SPRINGFIELD, Ill. (WCIA) — Two top contenders have emerged as early front runners in the campaign to become the next leader of the Illinois Senate, but the long slog to the January 19th election date presents a grueling gauntlet laden with the potential for strategic missteps, personal feuds, ethical time bombs, and delicate leadership dilemmas that could threaten to divide a Democratic supermajority into hardened factions.

Senators who have previously run as candidates or fought alongside allies in leadership scrums describe the fierce intraparty contests among their peers as hand-to-hand combat that rarely concludes without leaving welts or wounds. Anonymous tipsters have begun circulating salacious accusations and flooding reporters’ inboxes with morsels of damaging information about the candidates who want the top job, and already, the vetting, or mudslinging, has ensued.

Despite undergoing some amount of scrutiny for her campaign ties to ComEd, a company linked to a federal corruption probe, Senate Majority Leader Kim Lightford, a Democrat from Maywood, has consolidated a fair amount of support within her own party, has earned key endorsements to boost her bid, and has recruited assistance in fundraising efforts from Senators Andy Manar (D-Bunker Hill), Heather Steans (D-Chicago) and Tony Munoz (D-Chicago).

“She’s a master negotiator, one of the best that I’ve ever seen,” Manar said on Friday, describing Lightford as “a calming force” during the tumultuous, divisive political scrap to rewrite the state’s worst-in-the-nation education funding formula.

“I would not have personally survived the four year fight to bring school funding to a successful conclusion if it were not for her, but she encouraged me literally every day to keep going,” Manar said.

Senator Don Harmon, the Democratic Assistant Majority Leader from Oak Park, has also thrown his hat into the ring and has positioned himself to be Lightford’s most formidable opponent. Harmon boasts a thick Rolodex of donors with deep pockets — donors that have elevated his status as one of the party’s more prolific fundraisers in the Senate.

In public, Harmon and Lightford have so far avoided taking personal jabs at one another, but in private, the battle lines are being drawn.

Last week, days after Senate President John Cullerton announced he would retire in January, Lightford, Manar, and Steans formed a political action committee named the Senate Democratic Leadership Fund to counter Harmon’s coffers and to demonstrate their ability to raise cash and feed campaigns of incumbents and candidates statewide.

“Clearly, part of the responsibility of any leader in the Senate is to support the caucus on the political front,” Manar said. “That’s what this PAC is intended to do.”

While Harmon does have a sizable pot of cash on hand in his campaign committee, some of his colleagues have wondered privately why he hasn’t yet taken steps to organize an independent campaign fund that would draw clear lines between his own personal political cash and a shared campaign account that would be designated specifically to elect other Democrats.

“Senator Lightford wants full transparency associated with her efforts to earn the support of her Democratic colleagues as she pursues the Senate presidency,” Manar pointed out. “If she is successful, this organization will transition to support the reelection efforts of her members as well as those seeking to run for Senate who reflect the values of the Democratic caucus. She believes in having a strong and independent caucus and in doing so it must rely on raising its own resources in pursuit of its priorities.”

While Lightford and Harmon jockey for pole position, Republicans who have been starved of any significant power salivate from the outside looking in, hopeful that perhaps an increasingly personal struggle between two of their rival leaders might spiral into a blood feud that foments lingering hostilities and exposes weaknesses not typically seen in a party that holds such a vast grip on political power.

Because the office presides over the entire chamber, and since it was established and enshrined in the 1970 state Constitution, it takes a majority vote of the entire Senate, not just within the Democratic caucus, to elect a leader. That means Harmon or Lightford need to secure 30 out of 40 Democratic votes instead of 21.

To further narrow the path to victory, candidates are finding out they may not have a full complement of eligible Senators willing or able to accompany their candidacies across the finish line. Senate President John Cullerton has announced he will abstain from voting in order to avoid the appearance that he hand-picked his successor. At least three other Senate Democrats sit under the long shadow of a sprawling federal corruption probe. Since the next Senate President will have to handle the political fallout of that scandal whenever it reaches its winding end, prominent Democrats have already raised serious questions about the ethics and the optics of Senators Martin Sandoval, Tom Cullerton, and to a lesser degree, Terry Link, participating in the election.

Reached by phone on Sunday, Harmon said he was not counting on votes from Senators John Cullerton or Sandoval, but would not rule out accepting or recruiting the support of Senator Tom Cullerton, who sits under federal indictment for allegedly embezzling a union salary and benefits that he did not earn.

Cullerton acknowledged he has been courted by candidates seeking his backing, but he would not name them. Neither Harmon nor Lightford would answer questions about his potential inclusion in their electoral whip count.

“I don’t know what the rules would be,” Harmon said. “I think we would need to do some research to see whether the voters from his district are disenfranchised.”

