June 11, 2014



As the Obama Nation fades into historical oblivion, perhaps to be replaced by the Clinton Nation, Part II, one political trend is unmistakable: Distinctiveness has replaced distinction.

In the realm of electability, personal superficialities, meaning distinctiveness,  are now deemed more advantageous than talent and qualifications, meaning distinction. In a country where roughly 40 percent of the electorate is liberal/Democrat and 40 percent is conservative/Republican, appealing to the remaining unaligned, uninterested, usually ill-informed 20 percent is the key to victory. Perceptions, not issues, capture that voting segment.

In a tight election, one’s gender, sexual orientation, race, linguistic skills, body image (i.e., handicapped) and/or personal history is decisive. When the swing voters’ mentality is “I want to vote for the first black/woman/gay/handicapped/etc. for that office.” then qualifications and issue stances are meaningless.

In the 2013 New York City, obscure white liberal Bill deBlasio catapulted to victory when he ran saturation TV ads highlighting his mixed-race children, with his son sporting an Afro, and his black wife made no secret of the fact that she was a lesbian before she married him. That was a “bingo.” DeBlasio campaigned on a platform of “raising taxes on the rich,” but every other Democrat running was equally liberal. By appealing superficially to black and gay voters, even though he had a black and a lesbian opponent, deBlasio got the 40 percent needed for the Democratic nomination, and was subsequently elected.

In the 2012 Wisconsin U.S. Senate race, the Republican candidate was the staid, aging former governor, Tommy Thompson, a onetime Bush Administration official. The Democrats ran Tammy Baldwin, an openly lesbian congresswoman from Madison. The issues were stark and clear: Baldwin was pro-Obama and for Obamacare; Thompson was anti-Obama. In 2010, an anti-Obama, pro-Republican “wave” year, wealthy Republican businessman Ron Johnson beat liberal 18-year incumbent Russ Feingold (D) in the senate race by 1,125,999-1,020,958 (52 percent), in a turnout of 2,146,957. In 2012, turnout blossomed to 2,927,230 (780,273 higher than 2010), and Baldwin beat Thompson 1,547,104-1,380,126 (51 percent). In the 2012 Obama-Romney race, the president won the state 1,620,985-1,407,966, which was almost identical to his 1,677-211-1,262,393 2008 vote, but Romney got 145,573 more votes than McCain in 2008. Baldwin got 73,881 votes fewer than Obama But that didn’t aid Thompson, who got 254,127 more votes than Johnson – and lost. Baldwin got 526,146 more votes than Feingold. The obvious conclusion: Diversity works. It drives turnout. Two white heterosexual males running against each other are a non-starter. Mix in a black, female, gay, or combination thereof, and Democrats have a winner.

This column is about a whole bunch of political dancing partners: Carol & Al & Al, Dick & Al, Carol & Pete, Barack & Blair, Barack & Hillary, Mark & Alexi, Dick & Jim, Pat & Bruce, Tammy & Kwame, and Mark & Tammy. These are not contestants on “Dancing with the Stars.” These are former, current and anticipated political matchups, wherein distinctiveness (or the lack thereof), is or was the ticket to victory.

1992: After Clarence Thomas’ U.S. Supreme Court confirmation hearings, which made former staffer Anita Hill a feminist heroine, the “Year of the Woman” commenced in Illinois. Two-term U.S. Senator Alan Dixon (D) voted for Thomas, rich trial lawyer Al Hofeld spent $5 million tearing apart Dixon, and the bid of Carol Moseley Braun, a black woman then Cook County recorder, looked clueless and hopeless. But a “perfect storm” erupted: The two white guys neutralized and neutered each other. In a monster Democratic primary turnout of 1,456,268, Braun topped Dixon by 53,617 votes, amassing 38.3 percent. Dixon, with his Downstate base, got 504,077 votes (34.6 percent), and Hofeld got 394,497 votes (27.1 percent). But Braun, getting 409,574 votes in Cook County (which was almost 71 percent of her statewide 557,694) tapped into the Democrats’ long-dormant mother lode: black and female voters. White guys could be beat.

1996: Back to the same old/same old. When two-term senator Paul Simon (D) retired, Lt. Governor Bob Kustra (R) looked like a lock for the job. But state representative Al Salvi stirred ideological fervor among the Republicans’ conservative base, and upset Kustra by 34,206 votes. Dick Durbin, a 14-year Springfield-area congressman, had his opening: He hammered Salvi as an “extremist,” and won by a  655,204-vote margin (56 percent), while Clinton won the state by 754,723 votes. In Illinois, when two white guys run, the least conservative usually wins.

