Gentlemen From Illinois

Both Parties Bullish on Their Senate Nominees; Tough Battle Ahead

Posted March 17, 2004 at 6:36pm

Republicans and Democrats in Illinois set out to unify behind state Sen. Barack Obama (D) and former investment banker Jack Ryan (R) Wednesday, as the newly minted Senate nominees fresh off their roller coaster primary rides began ramping up their rhetoric for phase two of the campaign.

Overcoming the cash advantage of a free-spending millionaire and the organization of an establishment-backed statewide official, Obama steamrolled six primary opponents and defied conventional wisdom in winning the Democratic nod with 53 percent of the vote Tuesday. If elected, Obama, the first black president of the Harvard Law Review, would be the Senate’s only black Member and only the third to serve in the chamber in the modern era.

Ryan, meanwhile, took 36 percent of the vote and won the nod by a smaller-than-expected final margin after spending $3.5 million of his own money.

All told, 15 candidates — seven of them millionaires — were vying in Tuesday’s primaries for two slots on the November ballot and the ultimate chance to succeed retiring Sen. Peter Fitzgerald (R) next year.

With the unpredictable and at times carnival-like primary behind them, leaders from each party heaped praise on the two telegenic, Harvard-educated, 40-something nominees at separate unity events in the state. Meanwhile, strategists for both camps went to work dissecting the primary results and assessing the dynamics of the new race, while sounding bullish on their chances of winning in November.

For Democrats, picking up the seat is essential to any hopes the party has of winning control of the Senate in November, when they are also defending five open seats in less-hospitable territory in the South.

Their hopes in Illinois were further buoyed by Tuesday’s primary results, which showed that Ryan received just over 200,000 votes, compared with more than 600,000 cast for Obama.

But while the Land of Lincoln has trended Democratic in recent years — and the state GOP has suffered a lingering stain left by scandal-tarred ex-Gov. George Ryan (R) — Republicans say they aren’t willing to cede any ground in a competitive race that they contend will go down to the wire.

“We know we have our work cut out for us,” said Chris LaCivita, a former National Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee official and now a consultant to Ryan’s campaign. “But it is by no means a slam dunk for Obama. They may say it is. But I think they know from the beginning they’ve got an expensive, competitive race. And at the end of the day we feel confident that we can win.”

By the same token, Democrats are equally enthusiastic about Obama’s prospects in the general election, playing off momentum that they say helped propel him to a margin of victory larger than even his strategists predicted.

That margin was widely attributed to the high percentages Obama garnered not only in Chicago, but more importantly in its surrounding suburbs.

Anita Dunn, a consultant to the campaign of former securities trader Blair Hull, who finished third in the Democratic race, said that Obama’s apparent ability to appeal to suburban voters cannot be overlooked or understated when looking at the general election match up with Ryan.

“Obama didn’t win this nomination simply because he did well in the city,” Dunn said. “He won the landslide victory that he did … because of his strength with suburban voters, which is not what conventional wisdom would have held even three weeks ago.”

Obama ended up winning 64 percent of the vote in Cook County — which contains Chicago and many of its suburbs — compared to only 17 percent for overall second-place finisher and state Comptroller Dan Hynes, the darling of the party’s establishment. In the surrounding collar counties, Obama, who maintained all along that he would win with a broad coalition of support, won 56 percent.

“You have a very united Democratic Party here behind Obama,” Dunn said.

The two questions that had dogged Obama’s candidacy from its inception were answered overwhelmingly in Tuesday’s balloting: Could he effectively shore up his black base and could he raise the money to mount a competitive campaign?

Obama’s support in the black community was aided by the unity of black leaders like state Senate President Emil Jones and the Rev. Jesse Jackson and Reps. Danny Davis and Jesse Jackson Jr., who co-chaired his campaign. His support among his base was further solidified through television commercials that featured Sheila Simon, the daughter of the late liberal Sen. Paul Simon (D), and used the likeness of the late Harold Washington, the first black mayor of Chicago.

Obama rose to the front of the pack in early March when then-frontrunner Hull’s candidacy imploded amid allegations he struck his now ex-wife during a dispute in 1998. Hull, who had vowed to spend up to $40 million to win a Senate seat, ultimately sunk more than $29 million into the race and finished with 11 percent, at an estimated cost of $260 per vote.

Meanwhile, Hynes, who had pinned his hopes of winning on a strong field operation and support from the state’s Democratic establishment, was unable to capitalize on Hull’s downfall the same way that Obama did.

He ended up winning 24 percent, after the party’s ward bosses and machine muscle failed to churn out the volume of votes his campaign had promised.

Instead, Hynes only narrowly edged out Obama in many areas considered to be his strongholds, including the 19th ward, where Hynes’ father is committeeman.

Hynes won the ward with just 51 percent, and he won 61 percent in the 11th ward, the area controlled by the family of Chicago Mayor Richard Daley (D).

Obama even won Hynes’ home ward on the city’s northwest side, 60 percent to 25 percent.

