Progressives are reeling from this week’s unexpected defeat of Ilya Sheyman in Illinois’ 10th Congressional District to conservative Democrat Brad Schneider – when polls had given the MoveOn organizer a sizable lead. Progressive groups had poured resources behind Sheyman (with endorsements from Howard Dean and Russ Feingold), and had billed the March 20th primary as a fight for the heart and soul of the Democratic Party. So far, it’s clear the main culprit behind Sheyman’s defeat was an abysmal voter turnout. But as we scan election results to analyze what went wrong, may I suggest another factor that was at play – how many Democrats in this wealthy suburban district voted for Rick Santorum, and therefore could not vote in the Congressional race. For weeks, the blog Daily Kos had urged its liberal readers to vote for Santorum in primaries – a fun tactic called “Operation Hilarity” to keep the GOP bloodbath going. But in a state like Illinois, it may have done serious damage to building a more progressive Democratic Party.

For months, groups like MoveOn, Democracy for America, various labor unions and the Progressive Change Campaign Committee had heavily promoted Ilya Sheyman for Illinois’ 10th Congressional District – which includes much of Chicago’s North Shore suburbs. A 25-year-old former organizer at MoveOn, Sheyman’s grassroots challenge to businessman Brad Schneider (who had contributed to various GOP candidates over the years) was the kind of stark contrast progressives had hoped for in the fight for the future of the Democratic Party. And had he won the primary, Sheyman would be challenging a Tea Party Republican incumbent in November.

But despite polling that suggested Sheyman’s people-powered campaign would win the day, Schneider prevailed by approximately 3,000 votes – an eight-point margin.

Yesterday, Adam Green of PCCC sent out an e-mail with the subject line “last night was no fun” that identified the culprit – an abysmal voter turnout. Sheyman led among “likely voters,” but the numbers demonstrate how few people voted in this election. Only 32,000 people voted in the Democratic primary – when the campaign expected a turnout of 60,000. In contrast, over 50,000 Democrats voted in 2010 to pick the nominee for Illinois’ 10th Congressional District – and 93,000 did in 2008.

No doubt, the low voter turnout was the defining factor as to why Sheyman lost the race. And according to the Center for Information & Research of Civic Learning and Engagement, statewide youth turnout in the Illinois primary was a pitiful four percent.

“We have a great team of data analytics staff, as does Ilya's campaign,” wrote Green. “Together, we will be scouring the election data and analyzing whether people who the campaign most expected to vote actually voted. We will share these lessons with progressive candidates in competitive races right now.” And no doubt, their team is still crunching numbers to figure out what happened, but may I suggest one factor:

How many liberal Democrats picked a Republican ballot to vote for Rick Santorum?

Illinois has an open primary, in that registered voters can cross over and vote in another party’s primary. But unlike California’s “jungle primary,” where you can pick a Republican for President and then a Democrat for Congress, in Illinois you must pick either a Democratic or Republican ballot – and can only vote down the ticket in one party’s primary. So a liberal Democrat who wants to vote for Santorum in the Presidential race can then only vote in GOP primaries for down-ticket races.

With no real Democratic presidential primary, for weeks bloggers at Daily Kos had urged Democrats who live in open primary states to vote for Santorum – called Operation Hilarity. The purpose, of course, was to bloody Mitt Romney and prolong the GOP soap opera. Unlike Rush Limbaugh’s Operation Chaos (which urged listeners to break the law in 2008 by changing party registration and vote for Hillary Clinton), Operation Hilarity was limited to states where it’s legal to vote in either primary.

Sounds fun, but Operation Hilarity in Illinois may have cost Ilya Sheyman several hundred votes. Presidential primary results by Congressional District are not easily available online, but county results are – so I looked at how Rick Santorum did in Lake County, compared with past right-wing candidates Mike Huckabee and Pat Buchanan. A majority of Illinois’ 10th Congressional District is in Lake County (and vice versa), and because congressional district lines were recently re-drawn, looking at Lake County to compare with past elections is a good metric.

For those who don’t know Illinois politics, Lake County – and the 10th Congressional District – is wealthy, suburban and heavily Jewish. In other words, these are not the kind of Rick Santorum Republicans. So not surprisingly, Mitt Romney carried Lake County. But Santorum still got 16,563 votes in Lake County – or 28%, a few points behind his statewide total of 35%. In contrast, Mike Huckabee only got 6,572 votes there in 2008 – and in 1996, Buchanan carried 19% of Lake County (11,088 votes.)

Granted, most of these Rick Santorum voters were conservative Republicans who would never have voted for Ilya Sheyman. But given that Santorum outperformed past right-wing presidential candidates, it suggests that several hundred of his votes in Lake County were from Democrats who were part of Operation Hilarity. And if they asked for a Republican ballot, they couldn’t vote in the Sheyman-Schneider contest. A more detailed precinct-level data would be able to shed further light.

In his PCCC e-mail, Adam Green cited as one factor in the Sheyman-Schneider race: “the Republican presidential primary dominated the Illinois news coverage in the final days, making it less likely that media would debunk lies in the congressional race [made by the Schneider campaign.]” Were liberal Democratic voters distracted by the presidential race, and too tempted to play mischief by picking Santorum that they inadvertently sabotaged the opportunity to elect a progressive to Congress?

Operation Hilarity – which Markos Moulitsas at Daily Kos has unapologetically defended – has had its share of critics on the Left. Gay bloggers, in particular, were offended at the idea of urging a vote for Rick Santorum – despite the entertainment value of seeing Mitt Romney struggle. I haven’t written about it until now, because I’ve had mixed feelings.

At this point, however, it’s clear that any value of Operation Hilarity has run its course. Mitt Romney is going to be the GOP nominee, and he is damaged goods. In fact, I have long argued that Democrats are better off with Romney in 2012 because he so perfectly encapsulates the “vulture capitalism” that has devastated the 99% – and his defeat in November might even embolden Democrats to stand up to the 1%.

If progressives are to take our country back through electoral politics, it is not by electing compromised Presidents like Barack Obama – or having fun in the GOP presidential primaries. It’s about recruiting young, progressive leadership at the local level – and getting better Democrats like Ilya Sheyman elected to Congress. Sadly, in November the 10th Congressional District race won’t be very exciting.