1998: Instead of emerging as senator-for-life, Braun’s constant ethical scrapes undermined her re-electability, and exhausted her distinctiveness. In 1992, she beat Rich Williamson (R) 2,631,229-2,126,833 (53.3 percent), in a turnout of 5,164,357; she ran 177,879 votes ahead of Bill Clinton. In 1998, the Republicans’ nominee was Peter Fitzgerald, a bland suburban state senator. In a turnout of 3,394,521 – 1.7 million less than 1992 – Fitzgerald won 1,709,041-1,610.496 (50.3 percent), a margin of 98,545 votes. White guys can win against flawed non-white guys in a low turnout. Ironically, had the Republicans in 1998 nominated Loleta Didrickson, then the state comptroller (who Fitzgerald beat in the primary by 26,310 votes), she would probably still be Illinois’ senator.

2004: Unable to entrench himself in a Democratic state, Fitzgerald quit after one term. The Democratic frontrunner was rich businessman Blair Hull, who had contributed lavishly to Governor Rod Blagojevich and other Democrats. His chief challengers were Maria Pappas, the Cook County treasurer, who presumably would get the bulk of the female vote, and Dan Hynes, the state comptroller, who would have appeal to white ethnics in Chicago. Also in the race was an obscure black state senator from Chicago’s Hyde Park, Barack Obama. But then Hull imploded, with a domestic battery allegation surfacing; Pappas’ campaign fizzled; and suddenly Obama was the flavor of the month among liberals and minorities. In the 8-candidate primary, Obama won with 52.8 percent; of his 655,923 votes, 464,917 came from Cook County, where a massive vote in the black community gave him 64.4 percent of the county vote.

To be sure, Obama had distinction: A Harvard law degree, and a lecturing post at the University of Chicago Law School. But he won because of his distinctiveness. Hynes finished a distant second (23.7 percent), Hull third (10.8 percent), and Pappas fourth (six percent). Obama was now on track for the presidency.

2008: Given the unpopularity of the Bush Administration, it was a given that any competent Democrat would win the White House in 2008. Hillary Clinton, an Illinois native and Arkansas resident, transplanted herself to New York in 2000 to win a senate seat. Her competitors were Obama and John Edwards, the 2004 veep candidate. Her nomination seemed assured. But the Democratic primary voters are decidedly more liberal and less white than the general electorate. The choice: A black male, a white female, or a white male? All were equally liberal, pro-choice, pro-gay rights, anti-Bush and anti-war. Do we nominate a black or a woman for president?   

Clinton won Massachusetts (56-41 percent), New Hampshire (39-36 percent), Michigan (55-40 percent), New York (57-40 percent), Ohio (53-45 percent), and Pennsylvania (55-45 percent), but still lost the nomination.

2010: Exploiting the negative reaction against Obama and Obamacare, Republican congressman Mark Kirk ran for Obama’s open senate seat, facing state treasurer Alexi Giannoulias (D).  In 2008, statewide turnout was 5,577,509. In 2010, it was 3,792,770 – a dropoff of almost 1.8 million Kirk won 1,778,698-1,719,478, a margin of 59,220 votes. In a contest between two white guys, issues and distinction mattered, and Kirk prevailed.

2014: Durbin has been in Washington since 1982 – 32 years. He is the Democratic Senate majority whip, and at age 69, on track to be the majority leader if and when Harry Reid retires or is defeated. In Kentucky and Mississippi, longtime Republican senators are being attacked for their longevity. Not in Illinois. Durbin’s opponent is state senator Jim Oberweis (R), who has lost three statewide Republican primaries, and is a fervent conservative on social issues. Fundraising disclosures as of  3/31 have Durbin with $6,062,00 on-hand, to Oberweis’ $473,000. The issue should be that Durbin is part of the Washington problem, has been there too long, and pursues what is best for the Democrats, not necessarily Illinois. But Oberweis is a distinctively poor messenger. In a race between two white guys, Durbin wins.

2016: Kirk suffered a stroke in 2011, and is deemed eminently beatable in 2016, particularly if Clinton is atop the Democratic ticket. Illinois’ turnout will bounce back to 5.7 million, and the presumptive Democratic nominee will be either U.S. Representative Tammy Duckworth (D-8) or black state senator Kwame Raoul, who occupies Obama’s former Hyde Park seat. Duckworth has the distinctiveness to win: A woman and Iraq war combat veteran who lost parts of both legs and an arm in helicopter shoot-down. She is loyally pro-Obama. She is a former assistant secretary of intergovernmental affairs in the U.S. Veterans Affairs Department, and was state veterans director. With the controversy over U.S. veterans’ hospital wait time and poor care, one would think Duckworth would be front and center  She’s nowhere to be seen, as the Obama Administration is taking the blame.

Going into 2016, Duckworth is the odds-on favorite to beat Kirk and win back Obama’s former senate seat.

E-mail Russ@russstewart.com or visit his website at www.russstewart.com.