Barring a radical shift in political winds and a drastic amendment to the Constitution, Guantanamo detainees won't be able to vote in the Illinois Senate race in 2010, but they might play a role in it anyway.
The Obama administration will transfer some detainees from Guantanamo to Thomson Correctional Center in the northwest corner of the state, which the federal government will acquire. Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL) and Gov. Pat Quinn (D) both support the move.
Coincidentally, there's a tight race shaping up in Illinois for President Obama's old U.S. Senate seat, with the favored Republican, the typically moderate Rep. Mark Kirk of the northern Chicago suburbs, seemingly trending more conservative (he sought the endorsement of Sarah Palin circa New York's 23rd district special election)--and the favored Democrat, state Treasurer Alexi Giannoulias, a friend of Obama's from the president's days in Chicago (though the White House reportedly wanted Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan to run for the seat).
Polls have them, on average, within four percentage points of each other.
The detainees decision has already become a campaign issue: featured prominently on Kirk's campaign website this morning is a petition calling on President Obama to stop any transfer of detainees to the state. He warns of the risks:
If your Administration brings Al Qaeda terrorists to Illinois, our state and the Chicago Metropolitan Area will become ground zero for Jihadist terrorist plots, recruitment and radicalization.
Furthermore, since Thomson is located in the Northern District of Illinois, any civilian prosecution of Al Qaeda terrorists would occur in Rockford or downtown Chicago.
As home to America's tallest building and leading defense suppliers, we should not invite Al Qaeda to make Illinois its number one target.
Given the prominence of Kirk's petition--it's the most visible thing on his website--it seems likely that he'll bring it up the decision more than once during the campaign.
Giannoulias, meanwhile, supports the move. He released a statement around midday today, only after "careful consideration," as the press release put it.
"Holding prisoners at Guantanamo Bay has been a recruiting tool for Al Qaeda and puts our soldiers in the field at higher risk. It must close," Giannoulias said. "While some have resorted to fear-mongering to score political points over housing detainees at the supermax prison in Thomson, the facts are clear: this is a state of the art security facility and will be further upgraded by the federal government in order to accommodate these prisoners. I welcome opportunities for jobs in Western Illinois and I trust the U.S. military to keep us safe."
Of course, the decision's political impact will depend on what Illinois voters actually think of it. Supporters insist that the decision is popular in northern Illinois.
"Let me tell you about the outcry," Durbin said when asked about a potential outcry against the move on MSNBC's "Morning Joe" today. "In northwestern Illinois, it's a bipartisan, overwhelming outcry in support of the federal government buying this prison that's never been opened in Thomson, Illinois...creating 3,000 jobs, more than half of them local employment, and all the construction jobs that go with it."
Durbin's office cited a litany of resolutions and letters of support from city and county boards, politicians, and local construction unions. Republican state Rep. Jim Sacia, a former law enforcement official who represents a neighboring area, supports it too.
Rasmussen, whose polling is looked on skeptically by Democrats, finds that Illinois residents oppose housing Guantanamo detainees 51 percent to 39 percent. Giannoulias's campaign has not polled on the issue, and there doesn't seem to be other polling out there besides Rasmussen's survey.
The Obama administration's plans for Guantanamo and its detainees have formed a rallying cry for Republicans--House Republicans especially--who united over in the spring amid the GOP's post-election disarray, and Kirk's response to the decision echoes the broader Republican line on Guantanamo.
The conventional wisdom around Guantanamo has been that the White House wants and needs to close the prison and move the detainees somewhere--but that it might be politically unpalatable wherever the administration decides to move them.
On a conference call with reporters today, Liz Cheney, who has been outspoken on national security matters, called the decision "dangerous and indefensible."
"When you bring these terrorists onto U.S. soil you give them all the rights of U.S. citizens, when you try them in civilian courts, you give them a platform to preach jihad. Once they're here they can be released here, they can plot and plan attacks from inside federal prison, they can savagely attack their prison guards, they can radicalize the prison populations and all of those are things that we have seen in the past," Cheney said.
If Kirk pushes the detainees issue--and the conservative arguments against bringing Guantanamo detainees to U.S. soil--as is plausible, it should become clear over time what Illinois voters think of the decision, and whether the decision will carry any electoral repercussions for Democrats.