If you wanted to get an idea of how downright negative the governor's race will be this fall all you had to do was hang around Republican Day at the Illinois State Fair last week and check your e-mail from the governor's campaign.
One speaker after another ripped into the Democrats during the Republicans' annual event. The speakers focused mainly on Gov. Rod Blagojevich and the harm he has allegedly done to Illinois.
Republican gubernatorial candidate Judy Baar Topinka topped the cake with a long, rambling, relentlessly negative speech about her opponent that at times distracted and at other times energized the crowd. Topinka is a nuts and bolts sort of person, so many of the things that upset her about the way Blagojevich runs the government tend to fly past most people.
For instance, during the speech Topinka said she would put a stop to high-paid government interns. When that get much of an audience response she quickly moved on to another item on her endless laundry list of complaints. There was little response to this proposal because I doubt more than a few audience members (other than the professionals) knew what she was talking about.
I'll try to explain it here. The governor has used state internship programs that were originally designed for recent college graduates to get around hiring preference laws for military veterans. The way the scam works is a politically connected swell is given a $50,000 a year "internship" and when that expires he is moved into a regular job without being subjected to the hiring laws that favor veterans. It's definitely an outrage, especially during wartime, but the speech showed she doesn't quite understand how to communicate her message.
Topinka also used the occasion to unveil a budget-cutting proposal which primarily focused on squeezing about $3 billion in savings from the state's Medicaid program over the next four years. That reduction is about equal to the current Medicaid "deficit" built into the governor's budget. The state essentially balanced its budget by putting off paying almost $3 billion in fees to physicians, pharmacists, dentists, hospitals and nursing homes. Because the state is such a deadbeat, more and more providers are refusing to take Medicaid patients even as the governor has attempted to radically expand Medicaid programs to serve the middle class.
As a result of this expansion, for the first time ever Medicaid spending this year will surpass spending on K-12 education. Meanwhile, states throughout the country are, on average, increasing their education spending more than their Medicaid spending, according to a recent study by the National Conference of State Legislatures.
The governor's response to Topinka's proposal was quick and searing. Blagojevich claimed Topinka was proposing "massive cuts to health care," and wanted to take health care "away from kids." He also claimed her "devastating proposal" would "undermine all health care in Illinois," and would even "lead to seniors being kicked out of nursing homes."
Imagine those images in a campaign commercial for a moment and you can see why this governor's race will almost assuredly end up as one of the most negative in modern Illinois history - even more so than the 1998 campaign when Glenn Poshard all but accused George Ryan of having a hand in the deaths of six children.
It's also a safe bet that if Topinka can raise enough campaign money to get on TV for an extended length of time the race could wind up as a close contest between two candidates who both have negative ratings among voters. Those sorts of campaigns are always the most brutal because the best way for candidates to win is to make the other guy more unpopular. The desired result is a further depressed turnout and it's achieved with ceaseless attacks and fear tactics.
So, just as George W. Bush played the terrorism card, Rod Blagojevich now has the image of little old ladies being tossed out of their nursing homes into the street and disease-wracked children begging to see a doctor. Topinka will all but predict that if Gov. Blagojevich is re-elected he'll be fitted for a prison jersey before his term expires.
Rich Miller also publishes Capitol Fax, a daily political newsletter, and thecapitolfaxblog.com