Karmeier has attracted support from both political parties.
For the first time since the 1960s, a Republican appears poised to win the Illinois Supreme Court's 5th Judicial District seat.
If polls showing Republican Lloyd Karmeier leading Democrat Gordon Maag prove true, Karmeier would be the first Republican since 1969 to win the seat. He would also be the first occupant since then to live outside Madison County. Karmeier is a Washington County resident. Maag lives in Madison County.
Though the 5th Judicial District is decidedly Democrat, Republicans often run strong.
In the 2000 race for president, Republican George W. Bush defeated Democrat Al Gore in the district, 50 to 48 percent, even though Gore easily won the overall Illinois vote. In 2002, Democrat Governor Rod Blagojevich won the district with just 51 percent of the vote. Democrat Attorney General Lisa Madigan won the district with less than half the vote -- 49.86 percent.
The often strong showing by Republicans in a district where most registered voters are Democrats can be explained by their conservative personal beliefs, said Mike Cys, who ran the successful 1998 campaign of U.S. Sen. Peter Fitzgerald. Though a Republican, Fitzgerald won 34 of the district's 37 counties against incumbent Democrat Sen. Carol Moseley-Braun, including Madison and St. Clair Counties, the most populous counties in the district.
"Our strategy in southern Illinois was based on the knowledge that there are a lot of Blue Dog Democrats, or Reagan Democrats, who are essentially conservative," Cys said. "To win there you've got to be pro-gun, it helps be pro-life, and it helps to be pro-defense. Downstate has a lot of people who are social and fiscal conservatives."
On some issues, Karmeier and Maag are almost indistinguishable. The National Rifle Association, for instance, has made the unusual move of endorsing both candidates, as both are strong defenders of the Second Amendment right of citizens to keep and bear arms.
The defining issue centers on lawsuits.
"Both of these men can be supported by the NRA, both can call themselves conservatives, but the tort issue is clearly defined," Cys said. "Maag is in bed with the trial attorneys, and Karmeier supports patients and doctors and small businesses. That's what it comes down to."
Cys said the Illinois Supreme Court has repeatedly struck down tort reform legislation over the past 30 years. That could change if Karmeier wins. The makeup of the court is now 5-2 in favor of Democrats.
"Although Illinois has a system in which three of the judges come out of Cook County, which means they're all Democrats, the other four seats are battled over in the rest of state," Cys said. "If Maag loses, the Democrats are one seat away from being in the minority. In 1995, tort reform passed the General Assembly and was signed by the governor. The Illinois Supreme Court, controlled by Democrats, struck it down, and it had nothing to do with the merits of the legislation. If we get a tort reform-friendly court and a change in leadership in Springfield, these trial attorneys are going to be making a lot less money."
Another race to look at occurred in 2002, when Democrat Melissa Chapman defeated Republican John Long in the race for appellate judge in the 5th Judicial District. Chapman won in 26 of the counties, though in several counties the race went down to the wire.
The dominance of the Metro-East area again stood out, as Chapman won handily in Madison and St. Clair Counties. The totals were 41,668 to 33,041 in Madison County and 36,115 to 28,550 in St. Clair County. Bond, Clay, Clinton, Edwards, Effingham, Johnson, Monroe, Richland, Wabash, Washington, and Wayne were the counties that went for Long.
Maag needs a strong showing in Madison and St. Clair Counties if he is to win, said Mike Lawrence, director of the Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale. Lawrence's career includes stints working for the late U.S. Senator Paul Simon (D-Ill.) and for Gov. Jim Edgar, a Republican.
"I think Maag must do well with his base, which is primarily Madison County," Lawrence said. "Karmeier needs to generate a strong vote not only among Republicans, but among Independents and some Democrats in other parts of the district who believe Madison County has had too much influence in the judiciary."
Though the race has generated millions of dollars of advertising and has been in the news for months, Lawrence said he believes most 5th Judicial District voters started focusing on the race only a few weeks ago.
"This is a Demoract district by the numbers," Lawrence said, "so Karmeier's challenge was to make this a referendum on medical malpractice and on the great deal of influence Madison County has had on the judiciary. I think Karmeier has had an impact. Justice Maag tried to preempt Karmeier by picking himself as a champion for malpractice reform, but the endorsements by the medical community and commercials that have gone with those endorsements are helping the Karmeier cause.
"Maag, he's got the numbers with him in terms of Democrats. One of the keys for him is to get the Democrat vote out in Madison County, because it's the most populous part of the district," Lawrence said. "The fact of the matter is that Karmeier is strongly supported by business interests and healthcare providers. Maag is strongly supported by trial lawyers and Democrats."
Turnout will be key, Lawrence said, and there is no way to know what it will be until election day. He expects Karmeier to run strong in his home county of Washington and in neighboring counties.
"If turnout is heavy universally, I think that would favor Maag," Lawrence said. "If it's heavy in the southern part of the district, that could favor Karmeier."