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Illinois: Let the People Decide

Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich will soon have the honor of selecting a replacement for Barack Obama, who has resigned his position in the Senate in order to accept his promotion to the Oval Office.

There is not much consensus about just whom Blagojevich will appoint; names as wide-ranging as Obama advisor Valerie Jarrett and Blagojevich himself have been subjects of (wild) speculation. But there are two fundamental directions that Blagojevich could go with his decision.

The first would be to select from any among a number of relatively talented and relatively young Illinois Democrats, a list that would include (but not be limited to) US Representatives Jesse Jackson Jr., Jan Schakowsky, and Luis Gutierrez, Illinois Director of Veteran Affairs Tammy Duckworth, Illinois State Treasurer Alexi Giannoulias, and Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan. All of these candidates have some star power: the Madigan and Jackson surnames are powerful in Illinois politics (and in Jackson’s case, pretty much everywhere else). Duckworth is a war hero. Schakowsky and Gutierrez are telegenic, and favorites of the netroots. Giannoulias is regarded as something of a savant among Illinois political insiders and would join Olympia Snowe as the only Greek-American senators.

But also, each candidate carries some risks. It’s doubtful that any candidate but Jackson had greater than 60 percent name recognition statewide — and his last name, in certain circles, is a liability rather than an asset. Only Giannoulias and Madigan have been elected to statewide office, and while they have largely managed to keep their hands clean of Blagojevich’s scandal-prone administration, ‘Springfield’ is a far dirtier word than ‘Washington’ to most Illinoisans. Duckworth has never been elected to anything. Gutierrez, very popular in the mix of Latino and young professional neighbohoods that make up IL-4, would need to find greater range to appeal to voters downstate and in the suburbs. Schakowsky, likewise, is among the most liberal members of the House (she was one of 26 Congresspeople to co-sponsor articles of impechment against Dick Cheney), perhaps creating wiggle room for a moderate Republican to run against her. And since this is Illinois, we can never be quite certain just who has which skeletons in their closet.

Blagojevich’s other direction would be to appoint a seat-warmer, most likely State Senate president Emil Jones, who was thought to be contemplating retirement. Jones could then bow out gracefully in 2010, allowing the Democrats to contest the seat in the primary. I would suggest that this is the wiser course of action.

For one thing, if Blajoevich were to appoint one of the half-dozen rising stars, that person would almost certainly be in a dominant position to become the Democratic nominee in 2010, having had a two-year head start on fundraising and building institutional support. This is particularly the case given that just one of the six candidates is a white male (and none of the six are WASPs); it would create a political firestorm to try and primary out a Jackson or a Duckworth, even if they ultimately were not the strongest candidate.

In a redder state, where Democrats simply had to take their best shot, nudging the electorate in the direction of one candidate might be an advantage. But in Illinois, which Democrats are favored to hold regardless of their nominee, somewhat more risk-averse behavior is called for. The way Democrats lose this seat is if they pick a nominee who (i) has some heretofore-unknown scandal or, (2) just doesn’t have the political acumen to click at the statewide level, particularly on his or her first try and a high-profile position as US Senator.

The best way to prevent these things would be to appoint a placeholder like Jones and then let the younger candidates battle it out on a level playing field in the primaries. If there’s nothing else we learned from the Presidential race this year, it’s that there’s no better way to vet, challenge and season candidates than vigorously-contested primary.

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