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All Signs Point to Kelly Victory in Illinois Special Election

Brendan Hoffman/Getty Images
Despite Kelly’s ascent, Halvorson, center, repeatedly referred to herself as the front-runner in a Friday phone interview, describing how she is constantly “swarmed” by supporters on the campaign trail.

Cook County Chief Administrative Officer Robin Kelly started out as one in the crowd of Democrats looking to replace former Rep. Jesse L. Jackson Jr., D-Ill., in Congress.

But in the final weeks before Tuesday’s primary, Kelly climbed to the front of the pack.

The 2nd District special election remains unpredictable — mostly due to anticipated miniscule turnout in frigid Chicago winter. But it’s clear a combination of strategy, luck and super PAC spending broke in Kelly’s favor, allowing her campaign to control much of the narrative in the race.

During the weekend, state Sen. Toi Hutchinson left the race and backed Kelly. As a result, the path for the rest of the top-tier candidates — former Rep. Debbie Halvorson and Alderman Anthony Beale — has narrowed.

“Kelly’s campaign has been good in recognizing issues and acting on them quickly with good messaging and outreach to voters and supporters alike,” said Kevin Lampe, a Democratic consultant from Chicago who worked on Jackson’s campaigns. “Good campaigns are prepared to take advantage of opportunities as they are presented.”

Kelly boasted a double-digit lead over the field in Hutchinson’s internal polling — an automated survey taken before she exited the race, according to a source familiar with it.

Of course, Kelly had help along the way — more than $2 million worth of it. New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s PAC topped that figure in advertisements in the race. Most of the ad campaign blasted Halvorson’s previous support from the National Rifle Association, but the PAC also criticized Hutchinson for similar backing.

In the final weeks, Independence USA PAC’s went all out and boosted Kelly. Halvorson and Beale revolted, accusing Kelly of coordination. But it’s difficult to see how their cries will compete with the millions of dollars of pro-Kelly advertisements — the only televisions spots in the race.

The course of the race has changed dramatically over less than two months. At the start, black Democrats in Chicago feared an inevitable Halvorson victory. They believed the black candidates would split the field and that her base on the district’s south end would deliver her the nomination with possibly less than 20 percent of the vote.

That scenario has became increasingly unlikely with each passing week. It’s a case of simple math: With fewer candidates running for the Democratic nod, the winner will have to get a larger share of the vote, perhaps more than 35 percent, to win.

Nonetheless, Halvorson repeatedly referred to herself as the front-runner in a Friday phone interview, describing how she is constantly “swarmed” by supporters on the campaign trail.

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