failing to field a blue chip contender for the U.S. Senate,
Republicans wont get a double punch at the top
of the ticket in November
Illustration by Mike Cramer
leaders couldnt lure Jim Edgar, the popular former governor,
into a run for the U.S. Senate. Their clumsy efforts to muscle Lt.
Gov. Corinne Wood into the contest were rebuffed because she was
determined to go for governor. And their attempts to court the earnest
Jack Ryan, a trader turned high school teacher who is rich enough
to bankroll a bid, failed when the political novice decided not
to make the race.
a result, Illinois Republicans are staring at an uphill battle against
incumbent Richard Durbin, the Springfield Democrat who is seeking
a second term.
consequences could be more far-reaching. Republican leaders may
be fixated on the contest for the governors mansion, but by
failing to field a blue chip contender for the U.S. Senate, theyve
lost their chance for a double punch at the top of the ticket in
the November general election. Not having a well-known Senate candidate
could lessen GOP voter turnout and make awkward a coordinated campaign
with the gubernatorial nominee.
leaders never fully engaged in the Senate contest except to try
to offer it as a consolation prize to Wood. So, through strategic
indifference or poor persuasive powers, the GOP race for the Senate
has been left to chance. Three little-known Republicans, none of
whom have held or even run for a statewide office, have mounted
significant campaigns to win that partys nomination on March
James Oberweis, whose name is familiar to those partial to his namesake
ice cream, which he claims has the highest fat content in the world.
He handed out free samples when he announced in November. Oberweis
is president of a mutual fund and a money management firm as well
as board chairman of the family owned Oberweis Dairy in Aurora.
A political rookie, hes financing at least the initial stages
of his campaign.
John Cox has been stumping throughout Illinois practically full
time since last January. A Chicago attorney and investment adviser,
Cox says he has put $1.3 million of his own money into his bid.
He welcomes the company of two main rivals because he believes that
means some attention will be paid to the race, raising the profile
of the eventual winner. He quickly challenged his opponents to debates.
Cox lost a primary bid two years ago to represent Congress from
the 10th District along Chicagos North Shore.
Cox and Oberweis, state Rep. Jim Durkin, a lawyer from suburban
Westchester, does not have the spare cash to underwrite his campaign.
But he does have seven successful brothers, and the large family
will provide a financial network to launch Durkins bid. He
decided to make the race in November, after Jack Ryans flirtation
with the Senate ended and he found himself thrown into a new legislative
district with state Rep. Bob Biggins, an Elmhurst Republican.
who co-chaired the Illinois presidential campaign of Arizona Republican
Sen. John McCain, jumped in with the covert support of many GOP
these candidates, Jim Durkin is the only one who has proven he can
win a political campaign and knows what he is doing, says Rich Williamson,
who just stepped down as GOP state party chairman to join President
George W. Bushs team at the United Nations. Durkin has the
support of Sen. McCain, who has a national following.
is the largest question mark in the sense of how much he knows about
running a campaign, Williamson says. And Cox has run
unsuccessfully for office. He has been working a long time, but
he has not caught much enthusiasm. But Durkin is the best positioned.
of the three have much statewide name recognition.
for the issues, abortion and gun control divide and define these
three Republicans. Cox and Durkin are against abortion, while Oberweis
is generally supportive of abortion rights. On guns, Cox is a strict
constructionist on the Second Amendment, and he has been appealing
to gun owners throughout the state. Durkins House track record
earned him a D in 2000 from the Illinois Rifle Association,
while Oberweis has a blank slate to fill.
is the most conservative of the three, with Durkin and Oberweis
competing for the moderate and most moderate label. And ideology
can matter in Illinois Republican primaries. Illinois conservatives
turn out more readily than moderates because they are more issue-oriented.
And Republicans disagree more among themselves than Democrats. Look
no further to illustrate this point than the Democratic field for
governor, where the four main candidates are ideologically similar.
Activists in the Republican Party make sure there is a candidate
who reflects their views if none bubbles up naturally.
the right challenges the middle in Illinois primaries, recent history
shows that lesser-known conservatives can prevail over moderates.
In 1998, Peter Fitzgerald, then a state senator, defeated Republican
Comptroller Loleta Didrickson in the primary (though it should be
noted that she was heavily out-financed) and went on to defeat former
U.S. Sen. Carol Moseley-Braun, a Democrat. In 1996, then-state Rep.
Al Salvi, a conservative Republican from suburban Mundelein, upset
Lt. Gov. Bob Kustra, a moderate. Salvi wasnt as fortunate
as Fitzgerald; he was whipped by Durbin in the general election.
And in 1986, former state Rep. Judy Koehler, a conservative from
the west central town of Henry, became the partys nominee
after tackling businessman George Ranney, the choice of establishment
no coincidence that Cox is selling himself as an ideological heir
to the former president who remains a hero to Illinois conservatives.
Im the Ronald Reagan Republican in the race, the only
one of the three who adheres to the Republican Party platform.
all three candidates are attempting to tie their campaigns to star
will be able to associate himself with the popular McCain.
whose campaign logo features three cows and is similar to the dairy
companys signage, is counting on leveraging his corporate
identification. Hes also dropping some big names. Oberweis
says he was encouraged to get into the race by U.S. House Speaker
Dennis Hastert, a Yorkville Republican, but he wont be able
to take that to the bank because Hastert is not likely to embrace
his constituent publicly. Hastert spokesman John McGovern says the
speaker is not yet inclined to make an endorsement.
will not concede Reagan to Cox, either. He touts former Reagan adviser
Lyn Nofziger on his Web site, noting that the former Reagan press
guru helped with his announcement speech. He doesnt mention
that he paid for the help. Oberweis spokesman Don Walter, Nofzigers
partner, says the team also signed up former Christian Coalition
chief Ralph Reeds firm to devise a strategy for appealing
to religious conservatives.
am an entrepreneur, a businessman. I am not a professional politician,
says Oberweis, who proved he was right when he had to scramble to
recover from two early tenderfoot missteps. While discussing the
abortion issue, Oberweis, citing the Taliban, said government should
not impose religious beliefs on people. That remark got him in trouble
with the religious right. A free-marketeer opposed to government
subsidies, Oberweis also questioned the wisdom of tax breaks for
ethanol. Ethanol is made from corn, a major crop in Illinois, and
protection of the ethanol industry is a political given for the
Illinois delegation in Washington. After getting some grief, Oberweis
said there may be good justification in this case for
that federal assistance.
meanwhile, faces a nominal challenge in the primary. He has been
raising money he has stockpiled more than $3 million and
can tap his Senate friends, such as Majority Leader Tom Daschle
of South Dakota, to help raise more. While on paper Durbin seems
to be in good financial shape, hes been worried for months
about how to confront a GOP challenger who can pour millions into
his own race. Its unknown whether Oberweis and Cox have the
financial ability or desire to pour millions into their political
are cautiously optimistic,
Michael Daly, Durbins chief of staff, who will manage his
also has some history on his side. Illinois voters have handed second
terms to three of the last four senators who tried; Moseley-Braun
lost, Demo-crats Paul Simon and Alan Dixon won as did Republican
Charles Percy. Dixon and Percy lost on third-term bids.
could be the easiest Republican to defeat, strategists say, because
his views offer a stark contrast to Durbins. I think
that Cox will win the primary at this point as filing takes place,
Or Oberweis. Or Durkin. Soon, perhaps, to be household names.
Sweet is the Washington bureau chief for the Chicago
Issues, January, 2002
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