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Jim Dey is a staff writer for The News-Gazette. His email is jdey@news-gazette.com.

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Illinois Republicans — for years now — have used unpopular House Speaker Michael Madigan as a club with which to beat Democratic candidates running for a variety of public offices.

Mostly, they’ve failed.

But hope springs eternal in the GOP as to the malign influence of the Chicago Democrat on state government in Illinois, and they’re again beating the speaker like a drum all over Illinois.

But that’s particularly so in a usually low-profile Illinois Supreme Court retention race in the state’s Third Circuit.

That’s where 20-year Democratic incumbent Justice Thomas Kilbride is seeking retention to the seven-member court in the Nov. 3 election.

Under Illinois law, judges run for election on a partisan basis for their first term.

If they seek to remain in office, they run for retention, meaning voters are asked on a “yes” or “no” basis whether they should receive another term in office.

The Kilbride race was the subject of a recent column. But the battle has heated up further as Kilbride runs hard for retention and just as hard away from Madigan’s ardent support for his bid for a third term.

“Madigan is the issue, and I can tell you he is detested in downstate Illinois. People hate him,” said Jim Nowlan, a former University of Illinois faculty member who is leading the charge against Kilbride.

Labeling Kilbride as a “puppet” of Madigan, Nowlan likes to ask members of his audiences if they would like to vote against the 78-year-old Chicago politician.

“They come out of their seats,” said Nowlan, a former Republican state legislator who’s worked in the administrations of what he describes as three “unindicted” Illinois governors.

If they want to vote against Madigan, Nowlan says, they can vote against Kilbride’s retention.

Kilbride was retained in office 10 years ago when he received 65 percent of the vote.

Sixty percent is the minimum required to be retained. Despite Kilbride’s strong showing in 2020, Democrats are worried about the race.

For starters, the GOP’s decision to tie Kilbride to the unpopular Madigan not only appeals to voters, it has the added benefit of being true.

Madigan is chairman of the Illinois Democratic Party, which provided large sums of campaign cash for Kilbride’s initial run for office, as well as his retention bid.

Then there’s the matter of the district.

Just as the Chicago suburbs have been shifting from Republican to Democrat, Kilbride’s 21-county Third Circuit, which includes Peoria and the Quad Cities, has moved to the Republican side of the political equation.

Four years ago, Republican Donald Trump defeated Democrat Hillary Clinton by 43,000 votes in the circuit.

Trump carried 18 of the circuit’s 21 counties, even though Clinton received the overwhelming majority statewide in the presidential race.

Finally, there are the stakes involved.

Democrats have controlled the state’s highest court since the early 1960s, and a Kilbride defeat would undermine their current 4-3 majority.

That’s why Kilbride and his supporters are devoting huge resources to the campaign.

Kilbride already has started television advertising.

He’s also won endorsements from a bipartisan group of law officers, judges and prosecutors.

In addition to local endorsements, Kilbride has attracted the backing of a number of well-known Chicago lawyers identified with the Republican Party.

That group included former Gov. James Thompson before his recent death.

“... I am grateful that, though they may be Republicans, Democrats or independents, they have set party aside to express their confidence in my fairness and belief that ‘equal justice under law’ is not merely a phrase carved into the marble above a court’s entryway, it is the bedrock principle that guides every decision I make,” Kilbride said.

That, of course, is exactly what Kilbride critics say is not the case.

As his primary motivation to defeat Kilbride, Nowlan cited Kilbride’s 2016 decision blocking a proposed constitutional amendment from the ballot that would have allowed voters to decide whether to continue to allow legislative gerrymandering of House and Senate district boundaries.

“He denied 8 million registered voters their constitutional right to vote on a citizens’ initiative to change the way we redistrict — all to protect (Madigan) and his power,” Nowlan said.

Kilbride was joined in his majority decision by his three Democratic colleagues.

The court’s three Republican justices dissented, supporting the legality of putting the ballot measure to a public vote.

While Kilbride is airing television commercial, his opponents, working with limited funds, have financed an anti-retention mailing to 200,000 households.

They also got some good news this week when mega-donor Richard Uihlein contributed $250,000 to the anti-Kilbride cause.

Nowlan estimated Democrats will outspend his anti-Kilbride campaign by 4 or 5 to 1.

But he expressed hope that publicity about the race will energize “donors who see this as an opportunity to transform the state Supreme Court and, maybe, Illinois politics.”

It remains to be seen how much of a factor Madigan will be in the race.

If he is, Madigan is inadvertently hurting Kilbride’s cause because of his current status as a target of an ongoing federal bribery investigation involving utility giant Commonwealth Edison’s effort to influence Madigan by providing cash and no-show jobs to his friends and associates.

Jim Dey, a member of The News-Gazette staff, can be reached at jdey@news-gazette.com or 217-351-5369.