing a Democrat in November’s general election.

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“There are Republican candidates in Ohio that have had no problems in the past that are now drawing competitive opponents because of all the scandal,” said Jennifer Duffy, editor of the nonpartisan Cook Political Report. “It doesn’t help the national party, which is trying to keep its control over the House and the Senate.”


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