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IL-05: Rahm’s Middle Finger

Since writing ten days ago that Sara Feigenholtz was the favorite in the special primary in Illinois’ 5th Congressional District, I’ve received quite a lot of pushback from both voters and representatives of various candidates in the district. I’ve also had the chance to speak with one of the candidates personally.

The truth is, nobody quite knows how this race is going to turn out. Candidate forums and joint appearances, of which there have been many, may attract 600 attendees on one night and six then next. We’ve heard reports of candidates each other up and asking about one another’s internal polls. We’ve heard reports of candidates lowering their turnout estimates, from perhaps 20 percent of the district to as little as 10 or 15 percent (the lower the turnout, the more unpredictable the outcome). About the only thing anyone is certain about is that whomever wins next Tuesday’s primary will also defeat the Republican candidate in the general election and become the next Congressman from Illinois.

Making matters more complicated is that many of the political players that would ordinarily be influential in the race, particularly Mayor Daley, have avoided endorsing, either owing to an abundance of strong candidates with whom they have allegiances, or a reluctance to show any appearance of cronyism in the wake of the Rod Blagojevich scandal. But, there are some exceptions. The SEIU, to the surprise of some observers, has made an aggressive play on behalf of Feigenholtz, a state senator, not just endorsing her but also spending a substantial sum on television ads on her behalf, even purchasing some network TV in a market where it is very expensive to do so (Chicago’ s television market reaches well beyond IL-05 into perhaps a dozen Congressional Districts, including one in Northern Indiana).

Both the Tribune and the Sun-Times, meanwhile, have endorsed Cook County Commissioner Mike Quigley. Although we are skeptical of the value of newspaper endorsements in general, they can potentially make a fair amount of difference in a race where voters know little about the candidates and are having trouble differentiating between them.

State Treasurer Alexi Giannoulias, a leading candidate for either senator or governor in 2010 and a personal friend of Barack Obama’s, has endorsed State Representative John Fritchey, who has a reputation for being a reformer but is also has a somewhat conservative set of economic positions, including favoring an repeal of the estate tax. I’ve heard reports (though I can’t confirm them independently) that SEIU’s ad buy on behalf of Feigenholtz was principally motivated by a desire not to see Fritchey win the seat, whom they regard as too tied to corporate interests.

If Fritchey, Feigenholtz and Quigley are the leading “insider” candidates, at least two other “outsiders” who are newer to politics also have a plausible chance at victory. One is labor attorney and author Tom Goeghegan (the last name is pronounced ‘Gagen’, as in rhymes with ‘Ronald Reagan’), whose connections run deep within the blogosphere, and whose undiluted, Paul Wellstone-esque progressivism has differentiated him in candidate forums. The other is Charles (‘Charlie’) Wheelan, himself a well-regarded author and now a professor at the University of Chicago’s Harris School of Public Policy. Wheelan was the candidate who I had the chance to speak with personally; his staff arranged a lunch meeting earlier this week.

Wheelan told me that he decided to get involved in the race only because of the “perfect storm” of circumstances that the race presented him with: the absence of a clear favorite in a contest in his home district, plus the salience of so many of the major issues of the day to his background in economics. If he doesn’t win, Wheelan told me, he doesn’t envision himself running for office again in the foreseeable future; this is a one-off experiment. (Although, you wouldn’t know by talking with him that Wheelan is a political novice, as he’s charismatic and fairly polished, especially by the standards of a U of C professor).

The controversial part of Wheelan’s candidacy is that, perhaps true to his University of Chicago background, he’s a free-marketer at a time when this is not very much in vogue within liberal circles. In particular, he is the only Democratic candidate to oppose the Employee Free Choice Act. I asked Wheelan about this; he hold me that he thinks that improving wages for the working class is the most important economic issue of the day, but that labor unions do not particularly help to accomplish this for the working class as a whole (as opposed to the workers whom they represent). There is very long discussion that we could have about the merits of this position; suffice it to say that these questions are more complicated than either opponents or proponents of labor would generally acknowledge.

In political terms, however, what the anti-EFCA stance potentially provides Wheelan with is some differentiation. In a two-candidate race, coming out against labor would almost certainly be a disaster in a Democratic primary in Chicago. In a multi-candidate race, however, where a winner could plausibly emerge with as little as a 20 percent plurality of the vote, the story could be rather different. Illinois has non-partisan registration, with voters simply declaring what ballot they want once they reach the polling place, and Wheelan told me he thinks it’s possible that some independent and Republican voters will pick up a ballot on his behalf. Wheelan has also attempted to differentiate himself through viral advertising that touts his credentials as an economist and picks fun of Illinois’ politicians, most notably Emanuel himself (notice the detail, below, on Rahm’s missing middle finger).

In any event, we’re not in the business of endorsements; suffice it to say that Democrats have a wealth of riches in this race, and that the debates between the candidates have for the most part been remarkably substantive and collegial. If I had to lay odds on the race, however, they would probably look something as follows:

Quigley      2-1
Feigenholtz 5-2
Fritchey 5-1
Wheelan 12-1
Goeghegan 20-1
O'Connor 25-1

Field 20-1

Nate Silver founded and was the editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.