After months of indecision, former Republican Governor Jim Edgar finally announced Friday that he wouldnÕt run for governor.
Edgar's months-long decision-making process often strained the patience of many political insiders, but it created an excitement that was too thick to cut with an ax. Edgar's appearance last Monday in Naperville, at which he said almost nothing, burned so white hot that it sucked almost all of the oxygen out of politics in this state. Nobody on the inside seemed much interested in anything else.
And for good reason. It's not every day that a former governor mulls another bid for his old office. Illinois Republicans, viewed by some as almost dead after the George Ryan, Jack Ryan, Alan Keyes and party chairmanship debacles, saw an Edgar candidacy as an almost sure way back into power.
Republican leaders still think that other candidates could win next year, mainly because of Governor Rod BlagojevichÕs absolutely awful poll numbers and ongoing state and federal investigations into his administration. But Edgar, they believe, would have had long political coattails, which could have done everything from helping them recruit better candidates to allowing them to pick up some downstate legislative seats to staunching the very scary suburban hemorrhaging at the state and local levels that is sapping their strength year after year.
Democrats, once supremely confident of their future, are freaked out about Governor Rod Blagojevich's disastrous poll numbers. Their paranoia increased as Edgar flirted with running again. They're breathing a little easier now.
So, whatÕs next for the Republicans?
EdgarÕs decision means there are now no easy solutions for the Republicans. While they still have a decent shot at the governorÕs mansion, they are as disorganized and divided as theyÕve ever been.
What Gov. Blagojevich and the Democrats need most is a chance to get people to stop thinking about alleged corruption in the Blagojevich administration and the perception by voters that he isnÕt up to the job, and get them to start thinking about ideology.
The completely pro-life, anti illegal immigrant, anti teacher tenure and God knows what else Jim Oberweis, the dairy magnate who fumbled two previous statewide bids and is running for governor this time around, would allow the Democrats to shore up their depressed and embarrassed base and scare the pants off the moderate independents. Campaigns are like conversations with the electorate. And Oberweis, or another far-right primary winner, would allow the Democrats to change the subject.
Oberweis has consistently polled second behind GOP state Treasurer Judy Baar Topinka, so he hasn't been considered a real threat by many pundits, but that could change.
It had been widely assumed that Edgar would quickly endorse Topinka for governor if he didnÕt run. Topinka is closest to Edgar on ideology of all the declared candidates and the two have been political allies for years.
But when the time came to make his announcement, Edgar endorsed no one.
It turns out that for the previous week or so, Topinka started having second thoughts about running for governor. The long wait for Edgar to make up his mind gave the treasurer time to reflect on what she really wants to do, and she reportedly began to think that a run for the state's top office might not be for her. In the end, Edgar didn't want to endorse someone who might not be a candidate.
ItÕs possible as I write this that Topinka could help try and recruit someone else into the governorÕs race, but it will be impossible to find a "white knight" who compares with Edgar. If and, more likely, when that effort fails, then Topinka may end up in the governor's race after all.
Topinka wouldn't be as easy for Blagojevich to demonize as someone like Oberweis. But she has been around a long time, and has her share of baggage. Edgar would have been able to raise much more money than Topinka and there's a real fear among her close friends that Topinka could be overwhelmed by a massive Blagojevich spending spree next fall - if she wins the primary.
Now that Edgar is out, the other, lesser-known candidates will feel emboldened to attack the frontrunner Topinka. All but one of those opponents (Ron Gidwitz being the exception) are far to Topinka's right. Topinka will have to spend big bucks just to have a shot at facing master fundraiser Rod Blagojevich. Money isn't everything, but it's definitely an important thing.
Let the games begin.
Rich Miller also publishes Capitol Fax, a daily political newsletter. He can be reached at capitolfax.blogspot.com