Editorial: Shame on Illinois Democrats

As a Democrat, I’ve grown increasingly angry at the party’s pathetic showing at the polls last week.
Chris Wissmann

As a Democrat, I’ve grown increasingly angry at the party’s pathetic showing at the polls last week. Losses by Gov. Pat Quinn, comptroller candidate Sheila Simon, and U.S. Rep. Bill Enyart are all pretty hard to forgive. But Bill Kilquist’s defeat by Republican nominee Terri Bryant in the race for the state representative seat in District 115 most explicitly shows the ugly heart of Illinois’s Democrat Party. If each of the above Democrats lost for a different mixture of reasons, the negativity of their campaigns gave voters a common, compelling reason for rejecting them.

Kilquist in particular should be ashamed enough to find a big, heavy rock, crawl under it, and never see sunlight again. And may the morons who ran his campaign into the ground permanently join him down there.

The Democratic nominee, once a popular Jackson County sheriff, is a likable man with connections and accomplishments enough to have merited a seat in the General Assembly. Republican incumbent Mike Bost was stepping aside to run for Congress. The district, home to a major university and a sizable population of blue-collar union workers, is drawn to what should be a Democratic advantage. Moreover, in Kilquist Democrats seemed to have found the first competent state-rep candidate since John Rendleman lost by a narrow margin to Bost in 1996. Indeed, on paper, Kilquist should’ve been a lock for the office.

But Kilquist blew it by running a substantively vacuous and morally indefensible campaign against Bryant.

In pile after pile of disgraceful campaign mailings, an entire forest’s worth of paper, Kilquist never once articulated a legitimate policy position. One flier, for example, mentioned his support for Medicare and Social Security— both federal programs over which the state General Assembly has virtually no influence, either a reflection of Kilquist’s utter cluelessness or a raw insult to the intelligence of the voting public.

Instead, Kilquist’s propaganda relentlessly slimed Bryant in extremely personal, inappropriate, politically irrelevant ways. In tone, they rang false, too: As one longtime local Democratic activist told me, “I happen to know Terri Bryant, and she’s a good person.”

During the campaign, a handful of local Democrats tried to defend Kilquist’s filthy tactics to me, saying the mailings all came from the state party and that the candidate had little or nothing to do with them. Balderdash. If Kilquist’s name was going on the advertising, he needed to take responsibility for its content.

Instead, Kilquist got to take responsibility for the result: Bryant righteously kicked his ass and handed it back to him. The returns weren’t even close— Bryant won sixty-two to thirty-eight percent. Even in the Democratic stronghold of Jackson County, where Kilquist was once pretty much sheriff for life— or as long as he cared to hold the seat— Bryant crushed him by almost eleven percent.

Let that be a lesson to other candidates: Try to win elections, not cause opponents to lose. In other words, run on substance— give the public good reasons to vote for someone, don’t just spew out reasons to vote against opponents.

It’s a big part of why Enyart, in a Twelfth Congressional District carefully gerrymandered to make Democrat victories easy, lost in an eleven-point landslide to Bost. Enyart tried to make Bost seem unhinged by showing Bost’s public tirades in ad after ad, but probably just succeeded in reminding the district’s voters how much Bost shared their own passionate disgust with government. Meanwhile, Enyart never successfully made a case for how he helped his constituents during his two years in Congress, and couldn’t point toward any clear path on which he wanted to lead them for the next term.

It’s a big part of why Quinn lost to Bruce Rauner, the most conservative, beatable teabagger the Republicans could have possibly nominated. Of course, Quinn proved rampantly incompetent during his two terms as governor— he couldn’t find his own butt with both hands. But Quinn possessed a major attribute: a real affinity for working people and the struggles they endure. If he’s buffoonish, the genuine care that frequently guides Quinn’s political career can make him endearing. But the combative, insulting tone Quinn adopted made him come off like a tiny boor and distracted voters from popular positions like Quinn’s desire to raise the minimum wage. How else can a referendum calling for a minimum-wage increase pass with sixty-six percent approval while Quinn lost an election in a solidly Democratic state to a man who publicly called for entirely eliminating the minimum wage?

Simon’s problem was somewhat different. She would make a fine attorney general. In two years she could overpower Bost in a run for Congress, which every Democrat in the Twelfth District should urge her to do. But Simon lacks any background in finance that would have qualified her for the comptroller’s office over the incumbent, Judy Baar Topinka, who has proven honest and competent. Minus issues of substance, Simon went on the attack, accusing Topinka of unethical behavior based on extremely weak allegations. The tactic was doomed to fail.

On the other hand, tone was a big part of why U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, who ran a positive campaign based on genuine accomplishments and policy positions, handily defeated Republican Jim Oberweis.

If Durbin set the example for how to campaign in a largely positive manner, then the voters of District 115, by making an example of Kilquist, set an example for the rest of the nation for how to react to an almost entirely negative one. Hopefully voters elsewhere will follow this district’s lead and make sure that when candidates dig for gold in the political mine of personal destruction, they will only hit full sewer lines, and smell like it after humiliating defeats.