March 31, 2004


For Jack Ryan, the good news is that he won the Republican nomination for U.S. senator.

The bad news is that he won the nomination unconvincingly, with 35.7 percent of the vote in an eight-candidate field. The worse news is that Republican turnout on March 16 was much lower than expected, meaning that the party base is not particularly energized or enthused about the 2004 election.

And the worst news is that his November opponent, Democrat Barack Obama, who won his primary quite convincingly, with 52.7 percent of the vote in a seven-candidate field, will be difficult to attack, discredit and isolate as an out-of-touch liberal.

The 2004 Ryan-Obama contest is shaping up more as a replay of the 1992 Braun-Williamson Senate race than of the 1996 Salvi-Durbin contest. Democrats won both. It definitely is not a replication of the 1998 Fitzgerald-Braun race, which was won by the Republican.

In 1992 the focus was on Carol Moseley Braun, whose race and gender made her symbolic of "change." She won by 504,396 votes (53.3 percent) over the dull and underfunded Rich Williamson, who was never able to demonize Braun as a liberal. In 1996 the focus was on Al Salvi, who Democrat Dick Durbin successfully demonized as an "extremist." Durbin won by 655,204 votes (56.1 percent). In 1998 the focus again was on Braun, whose ethical lapses made her flawed and vulnerable. Nevertheless, despite Braun's baggage, Republican Peter Fitzgerald won by just 98,545 votes (50.3 percent), buoyed primarily by a mammoth 322,223-vote margin Downstate.

As in 1992, the multi-racial Obama (born in Hawaii of a black father from Kenya and a white mother from Kansas) is symbolic of the future demographics of America, and he is a strong liberal who opposes the Iraq invasion. Unlike 1992, the wealthy Ryan will not be underfunded. Unlike 1996, Ryan cannot be tagged as an "extremist." And unlike 1998, Obama cannot be characterized as "flawed."

The Sword of Damocles hanging over the Ryan campaign is the Chicago Tribune's lawsuit to force disclosure of Ryan's sealed California divorce records. Democrat Blair Hull revealed his divorce pleadings to the press, and the revelations sank his $24 million campaign like a rock. Ryan has refused disclosure, citing the need to protect his son. If any severely damaging facts were revealed, Ryan likely would withdraw from the race and be replaced by the Republican State Central Committee by Steve Rauschenberger (who finished third in the primary with 19.6 percent of the vote).

What is a detriment, however, is the stupor of Illinois' Republican voters. Republican turnout has declined appreciably. In 1996, when conservative insurgent Salvi upset the party-endorsed "establishment" candidate, Lieutenant Governor Bob Kustra, the primary turnout was 791,645. In 1998, when conservative insurgent Fitzgerald upset the "establishment" candidate, Comptroller Loleta Didrickson, the turnout was 719,522. In 2002, when "establishment" candidate Jim Durkin beat Jim Oberweis and anti-abortion conservative John Cox, the turnout was 825,231.

This year turnout in the Senate primary dropped to 638,502, which is 186,729 less than in 2002, 81,020 less than in 1998 and 153,143 less than in 1996.

Most troubling for the Republicans and Ryan is the fact that from 2002 to 2004, turnout dropped by more than 48,000 in Cook County, 45,000 in DuPage County, 27,000 in Lake County, 29,000 in Kane County, 13,000 in Will County and 146,000 Downstate. The only Collar County where Republican turnout was stable was in McHenry, where turnout declined from 30,636 to 28,758.

Going into the November election, Ryan faces these hurdles:

First, Republican base voters, and conservatives in particular, seem listless. In the 1992 primary, Williamson was unopposed and got 608,079 votes. In the 2004 primary, with three millionaires running and spending lavishly, turnout was just 30,000 higher.

Ryan's fate is tied inextricably with that of President George Bush. President George H.W. Bush lost Illinois to Bill Clinton by 719,254 votes in 1992, pulling a total of 1,734,096 votes; Williamson had 2,126,833 votes in the Senate race, or 392,737 more than Bush. Braun got 2,631,229 votes, or 177,879 more than Clinton, who got 2,453,350 votes. In that race, the Bush voters backed Williamson, and more than two-thirds of the Ross Perot voters (totaling 840,515 statewide) who voted for senator opted for Williamson over Braun. Braun got all of the Clinton voters, and that was enough to win by 504,396 votes.

