Politics 2004Week of July 5


Although the national media focused on the “sexed up” material in unsealed divorce records that finally brought down Republican U.S. Senate nominee Jack Ryan last week, pundits and pols in Illinois had more mundane, yet serious, matters on which to concentrate. As Ryan was exiting the race, legislative and Republican Party leaders were holding an intense conference call to try to determine their replacement nominee for the seat of retiring Republican Sen. Peter Fitzgerald.

But, as they pondered replacements for Ryan, some GOPers also began to wonder aloud whether it was worth waging a major effort to try to keep Fitzgerald’s seat in Republican hands. For one thing, they doubted that the national and state party organizations would come through with big enough dollars at this late date to make a stopgap candidate substantive. And how could a Republican start from scratch and overtake the new “Tiger Woods of the Democratic Party”–State Sen. Barack Obama. Considering his remarkable personal history, Obama has been lionized in places ranging from E. J. Dionne’s nationally syndicated column to the New Yorker. Obama is the son of a Kenyan father who abandoned him and an American mother who put him through Harvard. As Republicans were reeling from Ryan’s implosion, Barack’s headquarters announced that he would soon benefit from a fund-raiser featuring both Bill and Hillary Clinton.

Sources in Springfield told me of a confidential conference call on June 25 that included State Senate GOP Leader Frank Watson, House GOP Leader Tom Cross, former Gov. (1990-98) Jim Edgar, State Party Chairman Judy Baar Topinka, Republican National Committeeman Bob Kjellander, and Cook County (Chicago) Party Chairman Gary Skoin. One source close to the legislative leaders said that “they made it clear to [the more moderate] Kjellander, Edgar, and Topinka that while Jack Ryan had proven to be a flawed messenger, his message was drawing a stark contrast to that of the unabashedly leftist Barack and that the party had to nominate another conservative.” The same source added that Watson and Cross underscored that the grassroots in the party would not stomach a moderate nominee.

Almost to a person, the Republican state legislators favor conservative State Sen. Steve Rauschenberger of Elgin as the new Senate standard-bearer. Endorsed by all but three of his Senate colleagues and by 27 of the 30 newspapers that made editorial endorsements, Rauschenberger came in third in the six-way March GOP primary won by Ryan with 38% of the vote. Rauschenberger’s performance was all the more impressive in that he managed to pull 23% of the vote spending only $650,000, compared to second-place finisher Jim Oberweiss’s 24% backed by an estimated $5-million budget.


In urging Rauschenberger’s nomination, the legislators made it clear, my source confirmed, that after their ordeal with onetime Goldman-Sachs “Master of the Universe” Ryan, they wanted no “self-funders” considered as candidates. Despite media speculation, talk of giving the Senate nomination to such multi-millionaire prospects such as Oberweiss, fourth-place (14%) finisher Hank McKenna, and onetime Helene-Curtis chief executive officer Ron Gidwitz was never taken seriously during the conference call.

As one state senator later put it, “What happened here in Illinois is the most graphic example of why the current system discriminates against candidates who don’t have deep pockets of their own. Were candidates permitted to accept unlimited donations from others, [Rauschenberger] would have unquestionably won the primary. Whatever the outcome of this race, it should start a national drive to dump McCain-Feingold, all the limitations and fines and just let people give what they want.”

With the Republican state central committee scheduled to choose a replacement for Ryan on July 2, the nomination appears to be Rauschenberger’s for the asking. Indeed, one-third of the weighted votes on the committee will be cast by three of his Senate colleagues: Bill Peterson, Dave Syverson, and Kirk Dillard.

Reached at his office in the state Capitol, Rauschenberger told me: “I would love the opportunity to pull the political threads together here and show that Illinois is winnable by a Republican. Democrats have been winning for the past three years in large part because the Republican Party has been bankrupt of new ideas. I would look forward to debating with my colleague Barack Obama and contrasting our respective records and ideas.”

But the lawmaker then stopped short of saying he would accept the nomination. As he put it: “The question is how serious are the state and national party organizations about winning this Senate race in Illinois? If I’m going to start this late, I certainly don’t want to be cut adrift by them and have no money.”

One top official in national Republican circles, who insisted on remaining anonymous, said that the GOP “has to look hard at which states our resources can have the most impact.”


The third U.S. House by-election of the year will take place in North Carolina’s 1st District on July 20. With Democrats’ having taken seats from Republicans in the two previous elections to fill vacancies–in Kentucky’s 6th District and South Dakota’s at-large district–odds are strong that they will win the political “trifecta” and retain the historically Democratic seat of just-resigned Rep. Frank Balance.

Or will they?

To write off Republican chances in the Tarheel State’s 1st District because it gave 57% of its votes to Al Gore in 2000 and has a slight black majority of voters is to ignore some serious schisms among local Democratic Party officials–and the fact that Republicans have a most substantial candidate in Greg Dority.

Pursued by federal investigators for possible kickbacks from a foundation he started and claiming a neuromuscular disorder, the 62-year-old Balance quit Congress on June 11. Democratic Gov. Mike Easley ordered a special election to coincide with the state primary on July 20. A special districtwide Democratic convention gave the party’s blessing in the special election to former State Supreme Court Justice G.K. Butterworth, who is black and was already running in the Democratic primary to succeed Balance.

But, whoa! Three other candidates were also vying in the Democratic primary: educator Christine Fitch, wife of former state legislator and local black political powerbroker Toby Fitch; lawyer Darryl Smith, also black; and Pasquotank businessman Sam Davis, the lone white candidate in the race. None were pleased about Butterfield’s getting a leg up, local sources say, and there could be some significant maneuvering to stop the former justice from getting an early start in Congress. That could translate voting for Dority, partner in a security-consulting firm. Two years ago, Dority drew 35% of the vote as the GOP standard-bearer against Balance. Now he is back and running a much more professional campaign under the aegis of former State Republican Chairman Jack Hawke.

Under North Carolina election law, all candidates regardless of party will appear on the same ballot. Should no candidate win 40%, a run-off will be held between the two top vote-getters on August 17. (The same “40% rule” will apply to the party primaries, but in that case, Republican and Democratic candidates will run in their respective primaries instead of on the same ballot.)

With less than three weeks to go before the balloting, betting is strong that Dority will secure one of the top two spots and Butterfield the other. In a run-off between the two, the anti-Butterfield Democrats could tip the election to Republican Dority–particularly, as expected, if the turnout in August is small. The 1st District picture is even more complex because there is a strong likelihood that Butterfield and another Democrat will be competing in a run-off for the Democratic nod for the full-term on the very same day.