First lady Michelle Obama's speech on the first night of the Democratic National Convention was one for the ages — a moving address that crossed gender, race and partisan lines. The speech immediately stoked talk of when (and where) she might run for office in her own right. Seeking some answers, I reached out to Natasha Korecki, who writes the Illinois Playbook for Politico. Our conversation, conducted via email and edited for grammar, is below.
What did the Illinois political world make of Michelle Obama’s speech last night at the Democratic National Convention? Were they surprised — pleasantly or otherwise?
Over. The. Moon. The expectations were high, and she soared above them. They thought she was authentic, without getting in the mud. (I had more than a couple of people tell me that she made them cry.) Watching the flow of the convention, it was clear she was a game-changer. There's a strong sense of pride in that from Illinois Democrats: "Hey, she's ours!"
There’s obviously lots of buzz at the national level about Michelle Obama running for some sort of office of her own. How much do people in Illinois talk about it, or are they even aware it’s a thing?
Every few months, the first lady shows up in virtual head-to-head Illinois polls: "Michelle Obama for Senate!" "Michelle Obama for governor!" She usually creams whomever she's put up against. But the takeaway is more like: "Ha ha ha, wouldn't that be great?" No one actually believes she would ever want to do it. And why would she? Our state is a fiscal disaster. Our city is in the midst of a crisis of violence.
Believe me, it's every Democratic consultant's dream. She'd clear every field for any office she'd run for. She's shown zero signs of interest in it. As far as a "thing," I think people here assume she's sort of beyond Chicago and Illinois politics. The Obamas have already said that while their library will be in Chicago, the couple doesn't plan to return here to live.
Has Michelle Obama done any sort of basic sniffing around about the Democratic political world in the state — going to local county meetings, huddling with influential officials? If not, would she need to if she wanted to run for an office there?
There's been little to no evidence of her having political interest here. She's parachuted into Chicago during some tough times — after Hadiya Pendleton, after some of the worst days for [Chicago Mayor] Rahm [Emanuel]. But the feeling is she's working to lift up others — her husband, old friends, reconnect with her roots — not further her own political career.
In fact, it's [Obama senior adviser] Valerie Jarrett's name that keeps resurfacing for higher office here. We all know the story about Jarrett having initial interest in Obama's vacant Senate seat. In Chicago, though, the mere mention of her name dredges up [former governor] Rod Blagojevich and all the insanity that went with Jarrett's initial interest in the Senate seat.
And no, Michelle wouldn't have to huddle with influential officials. If Michelle Obama expressed interest in really running for office here, they'd find enough red carpet to roll out from Chicago to D.C.
Michelle Obama aside, what does the lay of the political land in Illinois look like? What are the big offices or races over the next few elections that people are watching?
The 2018 race for governor! And this November's Mark Kirk vs. Tammy Duckworth U.S. Senate race. Democrats and organized labor have been in a protracted battle with Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner, whose approval numbers are in the tank. But the wealthy private equity investor is known for running a ruthless campaign and has access to unlimited amounts of cash. That's staved off opposition. Democrats here have a bench, but it's filled with younger political types who are still trying to build their organizations — and campaign accounts. Duckworth's star has been on the rise since 2012, if she doesn't oust Kirk in November, I'd expect to hear from her again.
Finish this sentence: “If Michelle Obama did run for political office in Illinois, her biggest challenge would be _______________.” Now, explain.
"Crowd control at the polls." She's adored in the city and collar counties; she would be untouchable. Now, Illinois is a diverse state, and President Obama is highly disliked downstate and incredibly unpopular in some of the more conservative counties. But without question, she would dominate in populous counties to easily put her over the top.