Asked if she would entertain the notion of accepting support from any of the Senators entangled in federal corruption cases, Lightford did not rule it out, but included a pledge to clean up the caucus from its tainted image.

“While I’m not getting into the weeds about individual votes, ethics reform will be at the top of my agenda,” Lightford said through Democratic communications contractor Becky Carroll, a well-connected party insider who was recently hired to manage the deluge of press calls. “I look forward to supporting and reviewing the work of the bipartisan bicameral ethics commission and eventually moving forward with a rigorous ethics reform package for our chamber should I serve as its president.”

Harmon also delivered his pitch for an end to corruption, drawing a distinction between criminal conviction and ethical standing.

“We need to change the echoes here in Springfield,” Harmon said. “We should do what’s right and not just what is legal. I hope we can lead by example and all of us can be proud to be members of the Illinois Senate.”

Governor J.B. Pritzker, whose office has insisted that he will remain neutral in the process, drew a harder line.

“Illinoisans need to trust their elected leaders, particularly those who lead the legislative chambers,” Emily Bittner, a spokeswoman for Pritzker said in an email on Sunday. “The governor strongly believes that those who have been subject to federal raids or indictment would taint the outcome of that election and should not participate in selecting the next Senate President.”

“The election of the Senate President is among the oddest elections,” Harmon said in response to Pritzker’s statement. “It’s entirely an internal debate and deliberation. In the end, we will need to figure out what the appropriate ground rules are.”

The Governor’s judgment would apparently not prohibit Senator Link, who has only been named in media reports and not in charging documents as an FBI informant, from participating in the election process. Link has denied reports that he wore a wire to bust House Democrat Luis Arroyo in a bribery scheme.

Should Senate Democrats agree to accept Pritzker’s guidance and bar Senators Tom Cullerton and Martin Sandoval from casting a vote, the pool of available Democratic senators would shrink to 37 and increase the likelihood of a protracted battle between warring factions.

Enter the Republicans, who hold 19 votes in reserve.

While it could prove an incredibly unlikely scenario for a number of politically sensitive and risky reasons, many of the Senate Republicans admitted they have discussed the possibility that if the conditions were right, one or more of them could play a role in electing the next leader of their chamber. Others suggested they might even listen to offers from certain of their Democratic counterparts. Two Republicans, who spoke anonymously in order to avoid disrupting delicate discussions, confessed they already had, and described casual conversations about the prospect of crossing the aisle to back a candidate if that person made public pledges to support ‘Fair Maps’ or to grant concessions at the committee level.

Harmon and Lightford flatly denied organizing or partaking in any backup or contingency effort to build support in Republican ranks, a move that would almost certainly be immediately perceived by their peers as an act of desperation, or worse yet, betrayal to the party.

Historically, the election of the Senate President has been strictly a party appointment, save for one brief and bizarre exception.

“The Democrats won a 30-29 majority in the 1980 election, but again couldn’t agree on a single candidate; [Philip J. Rock of Oak Park] garnered only 19 votes in the caucus the night before inauguration,” recalled Charlie Wheeler, a former statehouse reporter and revered political science professor at the University of Illinois-Springfield.

“The 29 Republicans all supported David C. Shapiro of Amboy, and Thompson declared him elected with the most votes,” he said. “Democrats protested vehemently, and for about a month we had Senates– one Republican, and other Democratic; one meeting in the morning, the other in the afternoon. The Illinois Supreme Court finally sorted things out, declaring that a majority of the 59 senators, or 30 votes, were needed to elect a Senate president, not just a plurality, thus ending the GOP history-making sneak attack that won them the chair for 32 days.”

That playbook no longer exists for Senate Republicans, but some of them see another opportunity. Should Lightford and Harmon lock horns and deny each other the votes necessary to organize a 30-vote coalition, several Republicans expressed hope that perhaps Senators Heather Steans or Tony Munoz would emerge as a consensus candidate.

Munoz, a retired police officer and member of the U.S. Army 82nd Airborne, routinely crosses the aisle in the Senate to welcome visiting veterans, gives them one of the American flag pins he keeps in his pocket, and thanks them for their service. That small, quiet act, which he has done for years without fail, has bought him tremendous admiration within Republican quarters.

Steans, whose liberal credentials would hardly ever qualify her for any ideological awards in conservative camps, steadily built respect from her Republican counterparts through years of insisting upon including myriad voices in complex negotiations, and by valuing broad agreement higher than scoring cheap points in political fights.

At this early stage, still nearly two months out from the election, Steans and Munoz have said they back Lightford’s bid; but, Republicans who see both of them as truly bipartisan leaders said they might encourage them to reconsider and run if the Lightford or Harmon tickets fizzle or falter.

“We really need to come together as Democrats and rally around one candidate,” Harmon stressed.

“My plan is to earn the support and backing of every colleague of our diverse, Democratic caucus,” Lightford said.