With Gov. Bruce Rauner trailing badly in the polls, many believe the Illinois attorney general race between Champaign Republican Erika Harold and state Sen. Kwame Raoul, a Chicago Democrat, is shaping up to be the closest statewide contest on the Nov. 6 ballot.
Republicans are increasingly looking to newcomer Harold as the GOP’s best chance to keep a check on a Democratic Party that may otherwise control all the levers of power in state government.
Democrats, meanwhile, express confidence the more politically experienced Raoul is on track to win the predominately Democratic state as voters turn to him as the better choice to keep a check on the policies of President Donald Trump.
Harold, Raoul and Libertarian candidate Bubba Harsy are vying to replace Attorney General Lisa Madigan, a Democrat who is stepping aside after 16 years in office.
Madigan’s successor will assume a job that has taken on considerably more influence than when Madigan was first elected in 2002 as state attorneys general have become important players in national politics.
Republican attorneys general helped set the trend during the Obama years by using the courts to challenge his policies on health care, immigration and more. Since Trump’s election, their Democratic counterparts have returned the favor.
That dynamic helps explain why both parties are taking an especially keen interest in the outcome of the Illinois contest.
Illinois’ richest man, hedge fund manager Kenneth Griffin, recently dropped another $1.5 million into Harold’s campaign. Gov. Bruce Rauner, who likes to say he recruited Harold to run, had previously donated $1.8 million to her effort.
J.B. Pritzker, the Democratic nominee for governor, has donated more than $2.9 million to Raoul, who also has received major financial support from organized labor.
Harold, 38, a former Miss America with a law degree from Harvard, has run a campaign based on “taking the politics out” of the attorney general’s office while increasing its role in fighting government corruption.
Along those lines, she has attempted to link Raoul to his fellow Democratic legislator, Illinois House Speaker Mike Madigan, using the same six-degrees-of-separation approach employed by Republicans across the ballot this year to capitalize on Madigan’s unpopularity.
Harold, who has never held public office, portrays Raoul as a product of the same political system and beholden to special interests.
Proclaiming her independence, Harold has embraced the possibility of voters abandoning Rauner while sticking with her.
“I think there are a lot of people who are considering voting for me because they want to preserve the two-party system in Illinois,” she said. “And they do want a check on government.”
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Raoul, 54, a 14-year Senate veteran with a law degree from Chicago-Kent and four years as an assistant state’s attorney, has focused much of his campaign on Harold’s conservative views on social issues in an effort to show they are at odds with her genial television image.
With Harold having no record in office, Raoul has relied mostly on statements culled from her unsuccessful campaign for Congress in 2014.
At that time, Harold said she favored a constitutional amendment to prevent gay marriage and wanted to repeal Obamacare. Her pro-life position on abortion holds that it should be illegal even in cases of rape or incest.
Harold has argued her personal views on such issues don’t matter because as attorney general she would be bound to follow the law and enforce it.
Raoul, a strong defender of LGBTQ and abortion rights, counters that candidates’ personal views are important because lawyers routinely disagree on what the language of a law means.
“So your obligation is to follow the law as you interpret it. Your obligation as an attorney general is to weigh in. It is the obligation of an attorney general to utilize their discretion in the interest of justice,” Raoul said at a candidate forum.
Harold has said she would file suit against the federal government when warranted, but seems to envision a more limited role for the Illinois attorney general in the national political wars.
On Obama’s Affordable Care Act, she said she would not have joined the lawsuit brought by other Republican attorneys general seeking to have it declared unconstitutional. But neither has she shown any inclination to go to court to defend the ACA as Madigan and other Democrats have done.
“It’s ultimately a legislative issue, and I don’t think anyone is well served by the involvement of the attorneys general in this way,” she told reporters last week.
Both candidates benefit from inspiring personal stories.
Harold talks about how being the victim of “severe racial and sexual harassment” in high school inspired her to become a lawyer.
Appearing recently before an African-American audience recently on the West Side, Harold was asked if black people can trust her.
“I know that as a black woman running for office as a Republican the first thing that people look to see is: Are you crazy? The second thing people look to see is: Are you a sellout?” Harold said. “I can tell you that you can absolutely trust me because one thing I can tell you is I am very proud to be a black woman.”
Raoul routinely chokes up while talking about being the son of Haitian immigrants, his late-father a doctor who made house calls on his South Side patients while carrying his stethoscope, medicine and a “little black pistol” in his medical bag.
He reminds audiences that while he was indeed the successor to Barack Obama’s Illinois Senate seat, he’s “not the next Barack Obama.”
“I’m the first Kwame Raoul,” he says.