Last year, the state Senate Republicans tested anti-tax messages in their campaigns without much success. While almost all Senate Democrats had voted for a large income tax hike along with an expansion of the sales tax to services, the Republican message just didn’t work because the tax bill the Democrats backed never became the law of the land.
But now that a tax increase has actually been approved, with all the resulting hype surrounding it, there could very well be a different outcome next year. The tax increase has become a part of the public consciousness, and not in a good way, either.
The tax hike vote itself has received a ton of publicity, but the circus ever since has further burned into voters’ minds a highly negative and toxic message. There was Gov. Quinn’s infamous flip-flop, first claiming he’d veto anything over a one percentage point increase and then signing a two-percent hike. Then came the flood of high-profile bashing of our tax hike by Republican governors throughout the country – all of whom pledged to poach our corporations and our jobs. We had the widely reported but false stories about Caterpillar considering leaving and the statewide nervous breakdown which resulted. On top of all that, the state still has severe budget problems despite the cut in everybody’s take-home pay. Then, obviously, there’s the problem of rising Illinois unemployment since the tax hike took effect.
This was also the first purely partisan tax increase since the state’s new Constitution was adopted two generations ago. In the past, tax hike roll calls were carefully structured in a bipartisan manner and the two parties generally avoided dealing with the issue during the following campaign cycle. Republicans and Democrats worked closely together two years ago to raise taxes to fund the state’s infrastructure program, for instance. Nobody heard a peep about that vote on the campaign trail last year. But the income tax is an entirely different matter. No Republican votes were on that bill.
To make matters worse for the ruling Democrats, 2012 is a redistricting election year. Most legislators have lots of new constituents who don’t know who they are and won’t be prepared to cut them any slack.
And, on top of everything else, a large number of state House Democrats ran last year on anti-tax platforms. House Speaker Michael Madigan even refused to recruit candidates who barely hinted that they’d vote for a tax hike. In the Quad Cities, for example, Madigan rejected his former staffer Porter McNeil in the primary when McNeil tried to stake out a middle ground between the more aggressively pro-tax Democrat Jerry Lack and the anti-tax Dennis Ahern. Madigan injected himself into the primary and backed Ahern, who turned out to be a total dud of a candidate whom Madigan eventually dumped. McNeil might’ve been able to hold former Rep. Mike Boland’s seat, but Madigan was so anti-tax at the time that McNeil wasn’t considered viable.
Two months after the election, of course, Madigan completely switched gears and muscled through a 66 percent income tax hike. Democrats who followed his lead in both directions now find themselves in a serious pickle. They promised (or came right up to the line of promising) not to vote for a tax hike and then did it anyway before they were even sworn in for another term.
The Republicans are now preparing to move in for the kill. And at this point their battlefield is quite large. President Barack Obama’s presence on the ticket will be a problem for the Republicans in some areas, but the president is now quite unpopular in many of the districts he won three years ago. If the economy doesn’t improve and if the national Republicans nominate a sane presidential candidate, then the House and Senate Democrats will have to find a way to win Downstate and suburban and exurban areas without his coattails.
And the same thing goes for Democratic state legislators trying to move up the political ladder. At least two former legislators and one current legislator are running for Congress right now. All three voted for the tax hike. If they think that the national Republicans are going to give them a pass on that, then they’re dreaming. Heck, their Democratic primary opponents would probably be wise to use the issue as well.
Rich Miller publishes Capitol Fax, a daily political newsletter, and CapitolFax.com.