Illinois Democrats Reeling As Blagojevich Scandal Develops

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The scandal surrounding Democratic Gov. Rod Blagojevich has sent shockwaves through Illinois political circles -- not only casting a spotlight on the state's reputation for corruption but also potentially tainting the field of likely Democratic contenders for President-elect Barack Obama's former Senate seat.

The most prominent name on that list of contenders, Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr., is literally facing howls of protests from some of his constituents. About a dozen protestors stood outside his Chicago office Saturday shouting, "Ho ho ho, Jesse Jr. gotta go."

Protest organizer Harold Davis said he believes allegations that an emissary may have offered to raise money for Blagojevich in exchange for Jackson being appointed to the Senate. Jackson has denied any wrongdoing.

So far, Blagojevich and his chief of staff are the only people facing charges in the federal investigation into the governor's alleged attempt to put a price tag on the appointment of Obama's replacement. But even if other Illinois Democrats have no connection to any wrongdoing, many have associated with Blagojevich.

Political analysts suggest that those associations, however innocent, could make it difficult for a Democrat to claim the open Senate seat if a special election were held.

"I think anybody who's been mentioned up to now -- Jesse Jackson, Tammy Duckworth, Valerie Jarrett -- I think they're all pretty tainted and they're not going to get it," said Democratic consultant William Bike, who is based in Chicago.

A spokesman for the state Democratic Party declined to be interviewed for this story.

It isn't clear yet how the seat will be filled. Technically, Blagojevich still has the power to make the appointment, though he also faces pressure to resign and a movement to oust him. The state Legislature, meanwhile, may attempt to bypass the governor's office by scheduling a special election for the seat.

If that happens, the protesters in Jackson's neighborhood are adamant that the congressman shouldn't be elected, though several passersby shouted support for Jackson. One yelled, "Leave Jesse alone."

Jackson has denied any wrongdoing and told CNN on Saturday he wouldn't serve in the Senate if an appointment left a cloud of suspicion hanging over his head.

"I need to find out and we all need to find out the truth," he said, adding, "when the process is over, I profoundly hope that the people will give me my name back."

The Democratic Party is dominant in much of Illinois, especially Chicago. But could Republicans find an opening in a special election for Senate?

"I think all of these Blagojevich Democrats are going to have problems in the future," said one prominent GOP operative who spoke on the condition of anonymity so he could speak freely about the political landscape.

"Voters are angry," he added. "They are upset. They are sick and tired of this nonsense. ... If you're being perceived as working closely with the governor and being part of this mess, that poses a problem."

Although the next twist in the Blagojevich scandal is hard to predict, polls show that voters prefer to have a special election for Obama's Senate seat rather than leaving it in the hands of Blagojevich or his successor, if he resigns or is impeached.

Sixty-six percent of all Illinois voters said the state should hold a special election, according to a Rasmussen report. Twenty-one percent disagree and 13 percent are undecided.

The Illinois House will meet on Monday to discuss and possibly vote on a bill to hold a special election.

Bike, the Democratic consultant, noted that less-prominent Democrats -- such as Dorothy Brown, clerk of Cook County Circuit Court, or Illinois Secretary of State Jesse White -- might have the best shot of winning a special election because they have not been linked closely to Blagojevich.

But the analysts say Republicans would be competitive in a special election.

"It puts Republicans back in play in the state," Bike said, noting that Republicans currently don't hold any of the statewide offices.

Analysts point out that Illinois only became a blue state in recent years, after Republicans dominated state politics for decades. But the fallout of the Blagojevich scandal could shift the balance of power.

The GOP operative who spoke to suggested that Democratic leadership has turned off Illinois voters. If a special election is called, the state -- and the country -- will find out if that is true.