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Age and cunning the keys to Topinka victory

Age and cunning, the saying goes, trump youth and enthusiasm.

In the case of Judy Baar Topinka and Sheila Simon, there may be more than a little truth to that.

Topinka, 70, on Tuesday night beat Simon, 53, to win re-election as state comptroller. In the normally blue state of Illinois, Topinka has almost always been a top tier GOP vote getter with crossover appeal.

The plain-spoken, accordion-playing, rummage-sale-shopping Republican from Riverside has come as close as any state politician to shaking every hand in each of 102 counties. Her blunt, no-nonsense style and moderate positions have helped her party more than her party, oftentimes, ever helped her.

Since 1980, she has served in the state House, Senate and as treasurer. Along the way, in 2006, she became the first Republican woman to win a statewide primary for governor. But in the general election, Rod Blagojevich’s youth, enthusiasm, cash and cunning tripped her up. Even though he was already under federal investigation, he won a second term anyway.

Topinka, ever since, has been approached by earnest citizens claiming they really, really, honest-to-God voted for her for governor and not him. She just rolls her eyes.  

The irony of this latest race is that she and her opponent have many of the same fine qualities. Sheila Simon is every bit as straightforward, musical, frugal and approachable as Topinka. And as idealistic as her famous father, the late Senator Paul Simon, when it comes to ethics in government. But she lacks some of his political pragmatism.

In 2013, when it looked like Attorney General Lisa Madigan would make a primary run against Pat Quinn for governor, Simon jilted Quinn and quietly set her sights on the AG race.  

The problem was that Madigan — thanks to her Speaker of the House father’s refusal to get out of her way — jilted her own supporters and donors. She stayed put, forcing Simon to find a new direction. The direction Simon should have chosen was a run for treasurer against Republican Tom Cross. But she opted for the comptroller’s slot instead.

The only decision destined for greater failure would have been for her to oppose Jesse White for secretary of state.

It’s not that Topinka hasn’t had significant missteps. There was that moment where she whispered in Gov. Quinn’s ear (in front of an open microphone) that she hoped to get her son a teaching job at a state university. And the disclosure of lucrative deals for her highly paid staffers to pick up extra pay at a foundation to which she was attached.

Yes, Simon exploited those weaknesses in ads. But going for the jugular is a double-edged sword when your opponent is better known and more beloved.

Simon’s composure and low-key style in debates at times looked more scholarly than passionate. Topinka’s “crazy aunt” flamboyance, meanwhile, was to voters as familiar and comfortable as a well-worn bedroom slipper.

Like I said, age.

And cunning.