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Mike Flannery on Races to Watch

“The contest for President Obama’s former senate seat will be watched around the world. It’s not just all the uproar over Rod Blagojevich’s alleged attempt to sell it to the highest bidder. The outcome could be critical to control of the U.S. Senate.”

   Mike Flannery has had a close-up view of Chicago and Illinois politics for almost 40 years. He first covered politics and labor for the Chicago Sun-Times where he spent seven years after graduating from Georgetown University and then another 30 years as a political reporter and editor at CBS2 Chicago. He is now the political editor at FOX Chicago News, where he moved last summer.      
      Given this extreme insider’s knowledge of the political scene, Chicago Life asked Flannery for his take on the upcoming election.

How much do you think President Obama’s falling poll numbers impact the Illinois races?

   What the President’s declining job approval numbers mean is that even in his home state, his ability to help fellow Democrats is declining. Still, surveys indicate that Mr. Obama remains relatively strong in Chicago and Cook County. He is weaker in the collar counties, and weakest of all the further one goes downstate. U.S. Senate nominee Alexi Giannoulias, who would not have been elected State Treasurer in 2006 without Mr. Obama, is once again betting on the President’s star power. Giannoulias has run a TV spot that features Mr. Obama praising Giannoulias. Other Illinois Democrats though, are steering clear. And that’s already produced a surprise.

What surprise is that?

    Consider Barrington’s Rep. Melissa Bean (D-IL.)  Her district includes parts of Lake County, McHenry County and Northwest suburban Cook County. She’s facing an under-funded Republican challenger wounded by a series of personal, financial missteps. But Bean's taking nothing for granted. She publicly split with the President over renewing the “Bush Tax Cuts.” Mr. Obama’s made it a signature campaign issue this fall that he wants to extend them for about 98% of taxpayers: couples making up to $250,000 a year and individuals making up to $200,000. Rep. Bean wants the cuts extended for everyone. On Sept. 14th, she and Chicago’s Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-IL) had an unusual, all-Democratic debate about it on our “Fox Chicago News at Nine O’clock.” Illinois Republicans undoubtedly enjoyed every minute.

What’s your take on the how the Tea Party will influence the outcome of the state’s elections, such as in Mark Kirk’s district, the 10th Congressional District in Illinois?

    The Tea Party movements so far have been less visible in Illinois than in many other states. Our first-in-the-nation primary last Feb 2nd occurred long before the movement hit its stride.

For political junkies, what are the Illinois races to watch which might be harbingers of what will happen nationwide on election night?

   Races to watch include several where Tea Party activists are playing a role. Strong Tea Party backing is one reason Republican Adam Kinzinger has jumped way out in front of incumbent Representative Debbie Halvorson. She recently fired her campaign manager, just one sign of the trouble now facing the former majority leader of the Illinois state senate. Kinzinger, a 32-year old Air Force Captain still active in the reserves, is now rated by almost all observers as likely to flip the seat to the GOP
   Tea Partiers are actively helping Republican congressional candidate Randy Hultgren in the 11th District long held by former House Speaker Denny Hastert. Former Fermilab scientist Bill Foster stunned the nation by taking the seat for the Democrats after Hastert resigned.
   Bloomington’s Bill Brady is the party’s most conservative nominee for governor in a half-century. He’s to the right of former GOP governors Jim Edgar, Jim Thompson and Richard B. Ogilvie on most of the hot button social and financial issues.

 Can you give us some examples?

    Brady promises not only to balance the state budget without increasing taxes; he also vows to cut the tax on gasoline. He's a critic of the Obama health care plan and stimulus spending. He wants to reduce regulations on business. He’d like to cut the state minimum wage. Union leaders claim—and Brady does not deny—that Brady told them he’d like to make Illinois a right-to-work state, effectively stripping unions of the power to collect mandatory dues. His spokeswoman said Brady does not think right-to-work would pass in the current General Assembly. What likely would pass in Springfield next year are at least some new restrictions on abortion, though the procedure would likely remain widely available in Illinois. Brady would surely sign any new restrictions into law. During his 17 years in the General Assembly, Brady’s also opposed gay rights legislation. He’s a strong supporter of the Illinois State Rifle Association's agenda on guns. 
    The contest for President Obama’s former senate seat will be watched around the world. It’s not just all the uproar over Rod Blagojevich’s alleged attempt to sell it to the highest bidder. The outcome could be critical to control of the U.S. Senate.
    In contrast to Bill Brady’s conservatism is the moderate reputation of Republican Mark Kirk. The GOP’s US Senate nominee tacked sharply to the right this year. He now says, for example, that he voted for cap-and-trade legislation because it was popular in his silk-stocking, North Shore 10th Congressional District. Now that he’s running statewide, Kirk told me, he opposes cap-and-trade, saying it would hurt coal miners in Southern Illinois and many others.

 We see you on the air, but take us to the behind the scenes in your job? How do you gather information?

    Dozens of phones calls each day, hundreds e-mails. An absolute must-read is Rich Miller's Capitol Fax Blog online. I read the print or online editions of The Sun-Times, Tribune, Southtown Star, Daily Herald, Springfield Journal Register, Chicago Magazine, plus Fox News Channel, Wall Street Journal, The New York Times and The Washington Post. Other sources, though not necessarily scanned every day, include various programs on all the broadcast networks—Rasmussen Reports, the Gallup pollsters, Rush Limbaugh’s show, National Review, Huffington Post, Gapers Block and Second City Cop.

Do you look at poll numbers all the time? Besides hard data, are there less objective measures that give you a sense of what is going on?  Have you developed a feel for how things will go that might not be based on what poll numbers indicate?

    Poll numbers are important, but overrated. I can learn a lot more by watching how a candidate acts with a crowd. Is he/she defensive, on the attack, relaxed, on-edge, nervous, confident? Has the candidate changed his/her style recently? That can be far more revealing than almost anything else.

What are other aspects of your job that might not be apparent from those of us seeing you on TV?

   What most people don’t realize about this job is that there’s a huge physical component; long hours, lots of hustling from one place to another, chasing politicians (sometimes literally running after them as I did recently when I and [our] camera operator jogged with Rod Blagojevich).

Published: October 10, 2010
Issue: November 2010 Arts and Politics Issue