Millionaires and Money

Obama ended up raising more than $5.7 million through the primary, aided by Hull’s liberal personal spending, which lifted the $2,000 individual contribution limits to $12,000.

But exactly who will benefit most from possible increased contribution limits in the general — provided for by the so-called millionaire’s amendment to the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act — is still up for debate.

Obama, because he had to spend all of the money he collected under the increased limits on the primary (or else be forced to return it to donors), is now back at square one for fundraising.

Ryan, meanwhile, primarily self-financed his primary bid, spending $3.5 of his own money and raising $1.5 from individuals and other sources.

While strategists expect Ryan to continue to spend personal resources in the general, LaCivita declined to talk about the campaign’s funding strategy as it pertains to the millionaire’s amendment or otherwise.

“We’re not going to discuss any plans other than to say that we’re going to be aggressively raising money,” LaCivita said.

Depending on how much money Obama, who as the only black Senate candidate this cycle will have a national fundraising base at his disposal, is able to raise, he could see his campaign’s individual contribution limits again raised to $12,000 if Ryan spends a little more than $2 million.

But the potential marker both parties will be closely monitoring is whether Ryan’s personal spending reaches 10 times the state’s threshold, which in Illinois is calculated to be around $5.1 million. If Ryan’s spending reaches that point, again dependent on how much his Democratic opponent raises, Obama can then not only raise money in $12,000 increments but the coordinated expenditure limits for both party campaign committees are also lifted.

Questions Left Unanswered

As Hull’s campaign dissolved after details from his messy divorce were aired publicly, Ryan was able to weather a lesser storm of controversy over sealed portions of the proceedings from his 1999 divorce from actress Jeri Ryan.

At a unity breakfast Wednesday, Republicans sought to rally behind Ryan even as lingering evidence of the divorce issue was still evident.

During the primary, Ryan released all but about 40 documents from his divorce file. Those papers, he said, pertain to the couple’s custody dispute, and his desire to keep them sealed is to protect their now 9-year-old son.

“The bottom line is that Jack has said he’s not releasing his child custody papers,” said LaCivita, echoing Ryan’s comments at the breakfast.

While Democrats and even some Republicans say the issue will no doubt continue to cloud Ryan’s campaign in the general election, LaCivita issued a warning — citing the old adage about people who live in glass houses.

“If the Democrats want to sink to that level,” LaCivita said, before pausing. “I think that Obama and the Democrats are going to be the last people who can afford to run a race based on innuendo and character attacks.”

Just as divorce proceedings became a hot topic in the closing weeks of the primary, so did the issue of past drug use.

In his 1995 autobiography, Obama admits to using marijuana as a teenager and occasionally cocaine in his early 20s, an admission that operatives in both parties acknowledge he will have to address again before November.

Republicans also argue that Obama’s strength in Chicago and its suburbs could eventually be detrimental to his ability to win over the traditionally more conservative voters downstate. Conversely, Democrats say Obama’s primary win exemplifies how he is well-positioned to run a statewide campaign.

Obama won four counties downstate, after going up on television outside of the Chicago market in the closing days of the race.

Dunn argued that domestic issues like jobs, health care and the economy will ultimately outrank any concerns about Obama’s race or his Chicago base.

“Obama can credibly make the argument that he has the kind of experience that would allow him to be a leader on these issues in Washington,” she said, alluding to Ryan’s political inexperience.

She also said that she never saw empirical evidence, based on the polling and focus groups conducted for Hull’s campaign, that Obama’s profile as a black man from Chicago would be detrimental in the general.

Illinois has elected black candidates to statewide office before, including former Sen. Carol Moseley Braun (D), who served one term before being defeated by Fitzgerald in 1998.

“If there’s any place a black candidate can run for statewide office and be successful, it’s a state like Illinois,” said David Bositis, with the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies.

Both Obama and Ryan are from Chicago, a fact that could serve to neutralize the issue of geography in November.

“It’s not like you have a geographical home field advantage,” Dunn said. “What you end up with is a partisan advantage.”

Aside from the prevailing Democratic winds in the state, party strategists also argue that because Illinois is not currently viewed as a presidential battleground, the absence of a competitive top-ticket race will also end up hurting Ryan.

LaCivita dismissed that argument, saying Ryan has already started building the kind of statewide organization that will enable him to compete for votes in areas of the state Democrats have neglected for years. Ryan spent the final 72 hours of the primary stumping downstate.

“They can take for granted whatever they want, but they’re going to have to fight us on every piece of soil in Illinois,” he said.

LaCivita also predicted that Democratic attempts to paint Ryan, who has never before sought elected office, as too conservative for the state will fail.

In an interview Wednesday, Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) said he would “do everything I can” to help Ryan.

“We recognize the fact that there are built-in disadvantages,” LaCivita said. “However we’ll have the resources and we’ll have the organization to keep this race competitive to the very end and bring it across the finish line on Election Day.”