Saturday, April 16, 2005

LaHood and Oberweis on Top- Topinka almost Rock Bottom

The Women’s Republican Club of the 10th Congressional District (“10th WRC”) kicked off the 2006 political season this morning with the first major forum for the Republican gubernatorial candidates. The forum was well organized, informative and quite collegial. Jim Oberweis announced his candidacy on Thursday and seven other Republicans [all listed, below] have said they are thinking about a run for Governor.

All eight were invited to attend and all but one told the 10th WRC that they planned to attend. State Treasurer Judy Baar Topinka’s handlers declined on her behalf and certain individuals at the 10th WRC indicated they were given various reasons e.g., Topinka was just “testing the waters,” at this point or simply that Topinka had not decided if she would make the race.

When I spoke to various attendees after the event [who spoke on the condition of anonymity], they indicated that none of the Topinka responses made a lot of sense as essentially that is the case for all of the identified Republican gubernatorial candidates except Oberweis and yet they either attended or planned to attend. Further, one of them, a Lake County Republican activist, complained that Topinka has repeatedly refused to come to Lake County events [This event, however, was held in Northbrook, i.e., Cook County]. In short, Topinka’s absence did not seem to make many “hearts grow fonder.”

Former State Board of Education Chairman Ron Gidwitz cancelled at the last moment due to a “family emergency.” State Senator Steve Rauschenberger, who also had planned to attend, sent a note, which was read to the audience at the beginning of the forum by the moderator, apologizing for his absence and indicating that he was in Washington, DC, this morning, as a result of his responsibilities as President-Elect of the National Conference of Legislators.

The forum consisted of four minute opening and three minute closing statements by each of the candidates, and those statements were sandwiched around answers to six questions, which came from the audience but were read by the moderator. I was told the questions were not greatly edited. The candidates had one and half minutes to answer each question. In total, the substantive portion of the forum ran about an hour and a half.

After the forum, the 150, or so, in attendance, were asked to complete their straw poll ballots, which included all eight of the candidates who are running or thinking of running for Governor. 139 ballots were cast, with the following results:

1. Cong. Ray LaHood [R- Peoria], 25.1 % [35 votes]
2. Entrepreneur Jim Oberweis, 24.4 % [34 votes]

3. Former State Senator Pat O’Malley, 14.3 %
4. State Senator Bill Brady, 14.3 %
5. DuPage State’s Attorney Joe Birkett, 12. 1 %.
6. State Senator Steve Rauschenberger 7.1 %
7. Treasurer Judy Baar Topinka, 1.4 % [2 votes]
8. Former State Board of Education Chairman Ron Gidwitz, 1 % [1 vote]

While straw polls are not in any way necessarily indicative of anything more than how those voters feel about the candidates, they can have some impact. One, the people who attend such events as the one sponsored this morning by the 10th WRC tend to be political activists and therefore tend to have influence disproportionate to their numbers. Two, the winners are often reported by the mainstream media without a lot of caveats. Such was the case on tonight’s ABC-7 6:00 pm local news, in which reporter Michelle Gallardo stated:

“While it is too early to tell which one of the GOP contenders will emerge as the party's candidate next year, that didn't stop Saturday's forum from conducting a straw poll. So with 139 votes counted, Congressman Ray LaHood emerged as the frontrunner with Jim Oberweis close behind. Just one sample among the many more we can expect in the 18 months before Election Day.”

That was a nice statement for LaHood and Oberweis and I am sure Topinka and Gidwitz were thankful that Gallardo did not note that they finished at the bottom of the pack, with a grand total for the moderate or liberal faction of the party of three votes.

One of the most striking characteristics of the 10th WRC forum was the virtually complete absence of social issues from the opening and closing statements, as well as the questions and answers. I will look over the tape, but my recollection is that I never once heard this morning, as Democratic National Party Chairman Howard Dean is fond of putting it, Gays, Guns, God or abortion.

Nor did I hear anything about stem cell research, cloning or Terry Schiavo. Really, quite remarkable. Completely absent from the discussion were the so-called moral values that many pundits say decided the 2004 Presidential Election. The assembled did say the Pledge of Allegiance, as is customary at the opening of Republican events, so what do you know—I did hear the word God, at least once.

Why was that case? The absence of gays, guns, God and abortion from this morning’s discussion, that is. I think it reflects the collective sentiment among those present that the way to victory for the Republican Party in the general election in 2006 lies in repeating the mantra of more jobs, less taxes and less sleaze and corruption in government.

Don’t get me wrong, you will eventually hear about abortion, gun control, gay rights, God and embryonic stem cell research from the five conservatives who were present this morning, and conservative Senator Steve Rauschenberger when he shows up, and that will especially be the case if and when the more moderate [or as some would put, liberal] Topinka and Gidwitz appear on the scene. However, I believe these conservatives and their handlers have decided that 2006 is not the year of social issues, at least here in Illinois.
Jeff Berkowitz, Host and Producer of Public Affairs and an Executive Recruiter doing Legal Search, can be reached at