CHICAGO (WOMENSENEWS)--Four years ago, Judy Baar Topinka, the incumbent state treasurer, was the only Republican to win a statewide race in Illinois.
Now in 2006, she's the GOP nominee for governor and the first woman to win the Republican nomination for the state's highest office. She is running a close race against incumbent Rod Blagojevich, who four years ago became the first Democrat since 1972 to win the governorship.
"Having been involved with the state's money as Illinois treasurer, she can certainly draft a budget that will be good for the people of Illinois," says Beverly Davis, president of the National Federation of Republican Women in Alexandria, Va. "We're very excited to have a Republican woman running for governor from Illinois, and they've done an excellent job choosing an outstanding candidate."
A June 22 poll by Zogby International found Blagojevich leading the race by just three percentage points, within the margin of error. That's tightened since an April 5 Zogby poll that showed Blagojevich with 43 percent and Topinka at 37 percent. That same survey found more voters (44 percent) had a positive impression of Topinka than the governor (42 percent).
Topinka is one of three Illinois women running suspenseful, high-profile campaigns against male opponents this year.
In the 8th congressional district, Democrat Rep. Melissa Bean, who represents the traditionally Republican district in Chicago's northwest suburbs, is expected to face a tough challenge from Republican investment banker David McSweeney.
With GOP Rep. Henry Hyde retiring after 31 years in Congress, there's an open seat in the west suburban 6th congressional district and Democrats are running Tammy Duckworth, an Army helicopter pilot until November 2004, when a rocket-propelled grenade hit the Blackhawk she was piloting. Duckworth lost both her legs in the attack and uses prosthetics.
"I think women are key in this election nationwide," says Clare Giesen, executive director of the Washington-based National Women's Political Caucus, which supports pro-choice women in any party. "This is a bellwether election, and I think it's going to be decided on a lot of issues that play to the strengths of women. With the culture of corruption as a major issue, I think women will play well. Rightly or wrongly, they get identified with the moral side. Plus there are some very good women running this year in both parties and that should make a big impact on this election."
State's First Female Treasurer
Topinka, 62, was elected to the Illinois General Assembly in 1980. After four years there, she spent a decade as a state senator. In 1994, she won her first term as Illinois state treasurer. She was the first woman to hold the office; later, she became the first treasurer to win three terms.
Nationwide, incumbents have a 90 percent success rate of retaining their seats when challenged. Between 1980 and 2000, the annual reelection rate for incumbent governors fluctuated between 70 and 82 percent; if Topinka were to win, she would be the first in Illinois to unseat a sitting governor in 34 years.
"In previous elections, she's already shown that she can get support from Democrats," says Davis. "That speaks very highly of her credentials and ability and proves she can reach a broad group of voters."
The treasurer opposes the proposed constitutional amendment banning gay marriage, and supports a state law signed by Blagojevich that bans discrimination based on sexual orientation. Topinka is generally in favor of abortion rights, though she supports parental notification--with exemptions for incest or abusive family situations--and the ban on so-called partial-birth abortions. Neither restriction exists under current state law.
Bean Won 2004 Rematch
Bean, 44, first ran for the seat in 2002, drawing 43 percent of the vote against Phil Crane, then a 33-year incumbent and the longest-serving Republican in the House. She lost that election, but in a rematch two years later, Bean took 52 percent, becoming the first Democrat to win the seat since the district was formed in 1935.
This time around, however, she is facing a tougher race. Vice President Dick Cheney held a June 24 fundraiser for McSweeney and the seat is among those considered most vulnerable by the Washington-based National Republican Congressional Campaign Committee, which funds GOP candidates.
"McSweeney is going to give her a run for her money, and I know the Republicans think the district will revert to type in 2006 if they have a better candidate than Crane," says Giesen of the National Women's Political Caucus, which endorsed Bean in her 2004 win. "But Bean's not giving the Republicans any openings . . . She ran a very difficult race last time and Phil Crane was something of a weak candidate," Giesen adds. "But she was a disciplined and well-funded candidate, and she's done a very good job as a member of Congress. She is pro-choice and has consistently voted right on that issue."
Bean, whose background includes more than 20 years as an entrepreneur and business consultant, is a member of the Blue Dog Coalition of centrist and conservative House Democrats. She has broken with the party leadership in her support of the Central American Free Trade Agreement, the permanent repeal of the estate tax and the recent credit industry-backed bankruptcy bill.
Duckworth Edged Out Cegelis
After edging out Christine Cegelis in the Democratic primary, pro-choice Duckworth now faces Republican state senator Peter Roskam, an opponent of abortion rights and stem-cell research.
"It's an open seat in a district that's probably changed a lot in the last 30 years and we think Tammy brings a unique personality to the table," says Carrie Giddins of EMILY's List, which endorses and funds pro-choice Democratic women, including Duckworth and Bean. "Tammy's story is incredibly compelling and she's done a great job capturing the attention of people all across this country. Her fundraising's been very strong. She made all the right moves in winning her primary and now she's facing a pretty extreme Republican."
Duckworth's primary win against Cegelis was controversial locally. Cegelis had won 44 percent of the vote against Hyde in 2004, and had already planned to run again when Rahm Emanuel, chair of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, recruited the 37-year-old Duckworth to run last December. Despite a massive fundraising advantage, which allowed Duckworth to spend nearly four times as much money as her opponent, Duckworth topped Cegelis's grassroots campaign by just 3 percent of the vote.
"I think Duckworth has a very tough race ahead of her," Giesen says. "It's a slightly Republican district. She makes great national press, but that doesn't mean voters in her district will want to vote for her. And the way she came in, where she was pushed to run, I think that left a bitter taste in some constituents' mouths."
Cegelis endorsed Duckworth in April and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee lists the 6th district among its best chances to pick up a seat. Internal Duckworth campaign polls, taken in early May, show Roskam's lead within the margin of error.
Jeff Fleischer is a Chicago-based journalist. He has written regularly for publications such as Mother Jones, the Sydney Morning Herald, the Chicago Daily Herald, Mental Floss and Chicago magazine.
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