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Miller: State Republicans sizing up possible runs for attorney general

One of the worst-kept secrets over the past few weeks is that House Republican Leader Tom Cross has been considering a run for Illinois attorney general.

Cross reportedly has been asked by Comptroller Judy Baar Topinka and Congressman Aaron Schock to think about a bid in case Attorney General Lisa Madigan decides to run for governor or simply not run for anything.

A former county prosecutor, Cross long has considered a bid for the office. But as recently as a few weeks ago, Cross’ people were denying that he would do it. Now, however, they are saying it’s a possibility. The calls from top Republicans and some major GOP fundraisers apparently have helped focus his mind.

“Anytime you have so many people requesting that you consider something, you owe it to them to do some due diligence,” explained one Cross backer last week.

Top Republicans believe they have a decent shot at winning the race after picking up two other down-ballot statewide offices in 2010. Rep. Jim Durkin, R-Western Springs, is so far the only other Republican openly considering the office. But there is some doubt that Durkin will pull the trigger.

Durkin ran against U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin in 2002, beating Jim Oberweis and John Cox in the GOP primary, but lost the general election with only 38 percent of the vote. He was heavily involved in both of John McCain’s presidential bids, so he has significant statewide experience. But serious doubts about whether he’ll run for attorney general have caused some top folks to start coalescing behind Cross.

Cross’ people stress that their boss hasn’t yet made a final decision, but they do acknowledge that it would be rather awkward if both Cross and Durkin run against each other in a primary. Even so, they say the two are friends and they figure they’ll work things out one way or the other come summertime.

It’s possible that Durkin could even be a potential Cross replacement as House GOP Leader if Cross runs statewide and Durkin doesn’t. For now, though, nothing has been decided, partly because everybody is waiting to see what Madigan does, and partly because there is still some time to sort everything out within the party.

Durkin was obviously caught by surprise by Cross’ decision to publicly reveal his intentions. But he pushed back against those who say he’s not seriously putting a campaign together by saying he’s met with a pollster and a fundraiser as well as with the Republican Attorney General Association.

However, he said he has told people “consistently” that there’s no vacancy at the moment, so he’s going to wait and see what Madigan does before making a decision.

As far as Cross goes, Durkin said, “We’re good friends, and no matter what happens, we will continue to be good friends.”

Cross has not had much luck, to say the least, in winning new seats under two successive Democratic maps in a Democratic-trending state, although he fared better than the Senate Republicans did last year. His caucus is deeply divided along geographic and ideological lines, and holding them together is no easy task. After years of iron-fisted control of the caucus by Lee Daniels, Cross promised to be a more small “d” democratic leader. But that has resulted in some embarrassing results, including recently when a majority of his caucus voted against a pension reform bill that he’d been advocating for years.

According to the “Trial Balloons” website, no other Republicans besides Durkin have yet floated their names for attorney general. The Democratic list is long, however. Sen. Kwame Raoul, Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart, former Chicago Inspector General David Hoffman, Lt. Gov. Sheila Simon, Chicago Board of Education member and prominent Latino attorney Jesse Ruiz, and state Reps. Jack Franks and John Bradley are all listed as possible candidates, as is Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez.

A crowded Democratic primary could very well cause a surprising election result, so the Republicans definitely want to be ready just in case they get a relatively weak opponent.

Madigan has been just too popular with voters to hurt a potential farm team member in the long run by putting up any sort of decent fight against her. If she moves on, the Republicans figure they at least have a shot at winning the slot.

• Rich Miller publishes Capitol Fax, a daily political newsletter, and CapitolFax.com.

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