Shortly after Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich was arrested — accused of scheming to sell the state's vacant Senate seat, formerly held by President-elect Barack Obama, to the highest bidder — Illinois Republicans started running an ad on cable television.
The ad urges voters to call state lawmakers to push for a special election to fill the vacant Senate seat. "You deserve to be heard. You deserve a special election," it says.
Before the Blagojevich scandal, any chance of a Republican capturing the vacated seat was a long shot because it was up to Blagojevich, a Democrat, to appoint someone to it. As calls for the governor to resign grew, Democrats backed a special election but decided against it, saying, among other things, that it would be too costly. That set off a howl from angry Illinois Senate Republicans Christine Radogno and Matt Murphy.
"Whoever gets appointed is going to be wearing the stench of this scandal for the next two years and beyond," Radogno says.
Murphy agrees: "What the Democrat leadership of this state is saying is, 'We won't risk losing that Senate seat just in the interest of good government and showing the people of Illinois that we intend to do better.' "
Republicans have held a U.S. Senate seat from Illinois only once since the mid-1980s — and that was only for one term. Paul Green, a political scientist at Roosevelt University, says the chance for a special election has given the state's Republicans a glimmer of hope.
"The Republicans need to win one," Green says. "Fourteen years ago, they held every state constitutional office. Now they hold none."
A Road To Competitiveness
So, as members of the Illinois House consider impeaching Blagojevich, Republicans seek a road back to competitiveness. And if it's not the U.S. Senate seat, there's always the 2010 governor's race.
Andy McKenna, the head of the Illinois Republican Party, says the Blagojevich scandal has made Democrats vulnerable.
"Everyone in his leadership group stood by him in the 2006 election and said he was honest, when it's quite clear now that was not the case," McKenna says. "At a time when the election was occurring, they could have supported another Democrat who was running who did not have any of the issues, who did not have any federal investigation like this governor did. And I just think there's just a problem with trust."
But Republicans were embroiled in their own scandal not so long ago, when the state's previous governor, Republican George Ryan, decided not to seek a second term. He was convicted on corruption charges after leaving office and is now serving a prison term. Blagojevich then became governor, ending 26 years of Republican rule.
Fielding Candidates 'That Earn Voters' Trust'
McKenna says it was right for voters to oust Republicans then, and now it's time for Democrats to suffer the voters' wrath.
"And I think voters are going to hold individuals accountable," McKenna says. "And where that leaves all the elections, we'll see. But I know the two big issues in Illinois are ethics and fiscal reform, and that's what we're going to talk about, and we're going to field candidates that earn voters' trust."
Democrat Barbara Flynn Currie, the chairwoman of the panel considering impeaching the governor, says that though Democrats do control Illinois government and Blagojevich faces daunting legal problems, "I don't think that that in any way taints the lieutenant governor, the comptroller, the attorney general or any other executive officers, nor members of the Legislature."
Green says Republicans have disagreed over the candidates who should represent them as they seek to regain power in this moderate state. There's a rift, says Green, between pro-business, less-government Republicans and social conservatives who oppose abortion and gay marriage.
"They would rather lose with one of their own than win with somebody they don't agree with," Green says. "They use this phrase, these social conservatives, called RINO — Republicans In Name Only. And I call them RAWs — Republicans Against Winning."
But McKenna says Republicans have learned from their own fiasco a few years ago, and this latest scandal with the state's Democratic governor has given Illinois Republicans a new focus.