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Illinois voters head to polls to decide competitive primaries

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, March 19, 2012 - Voters in Illinois head to the polls Tuesday to divvy up GOP presidential delegates as well as to decide the contenders in several competitive congressional races.

Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and former U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pennsylvania, are battling for the 54 delegates up for grabs tomorrow. While Romney initially had been expected to win the primary handily, several polls showed Santorum with strength in downstate Illinois.

Still, Santorum is only eligible to take 44 out of the 54 delegates in the state because his campaign didn’t submit enough signatures in four congressional districts. That includes the 13th District, which included parts of southern Illinois.

More recent surveys, such as one from Public Policy Polling, showed Romney pulling ahead. That poll even showed Romney faring well in rural parts of the state.

Both candidates spent time around Metro East in the past few days: Romney held an event this weekend in Collinsville, while Santorum met with voters in Effingham, Mt. Vernon and Herrin. The two also campaigned in northern Illinois, home to most of the state’s congressional districts.

Romney has the backing of several influential politicians, including U.S. Sen. Mark Kirk, R-Ill., U.S. Rep. John Shimkus, R-Collinsville, and U.S. Rep. Aaron Schock, R-Peoria. Santorum's supporters include the leaders of socially conservative groups, such Eagle Forum Illinois.

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Georgia, and U.S. Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, are also contending for delegates tomorrow. Neither candidate is expected to get much traction in the state.

Replacing Costello

Besides the Republican presidential primary, voters also will decide the candidates in the state’s congressional races. That includes Illinois’ 12th congressional district, which encompasses East St. Louis, Granite City and Belleville.

With U.S. Rep. Jerry Costello, D-Belleville, retiring, national Republicans see a good chance to pick up a traditionally Democratic district. Three candidates – former lieutenant governor nominee Jason Plummer, former Belleville Mayor Rodger Cook and O’Fallon nurse Theresa Khormos – are running for the nomination. (Teri Newman, a Highland resident who was the GOP's nominee for the seat in 2010 had announced a run but was disqualified from the ballot.)

Much of the attention has been on the  increasingly nasty exchanges between Plummer and Cook. Among other things, Cook chastised Plummer for not releasing his tax returns. Plummer also unleashed a flurry of accusations against Cook, including one accusing him of buying support of a socially conservative PAC.

Kyle Kondik, analyst and editor at the University of Virginia Center for Politics, said the fact that Plummer is engaging Cook at all could be a sign that the race is closer than previously anticipated. Besides the name recognition from his bid for lieutenant governor, Plummer also has spent more money than Cook or Kormos.

Kondik also said a strong performance by Santorum in the 12th District could help Cook, who received support from Santorum's backers such as Eagle Forum founder Phyllis Schlafly. Plummer received backing from lawmakers such as Kirk and Shimkus.

“That’s a district where Santorum will do fairly well,” said Kondik, referring to the 12th District. “And one would think if Santorum does well, that’s better for Cook.”

“Will Santorum voters connect the two?” he questioned. “Will Santorum voters say, ‘Oh, man, I don’t want to vote for the so-called establishment guys. I’m going to vote for Santorum and I’m going to vote for Cook.’ Are voters sophisticated enough to do that?”

On the Democratic side, former St. Clair County Regional Superintendent Brad Harriman is widely expected to receive the nomination over Granite City resident Ken Wiezer. Harriman received Costello’s endorsement in January.

Illinois is home to several competitive primaries, including an inter-party skirmish between U.S. Rep. Don Manzullo, R-Rockford, and U.S. Rep. Adam Kinzinger, R-Manteno. There are also several competitive Democratic primaries in districts around the Chicagoland area.

Jason is the politics correspondent for St. Louis Public Radio.