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Has the Illinois GOP Finally Bottomed Out?

With former Republican Governor George Ryan having been found guilty earlier today on 18 counts of racketeering, mail fraud, false statements and tax violations, the Party of Lincoln in the Land of Lincoln may have finally put its recent woes behind them. The low point certainly had to be two years ago with the national embarrassment of Alan Keyes running against Barack Obama. Keyes' joke of a campaign couldn't even manage 30% of the vote in a presidential election year.

With George Ryan heading to jail and the Keyes fiasco yesterday's news, Republicans in Illinois may actually be in a position to win a few big races this November. After emerging victorious in the Republican primary last month, three-term State Treasurer Judy Baar Topinka is running strong against the ethically-challenged Rod Blagojevich. Two recent polls have shown her with small 2-3 point leads over the Democratic governor.

In the fight for the House of Representatives, in contrast to the national landscape where Republicans are more on the defensive, Democrats are defending seats in 2 out of the 3 contested races. The retirement of Democrat Lane Evans has created an open seat in the 18th district and, while it is a Democratic leaning seat, it is trending Republican. Bush lost the district by only 3 pts in 2004 compared to 10 pts in 2000. In Illinois-8, Democrat Melissa Bean is going to have a battle on her hands to repeat her surprise win in 2004 and hold on to her job in a district where George Bush pulled in 56% of the vote in both 2000 and 2004. The one Republican seat in play (Illinois-6) has taken on a huge national profile with the candidacy of Iraq War veteran Tammy Duckworth. However, looking beyond all of the hoopla surrounding her candidacy, Duckworth barely won the Democratic primary causing Roll Call's Stuart Rothenberg to remark that her weak showing can't be seen as "anything but a mild embarrassment" for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. Duckworth's chances to win are at best 50/50 in a district that has elected the conservative Henry Hyde for the last 32 years.

Just like 2004 when Illinois was one of the few bright spots for Democrats in an otherwise bad year (Barack Obama won 70% and the sole Republican House member was defeated), the state may be one of the positives in an other wise tough 2006 for Republicans. With the bad news finally out and George Ryan in jail, the GOP has a shot to pick up the governor's mansion in Springfield and net two Congressional seats. Depending on how the rest on the national landscape shakes out on election night, those two seats may be very important in determining who controls the House of Representatives.