Politics 2004Week of July 19


For a few days last week, Republicans in Illinois thought they finally might have had a candidate in the U.S. Senate race who could keep far-left Democratic nominee Barack Obama from picking up the seat of retiring Republican Sen. Peter Fitzgerald. But by Thursday Chicago Bears legend Mike Ditka said he regretfully would not accept the Republican Senate nod, citing too may previous commitments.

Illinois and national Democrats became so nervous that a Ditka candidacy might derail Obama’s march to the Senate that early last week they named Obama the keynoter of the Democratic National Convention in Boston next month.

Ditka’s exit left the demoralized GOP still scrambling to find a replacement for controversial nominee Jack Ryan (who had previously announced he was relinquishing the nomination following revelations of his “sexed up” divorce proceedings).

Ditka’s decision was the second such blow for Illinois Republicans. Just three weeks ago, when the vacant Republican Senate nomination appeared to be his for the asking, conservative State Sen. Steve Rauschenberger stunned pundits and fellow pols by announcing he would not run after all. Sources close to Elgin lawmaker told me that he had the near-unanimous backing of his fellow state legislators and that House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R.-Ill.) had encouraged Rauschenberger and promised to appear at three fund-raising events for him. But the same sources also said that the state senator was particularly discouraged from running after a telephone call to his wife from longtime family friend Fitzgerald, who warned that the present state GOP leadership under Chairman Judy Baar Topinka might try to undermine a Senate candidacy by a conservative such as Rauschenberger. The outgoing senator later went public with his charge, noting at a press conference that Topinka had stood by moderate former Gov. (1998-2002) George Ryan during the indictment of more than 40 state officials but had turned on Senate nominee Jack Ryan after the revelation of his divorce proceedings–which were embarrassing, but also included no adultery and no crime. In addition, Rauschenberger himself told me he had not received encouragement or a promise of major funding from the National Republican Senatorial Committee.

Two weeks ago, when I asked NRSC Executive Director Jay Timmons whether or not his organization was committed to Illinois, he told me: “It’s too early to tell if Illinois is one of the states [whose Senate race will be targeted].” On July 6, I asked White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan if the recent Republican turmoil had convinced the President to write off Illinois in his re-election campaign. “There has been no update on his schedule in Illinois,” replied McClellan. A Ditka candidacy might well have changed these nebulous assessments of the Prairie State by the NRSC and the White House, but any update still awaits the emergence of a GOP candidate.


Not since 1990 has the New York Conservative Party broken with the Empire State Republican Party and nominated a candidate of its own for a major statewide office. That year academic Herb London carried the Conservative Party banner and liberal Pierre Rinfret was the GOP nominee. Both trailed then-Democratic Gov. Mario Cuomo in November, but history was nearly made as London came within 1% of outpolling major party candidate Rinfret.

A similar schism between the historically simpatico Conservatives and Republicans will occur this year. On June 5, at their convention at the Desmond Americana Hotel in Albany, the 42-year-old Conservative Party unanimously gave its nomination against Democratic U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer to Dr. Marilyn O’Grady. Two years ago, with strong support from patients such as soap opera diva Susan Lucci, Nassau County physician O’Grady drew a handsome 47% of the vote against Democratic Rep. Carolyn McCarthy running on both the Conservative and Republican lines. Rather than pursue a rematch with McCarthy, O’Grady sought out Conservative State Chairman Mike Long in late April and spoke of her desire to run for the Senate.

“Dr. O’Grady is pro-life, in favor of tax cuts, against special privileges for homosexuals, and fully understands the issue of government’s telling you how to do everything, including eating and drinking,” Long told me. Asked why the Conservatives were not embracing the choice of Republican leaders for the Senate, State Assemblyman Howard Mills, Long explained that “He’s a very nice young man, but he’s no conservative.” Specifically, the Conservative chieftain cited Mills’ pro-abortion stand, and his support for the Sexual Orientation Non-Discrimination Act enacted by the legislature two years ago and signed into law by Republican Gov. George Pataki. Long, who was in the forefront of opposition to the measure, told the New York Sun during its enactment, “You don’t need special legislation to legitimize a lifestyle, and that’s what this is about. . . Once they kick the door open, they’re going to be back for gay marriage.”

As to why the Conservatives are splitting with the GOP on a major race for the first time in 14 years, Long explained that “every ten years or so, when the Republicans take a leftward turn on nomination for a major office, the Conservatives raise their heads and choose a Reaganesque alternative.” Long, ironically, has been under fire from some within his own ranks for helping secure the Conservative line (now “Line D” on the state ballot, after the GOP, Democrats, and Perot-like Independence Party) three times for Pataki, who many Conservatives feel moves further to the left the longer he stays in office. Asked why he has backed Pataki, the party leader replied that “[Pataki] was right on most of the issues when we first supported him [in 1994] and has given us tax cuts every year.” Conceding that the governor has moved away from conservative stands on issues such as homosexual rights and gun control, Long quickly added his view that “there isn’t any Conservative alternative to him.”


By casting one of six Republican senatorial votes against the President’s nomination of onetime Arkansas right-to-life leader Leon Holmes to the U.S. District Court, GOP Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas may have made a serious political mistake. Particularly if, as is widely rumored in Austin, she plans to run for governor of the Lone Star State in ’06, when her term is up. (Fellow Republican and present Gov. Rick Perry has yet to say what his plans are in two years.)

Former State Republican Chairman and veteran conservative leader Tom Pauken, for one, put out a strong statement denouncing Hutchinson’s vote and made it clear he would not support her for any office in the future. Now the question is whether the President and White House political operative Karl Rove–neither of whom is known to be forgiving toward fellow Texas pols who break with them–have a similar attitude toward the senator.

“The President feels she’s a good friend and he appreciates all that she is doing for the state of Texas,” is how White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan answered my question July 8 as to whether Hutchison is in the Bush doghouse. “Does that mean, then, I persisted, that there are no hard feelings?” Replied McClellan: “The President is pleased there was an up-or-down vote on Judge Holmes’ nomination and hopes that all his nomination get similar votes by the Senate.”

A footnote: There was some irony in McClellan’s words. Should Gov. Perry not run again in ’06, the other leading Republican hopeful, aside from Hutchison is State Comptroller Carole Strahorn–McClellan’s mother.