If Gov. Pat Quinn loses the Democratic primary on Tuesday, it will be more than just a stinging political defeat for him. Illinois would be stuck with a lame duck governor for a year as the state grapples with its worst budget crisis ever.
Losing the election would significantly weaken Quinn's leverage over lawmakers and make it harder for him to get things done. That could be dangerous given the state's precarious financial condition, with a deficit that could reach $13 billion this year, said Democratic state Rep. Lou Lang.
"If government comes to a standstill because there's no one to steer the boat, then the boat will run adrift," said Lang, of Skokie.
Quinn won't talk about the problems he would face if Illinois Comptroller Dan Hynes beats him in the primary.
"That's a hypothetical question that will never happen because I know the people of Illinois, good and true, are going to march to the polls on Tuesday and vote for a governor who's doing the very level best he can to help rescue our state from a tough time," Quinn said.
Polls show Quinn's once-healthy lead over Hynes has evaporated amid unrelenting criticism of the governor's handling of the budget and an early release program that let some violent offenders out of Illinois prisons early to save money.
Illinois has had lame duck governors in recent history, but Quinn would be different. He would be the only governor fired by voters since Democrat Dan Walker lost the 1976 primary.
Three other governors since then -- Republicans Jim Thompson, Jim Edgar and George Ryan -- became lame ducks by their own choosing when they didn't run for re-election. Ryan was later convicted of federal corruption charges and went to prison.
After Walker's primary defeat, he became a "non-presence" in Springfield, said Taylor Pensoneau, Walker's biographer and a reporter who covered his administration. Dealing with the state's troubled finances at the time was left to the next administration.
Walker, who had a combative relationship with lawmakers, lost his political muscle and any energy for new initiatives, Pensoneau said.
"They did very little, period, in the '76 session after the primary was over and it was a very listless session," Pensoneau said.
Quinn's proposal to raise the income tax rate 50 percent to help dig the state out of its budget mess likely would not go anywhere if he isn't the Democrats' nominee because lawmakers would be reluctant to vote for an increase in an election year, said Thompson, a four-term governor.
"My guess is things would just be kicked down the road on the tax side," Thompson said.
But Edgar said Quinn won't lose all his leverage if voters show him the door. Quinn still would have the power to dole out money for capital projects, lawmakers need him to sign legislation and he would nominate people to state posts.
"Maybe not the 800-pound gorilla that the governor usually is in state government, but he still has some weight there," Edgar said.
How things go for a lame duck governor in Springfield depends on the relationship they've had with lawmakers until then, Thompson said.
"They were my partner the whole 14 years, so for me it was business as usual,'' said Thompson, who was elected in 1976 and left office in 1991.
Quinn inherited the governor's job last year when lawmakers removed Gov. Rod Blagojevich from office after his arrest on federal corruption charges, but has seen his relationship with lawmakers deteriorate amid clashes over the budget, ethics and taxes.
Illinois House Republican leader Tom Cross said he can't predict what the Democrat-controlled Legislature would do if Quinn loses.
He said it will be up to Quinn and the top two Democrats, House Speaker Michael Madigan and Senate President John Cullerton, to decide how much they work together until November.
"There's a good chance that chaos remains," Cross said. "Chaos is the status quo."