Ten years ago, just before the 1994 Republican landslide, I thought that state Sen. Patrick Welch (D-Peru) was in big, big trouble. The Republicans launched an expensive campaign against him and they had a pretty good candidate.
Ive known Pat Welch since 1982, when he won his first state Senate race while I was still a college student. He was a hard-charging, no-nonsense liberal back then and he didnt change much after his election. If anything, he became more defiantly liberal over the years, and more often than not preferred to attack Republicans rather than work with them.
By 1994, I figured the voters had grown weary of Welchs attitude. I was wrong. Welch won even though Democrats throughout the state and the nation were wiped out.
Sen. Welch has been the Senate Democrats chief attack dog since the party regained the majority two years ago. He has obviously enjoyed his role, sternly gaveling screaming Republicans into order while ramming partisan legislation down their throats every chance he could get.
For the umpteenth time, the Senate Republicans targeted Welch for defeat this year. Their visceral hatred of the man had led them to spend a kings ransom against Welch over the years, and I didnt think much of their chances this time around. The Republicans so disliked the only candidate who surfaced to run against Welch that they tried to convince someone else to run against him in the primary. It looked like a comedy of errors.
What I hadnt counted on, however, was how hard Welchs opponent would work and how badly Welch would react to him.
Gary Dahl owns a trucking company that employs a lot of people in LaSalle County. His entire reason for running for the state Senate was Welchs vote in favor of massive tax and fee hikes on commercial truck owners last year, and he worked like a dog throughout the year to tell voters his story.
Dahl comes off as just a regular guy, but hes also a respected member of the community, so when Welch began running blistering negative ads that attacked his companys safety record, the voters were appalled and repulsed.
That negative voter reaction gave the Republicans an opening to attack Welch, and they dumped a fortune into Dahls race in the closing days, slamming Welch for what they claimed was his aloofness from the district after an undistinguished, 22-year career.
It worked. "Welch the Unbeatable" was finally beaten.
While Im unburdening myself, I might as well admit that I also miscalculated about a House race in Peoria. I knew that incumbent state Rep. Ricca Slone (D-Peoria Heights) was not a beloved legislator or a likable character. She hadnt done a whole lot for her district in the eight years since she was first elected and she was undoubtedly too liberal for her blue-collar voters.
Slones district is so solidly Democratic, however, that I figured she could barely hold on, and I ignored her Republican opponent for weeks.
While I was looking elsewhere, the Democrats were spending a fortune to paint Slones pro-life Republican opponent, Aaron Schock, as far too right wing for the districts Democratic voters.
It didnt work. Slone had simply alienated too many people over the years, so when she attacked Schock her negatives shot up even higher. The Republican Schock has been a local media darling since he won a school board race as a write-in candidate, and the Republicans helped him build on that positive image while he outworked Rep. Slone at every turn.
In the end, even though Slone represents a 60 percent Democratic district, with thousands of loyal African-American voters, the Republican Schock managed to win by 230 votes.
Some claim Rep. Slone and Sen. Welch lost because the two are the most liberal downstate legislators in Illinois. Thats possible, but presidential candidate John Kerry received more votes than they did in their own districts, so I dont think its a particularly great explanation.
Their remoteness from their constituents needs, their acerbic personalities, their overly negative campaigns and their hardworking, likable, "victimized" opponents did far more damage.
While were on the topic of mistakes, I made a truly stupid error last week and missed several contributions from Sen. Dave Syverson and Sen. Steve Rauschenberger to Republican candidates this fall. I apologize for the error, but the money wasnt enough to completely change my point.
Rich Miller also publishes Capitol Fax, a daily political newsletter. He can be reached at www.capitolfax.com.