It's endorsement season in Illinois politics, a time of high anxiety for candidates who are already involved up to their eyeballs in stressful campaigns.

Missing out on a key interest-group endorsement can sometimes devastate a campaign. When AFSCME dumped Senator Laura Kent Donahue and endorsed her Democratic challenger John Sullivan two years ago, it was the beginning of the end for the longtime incumbent. The district's large number of state employees, angered by Republican budget cuts and energized by Rod Blagojevich's promises to protect their jobs, helped put long-shot candidate Sullivan over the top.



This year, appointed state Representative Bill Grunloh (D-Effingham) has bent over backward to win the endorsement of the Illinois Federation for Right to Life (IFRL) PAC. The IFRL is the top pro-life group in the state, and an endorsement carries a lot of weight with true believers, of which there are many in Grunloh's southern-Illinois district.



Grunloh's 108th District House race is a must-win for the Republicans, who were pushed deep into the minority two years ago.



In theory, the Republicans should have the advantage. For starters, the district is about as conservative as they come, and its voters are abandoning Democrats at the top of the ticket. In 2000, George W. Bush won 64.5 percent of the vote against Al Gore. Two years ago, Jim Ryan stomped Rod Blagojevich 60.5 to 36.5. You can bet the farm that the governor's numbers are probably a lot worse there now, which won't help fellow Democrat Grunloh.



Two years ago, pro-lifers beat the heck out of then-Representative Chuck Hartke (D-Teutopolis) for contributing lots of money to the attorney-general campaign of pro-choice Lisa Madigan. Partly because of those attacks, the solidly pro-life Hartke's margin of victory against conservative Republican David Reis was less than expected.



Reis is now running again. Actually, he never really stopped campaigning after his '02 loss. So when Hartke was eventually appointed state agricultural director, his replacement, Grunloh, had a lot of catching up to do. One way Grunloh quickly made a name for himself was by overtly and aggressively defending his right flank, which has impressed many conservative activists. He also maintained a pro-labor record, which keeps his Democratic base happy.



Reis spent the past two years patiently building relationships with the state's conservative powers-that-be in preparation for his second run, but the House Democrats have used Grunloh's brief incumbency to catapult him to the front of the line. In his short time in the House, Grunloh has sponsored numerous pro-life bills, and has been outspoken on other issues of interest to movement conservatives, including gay marriage and gun-owner rights.



The House Republicans were hoping Reis would at least split that crucial Illinois Federation for Right to Life endorsement with Grunloh. The scenario would still have helped Grunloh a little more than Reis, because many conservative voters automatically equate the Democratic Party with abortion and homosexuality. Even so, the Repubs would have gladly taken that option.



It wasn't to be. The endorsements came out last week, and Grunloh, and only Grunloh, got the nod. Adding insult to injury, the one and only article in the PAC's October newsletter gushes all over Grunloh in an attempt to explain why the group decided not to back a strong pro-life Republican such as Reis. The gist of the piece is that the Democrat's actions simply had to be rewarded.



All is not lost for Reis. Illinois Citizens for Life, a much smaller organization, endorsed both candidates earlier this month. Reis can use that endorsement in his advertising and lots of people won't know the difference.



Grunloh, however, has also snagged the endorsement of the Illinois State Rifle Association. The anti-motorcycle-helmet-law group ABATE, which has quite a few members in his district, is with Grunloh. And the Illinois Farm Bureau has tossed its lot in with the appointed incumbent instead of his farmer opponent.



Up until now the two men have appeared evenly matched, a big reason why this campaign has been so interesting. They both have boundless energy and are likable, approachable, and a good ideological fit for their region. Endorsements do not, on their own, win campaigns, and there's still that problem with the district's Republican voting trend and weeks to go before election day, but Bill Grunloh caught a big break last week.



Rich Miller also publishes Capitol Fax, a daily political newsletter. He can be reached at (http://www.capitolfax.com).

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