Climax For Illinois Senate Circus

Jack Ryan and Barack Obama Illinois
By David Paul Kuhn, Chief Political Writer

All the rich men want to be senator in Illinois. But while money may be able to buy elections it cannot buy electability and Illinois is a case in point. After first-term Sen. Peter Fitzgerald announced he would retire at the end of this term, a rare Republican seat went up for grabs and a blur of candidacies followed.

Six of those running have no elective experience. Politics seems to be the only profession where applicants apply for a position with no relevant background. Of this suffocating field of 15 candidates, seven are millionaires.

"Something that money can't buy is being called senator in the country club for the rest of your life. Well, now that you mention it, you can buy it," said Christopher Mooney, the director of the Institute for Legislative Studies at the University of Illinois at Springfield. But to buy the title of senator, via massive campaign spending, Mooney emphasizes that you still have to be electable.

Among the motley millionaires, there is Democratic businessman Blair Hull (net worth $132 million to $444 million) and a few rich Republicans like former investment banker Jack Ryan ($37.9 million to $96 million) and dairy owner Jim Oberweis ($7.6 million to $20.4 million).

Ryan leads Republicans and is positioned for a November face-off with a non-millionaire, Democratic state Sen. Barack Obama, following Tuesday's primary. The latest Mason-Dixon Polling and Research Inc. tracking shows Obama with a double-digit lead over his nearest challengers, state Comptroller Dan Hynes and Hull. The same poll has Ryan poised for a near-certain victory with nearly half the vote in the GOP primary.

Although Obama is biracial – his mother was white, father from Kenya – he considers himself African American and, if elected in November, would be the first black male Democrat ever to serve in the U.S. Senate. (Republican Edward W. Brooke was elected to the Senate in 1966, the first black GOP senator since Reconstruction.)

Obama would follow in the footsteps of former Illinois senator (and former presidential candidate) Carol Mosley Braun, who was the first black female senator ever and lost her seat in a fiery campaign to Fitzgerald in 1998. Fitzgerald spent $7 million of his own money to capture the Republican nomination and nearly another $7 million against Braun, winning with only about half the vote.

Fitzgerald, under intense pressure from fellow Republicans, announced he would retire following the one term. Having opposed all things pork (including not supporting funding for the Lincoln presidential library and opposing the expansion of O'Hare International Airport), Fitzgerald says he's not running again in order to spend more time with his family.

The confusing circus of senatorial contenders that followed hit a fevered pitch in February, when it was revealed that the ex-wife of Hull, then the Democratic frontrunner, had an order of protection filed against him. Soon after, following increasing scrutiny, his divorce records were unsealed; the documents showed that Hull had struck his wife and threatened her. Hull's campaign plummeted. He went from securing his frontrunner status (by saturating the airwaves and hiring top staff) to a free fall in the polls. He will now likely lose after spending a startling $30 million of his own money in the primary alone.

"One thing about these neophytes that really strikes me is that they have no track record and they have not campaigned before. So you don't know what is going to happen when they get into the spotlight," Mooney said. "Particularly here we saw that you don't know what happened in the past with these guys and it may come out in the campaign."

Obama also has a checkered past. In his 1995 autobiography, "Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance," he wrote that in high school he had "primarily smoked pot," and that he dabbled in cocaine in college. But the drug disclosure never gathered steam, possibly because of his rise from meager means, making him more American dream than nightmare.

Obama went to Columbia University and on to Harvard Law School, where he graduated magna cum laude and served as the first African-American president of the Law Review, later becoming a civil rights attorney before entering Illinois politics.

However, Obama's likely Republican opponent, Ryan, may face the same problems as Hull. Also with no electoral experience, Ryan has a sealed 1999 divorce file from his marriage to actress Jeri Ryan. An undercurrent of curiosity is gathering as to what those records show. Privately, the Republican Party is fretting.

"You just don't know how these untested candidates are going to act on the stump and that's why these neophytes make professional politicians nervous," Mooney explained. "What Illinois indicates is that if the only thing people know about a candidate is what's in these TV commercials and they think he is a great guy, if all these other things come out, the voters can change their mind pretty quick."