Given that Al Gore beat Bush in Illinois in 2000 by 569,605 votes, John Kerry must rank as the favorite to take the state in 2004. There will be no Perot this year, so if Bush loses Illinois by 400,000-plus votes in a turnout equal to 2000's 4,932,182, then Ryan will need at least 500,000 Kerry voters to pick him over Obama. In 1996 the Clinton voters (2,341,744) stuck with Durbin (who got 2,384,028 votes). Why should Kerry voters go with Ryan?

Second, Ryan needs to define a cutting issue between himself and Obama.

In the primary, with all of the candidates being cookie-cutter conservatives, Ryan ran on his life story: Harvard lawyer and business school graduate to Goldman Sachs investment banker (where he made millions) to Hales Franciscan High School teacher. Ryan was on record as supporting the Bush tax cuts, the war on terror (and Iraq invasion), gun owners' rights and abortion restrictions, and as opposing gay marriage.

Oberweis hit Ryan for not supporting a Human Life Amendment to ban all abortions and for allegedly opposing the death penalty -- with little effect. Oberweis also claimed that Ryan funded a 1997 film by a company, started by his then-wife Jeri Ryan, which produced a movie featuring nudity and rape. Oberweis' attacks fell flat, and his 149,803 votes (23.5 percent) in 2004 were far fewer than his 259,515 votes (31.4 percent) in the 2002 primary.

Ryan's early campaign advertising was critical. He made himself known through television ads and mailings in the summer of 2003, and he never lost the lead. But his victory was unimpressive: He got only 29.5 percent of the vote in DuPage County, barely won in Will and McHenry counties, and lost to Oberweis in Kane and Kendall counties. Ryan got 38.9 percent of the vote in Chicago and 34.5 percent in the Cook County suburbs. His victory margin came from Downstate, where he advertised heavily and where he topped Oberweis 109,143-54,171, getting 38.8 percent of the total. Statewide, Ryan beat Oberweis by 78,776 votes.

For November, Ryan's life story will be insufficient. Ryan needs to identify himself with some salient issues and differentiate himself from Obama on those issues.

And third, Ryan must give unaligned voters -- the politically moderate non-Democrats and non-Republicans who make up a quarter of the electorate -- a reason to vote against Obama. Williamson failed to do so in 1992, and Braun won; Durbin and Fitzgerald succeeded in doing so in 1996 and 1998, and they won.

Obama also is a Harvard-educated lawyer. He lives in Hyde Park, teaches civil rights law at the University of Chicago, and was elected to the Illinois Senate in 1996. He has cast hundreds of votes, but not all of them conventionally liberal: He supported the Republicans' welfare reform in 1997, voted "present" on a ban of partial-birth abortions, and voted "present" on reducing the first-violation carrying of a handgun from a felony to a misdemeanor. In 1999 he opposed dockside gambling and supported Governor George Ryan's "Illinois FIRST" program, including tax hikes. In 2001 he voted "present" on a bill to prohibit the carrying of a concealed firearm, voted "present" on a requirement to give notice of a minor's abortion to parents, and supported charter schools.

Obama took predictably Democratic positions in the primary campaign, supporting abortion rights, gun control, affirmative action and gay rights and opposing the Bush tax cuts. He opposed any constitutional amendment banning gay marriage, but he does not support allowing such marriages, favoring instead the legalization of same-sex unions.

During the primary campaign, Obama went on record as opposing the Iraq invasion, opposing continued funding for U.S. troops in Iraq, and opposing increased spending for weapons' research, including anti-missile technology.

The bottom line: Obama's life story neutralizes Ryan's. Ryan will get a Fitzgerald-size Downstate vote, but Obama will get a Braun-size Chicago, Cook County and Collar County vote. Kerry will win Illinois by more than 500,000 votes, and unless Ryan unearths some very damaging political stances, legislative votes or personal ethical lapses of Obama's, Obama will win in a walk.


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