Left to Chance: Republicans won’t get a double punch at the top of the ticket in November

Jan 1, 2002

Credit Mike Cramer

Republican leaders couldn’t 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.

As a result, Illinois Republicans are staring at an uphill battle against incumbent Richard Durbin, the Springfield Democrat who is seeking a second term.

The consequences could be more far-reaching. Republican leaders may be fixated on the contest for the governor’s mansion, but by failing to field a blue chip contender for the U.S. Senate, they’ve 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.

Party 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 party’s nomination on March 19. 

There’s 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, he’s financing at least the initial stages of his campaign.

Meanwhile, 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 Chicago’s North Shore.

Unlike 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 Durkin’s bid. He decided to make the race in November, after Jack Ryan’s flirtation with the Senate ended and he found himself thrown into a new legislative district with state Rep. Bob Biggins, an Elmhurst Republican. 

Durkin, who co-chaired the Illinois presidential campaign of Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain, jumped in with the covert support of many GOP insiders.

Of 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. Bush’s team at the United Nations. Durkin has the support of Sen. McCain, who has a national following.

“Oberweis 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.”

None of the three have much statewide name recognition. 

As 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. Durkin’s House track record earned him a “D” in 2000 from the Illinois Rifle Association, while Oberweis has a blank slate to fill.

Cox 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.

When 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 wasn’t 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 party’s nominee after tackling businessman George Ranney, the choice of establishment Republicans.

It’s no coincidence that Cox is selling himself as an ideological heir to the former president who remains a hero to Illinois conservatives. “I’m the Ronald Reagan Republican in the race, the only one of the three who adheres to the Republican Party platform.” 

Indeed, all three candidates are attempting to tie their campaigns to star power. 

Durkin will be able to associate himself with the popular McCain. 

Oberweis, whose campaign logo features three cows and is similar to the dairy company’s signage, is counting on leveraging his corporate identification. He’s 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 won’t 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. 

Oberweis 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 doesn’t mention that he paid for the help. Oberweis spokesman Don Walter, Nofziger’s partner, says the team also signed up former Christian Coalition chief Ralph Reed’s firm to devise a strategy for appealing to religious conservatives.

“I 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.

Durbin, 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, he’s been worried for months about how to confront a GOP challenger who can pour millions into his own race. It’s unknown whether Oberweis and Cox have the financial ability or desire to pour millions into their political future.

“We are cautiously optimistic,” 

says Michael Daly, Durbin’s chief of staff, who will manage his re-election campaign.

Durbin 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.

Cox could be the easiest Republican to defeat, strategists say, because his views offer a stark contrast to Durbin’s. “I think that Cox will win the primary at this point as filing takes place,” Daly says.

Cox. Or Oberweis. Or Durkin. Soon, perhaps, to be household names.


Lynn Sweet is the Washington bureau chief for the Chicago Sun-Times.

Illinois Issues, January, 2002