The fight over the Republican nomination for circuit clerk in Champaign County is becoming a costly distraction for the GOP.
Champaign County Republicans have a problem on their hands, and how they address it could spell the difference between success and failure in the fall elections.
We refer to what's quickly becoming the Holderfield/Winkel debacle, that is the loss of circuit clerk candidate Stephanie Holderfield in the March 20 GOP primary to noncandidate Richard Winkel by an 8,133-to-7,888 margin.
Winkel, an employee at the University of Illinois Institute of Government and Public Affairs and a former state senator, initially planned to run but later withdrew from the race after it was too late to remove his name from the ballot.
County Clerk Gordy Hulten rejected the Illinois State Board of Elections' recommendation to ignore the Winkel votes and recognize Holderfield as the winner. Hulten intends to certify Winkel as the winner and then allow the county Republican Party to decide who its candidate will be — Holderfield or some mystery pol who's currently lurking in the shadows.
Holderfield has indicated she's willing to let the current process play out and see if she is selected by GOP precinct committeemen to be the candidate. But she's also hinted that she'll challenge their decision in court if she is not chosen as the Republican nominee against Democrat Barbara Wysocki in the Nov. 6 election. Litigation is exactly what the Republicans do not need — it will only drag out the current confusion and divide the party.
Considering that Wysocki, a retired teacher and former county board chairman, brings excellent credentials to this contest, the GOP is playing with fire.
The current standoff represents a dispute about legalities as well as politics.
First, the politics — there is no question there is bad blood between Holderfield and current GOP Circuit Clerk Linda Frank. The veteran incumbent had planned to run for re-election but bowed out after Holderfield made known her plans to run. The Frank camp then solicited the Winkel candidacy and unsuccessfully tried to knock Holderfield off the ballot with a costly challenge to her election petitions.
After Winkel withdrew, there was talk of a guerrilla effort to nominate him anyway as an effort to deny Holderfield the party's nomination. Key Republicans denied it, but their claims were undermined by what happened on Election Day.
Why did more voters vote for Winkel than Holderfield? Probably for a variety of reasons.
Some people may not have realized Winkel had withdrawn. Some may have supported him to lay the groundwork for another nominee to be named by the party. Some may have voted for Winkel to express a personal objection to Holderfield.
But what matters is what voters did, not why they did it.
That leaves the legal issue — conflicting opinions provided to Republican Hulten by Democratic State's Attorney Julie Rietz and the Illinois State Board of Elections.
Board of Elections Executive Director Rupert Borgsmiller said the advice his general counsel gave to Hulten about Winkel's withdrawal is the same it gives to other election officials, including the recent withdrawal of former state Rep. Roger Eddy, a Hutsonville Republican, from the primary election.
"This is what our best practices are," said Borgsmiller, who said his office advised Hulten to publish notices in polling places that Winkel had withdrawn and then, after the election, to ignore votes for Winkel.
While providing that recommendation, Borgsmiller said he also urged local officials to seek advice from their state's attorney.
Hulten did seek an opinion from Rietz's office and, based on that, ignored the state board of elections.
Steve Ziegler, first assistant in Rietz's office, disagreed with the state board because there is "nothing in the election code that allows the county clerk to ignore those votes."
"(Winkel's) there on the ballot," said Ziegler, who characterized the state's board recommendations as "fraught with difficulties."
Opinions, of course, are just that. What matters is a ruling from the courts about the status of the law or, in its absence, an opinion from Attorney General Lisa Madigan. Members of the state elections board or Rietz should seek such an opinion from Madigan to clarify this issue.
In the meantime, the politics will have to play out. But Republicans gunning for Holderfield may be outsmarting themselves. They gave away the state's attorney's office eight years ago, with Rietz now so thoroughly entrenched the GOP can't even scare up a candidate to run against her.
Now they're shooting themselves in the foot with the circuit clerk's office. Meanwhile, Democrats have credible candidates for the auditor's and county clerk's office, where Hulten has made himself more vulnerable. If Republicans don't wise up, they may wake up Nov. 7 to find themselves completely on the outs in county government. If so, they'll deserve it.