Illinois: Peculiar Lieutenant Governor Rules Compound Democrats' Problems

To state the obvious, Democrats in Illinois didn't do themselves any favors in the ticket they picked on Tuesday. Gov. Pat Quinn, who was ...
by | February 5, 2010

To state the obvious, Democrats in Illinois didn't do themselves any favors in the ticket they picked on Tuesday.

Gov. Pat Quinn, who was narrowly nominated for a full term, either has a bad or very bad approval rating. Senate nominee Alexi Giannoulias, another narrow winner on Tuesday, had a career with a financially troubled bank that has Democrats worried.

Now, Democrats have a new problem: Lieutenant Governor nominee Scott Lee Cohen. In fairness to Cohen, he denies that he pulled a knife on his ex-girlfriend and denies that he knew she was a prostitute. Of course, he doesn't deny using illegal drugs a few years ago. Plus, there are all the lawsuits and the question of whether he's been paying child support. And, all of these allegations only gained widespread notice two days after the Democratic primary.

How could that happen?

Illinois, like most states, doesn't have primary runoffs. Cohen, a wealthy pawnbroker, won with 26% of the vote in a six-candidate field. The other candidates had a lot more political experience, but Cohen had more money.

If the top two candidates had advanced to a runoff, the establishment probably would have united around Cohen's opponent (State Rep. Art Turner, who came in second with 22% of the vote on Tuesday). Cohen would have faced a lot more scrutiny. All of the reports on Cohen's personal life would have come out. Cohen almost certainly would have lost.

Primary runoffs are expensive, which is why only ten states have them (nine in the South). New York City uses them, but the state legislature is talking about getting rid of them because of the price and low participation.

Still, the Cohen case (and many others) show that there is something to be said for the primary runoff. It's worth noting that creative ways of producing consensus candidates, like instant-runoff voting or similar ideas, don't come with the same benefit: a longer campaign that allows for more scrutiny of the leading candidates. Of course, I'm a sucker for having as many elections as possible.

Without a runoff, Cohen became the nominee outright. But, in many states, that wouldn't have been that big a problem for his party. While Cohen likely would have been doomed by the allegations, the rest of the party simply could have disowned him. The Democrats would have conceded the relatively unimportant lieutenant governor's seat, but would have contained the damage.

Illinois, however, is one of a handful of states where lieutenant governor candidates have to win primaries in their own right, but then run on a ticket with the governor. Everyone seems to hate this system, but some states have ended up with it as, I suppose, a bizarre compromise between a truly independent lieutenant governor's office (which sometimes leads the governor and lieutenant governor to come from different parties) and a true running mate selected by the gubernatorial nominee.

The result isn't just that Quinn is tied to Cohen whether he likes it or not. This system also given Cohen an extra incentive not to give up his candidacy.

If Cohen had to run in the general election on his own, he'd be more amenable to dropping his candidacy. Fairly or unfairly, the allegations against him have rendered him unelectable on his own. He'd have no incentive to keep running.

But, since Cohen is tied to Quinn, he still has a chance to be lieutenant governor. He can hope that Illinois residents will ultimately cast their votes based on the top of the ticket and that Quinn will do well enough between now and November to earn their votes. Right now it doesn't look likely (given that Cohen is a huge liability), but it's not impossible.

So, Illinois' system for choosing a lieutenant governor doesn't just just make Cohen a burden for Quinn. It also makes Cohen a burden that's less likely to go away. In that context, pleas from leading Democrats for Cohen to drop out have, so far, gone unanswered.

Josh Goodman
Josh Goodman  |  Former Staff Writer

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