John Chase and Liam Ford, Chicago Tribune, Mar. 17
Political newcomer Jack Ryan rode his image as a conservative with a conscience to victory Tuesday, becoming the Republican nominee for the U.S. Senate.
Ryan, 44, marched toward an easy victory over more than a half-dozen GOP challengers, setting up a match against Democrat Barack Obama in November that will likely be one of the most closely watched in the nation. Obama will be trying to become the Senate’s only African-American.
“I’ve been talking about social justice issues and civil rights issues all across this state,” Ryan told a crowd of about 500 supporters. “I’ve been going into the communities the Democrats think they own and to the voters they take for granted on the issues they think they own, on the themes they think they own.”
With 91 percent of the state’s precincts reporting, Republicans had given Ryan 36 percent of the vote; dairy owner Jim Oberweis was in second place with 23 percent; state Sen. Steve Rauschenberger had 20 percent; and Glenview businessman Andy McKenna Jr. had 15 percent. Several other candidates received nominal support.
Ryan’s victory came over rivals with whom he had many similarities in political philosophy and policy. That was one reason the race became personal in the final days as they vied for the nomination to keep the seat occupied by outgoing U.S. Sen. Peter Fitzgerald in Republican hands.
In fact, the biggest divide was created by Oberweis, who attempted to generate a buzz by taking a strong stance against illegal immigration.
But Ryan, who despite his inexperience ran his campaign from the stance of a front-runner, pushed forward with a message that mixed conservative policies with a sense of social justice. He constantly spoke in support of cutting taxes to create jobs, reducing federal corporate welfare and promoting school choice so that parents unhappy with the state of their schools could send their children elsewhere.
Ryan was one of three millionaires in the race, but he outspent the others, shelling out $3.5 million of his own money, compared with about $3 million for Oberweis and $2.4 million for McKenna.
But in scoring his victory, Ryan, who lives in Wilmette, stressed his decision to leave his lucrative job as an investment banker to teach for three years at Hales-Franciscan High School, a Catholic boys’ school on Chicago’s South Side. On Tuesday night, several black ministers joined Ryan at his campaign headquarters.
‘Going to be a sweep’
“This primary is going to be a sweep, and then it’s going to be a landslide in November, thank you, Lord,” said Ron Wilson, pastor of Full Gospel Christian Assembly, the first black church Ryan visited this year.
The approach has given the telegenic Ryan a persona as a new-style conservative willing to look for votes beyond the traditional GOP base, something that allowed him to argue to Republican voters that he was the party’s best shot at winning the general election.
Indeed, almost from the beginning, Ryan ran more of a general election campaign than one focused on garnering votes from conservatives in the GOP. With the state’s Republican Party still reeling from the scandals that forced Gov. George Ryan to leave office and the subsequent losses Republicans suffered, Ryan thought his strategy was the best, visiting black churches in Chicago and selling his conservative message to lower — and middle-class voters Downstate.
Ryan’s victory came despite being forced in the final days of the campaign to fend off questions about the contents of sealed portions of his divorce from actress Jeri Ryan, an issue that will undoubtedly play a role in the fall campaign.
Insisting any documents under seal were put there only to protect the couple’s 9-year-old son, Ryan has refused to release the closed divorce records. But his Republican opponents — citing comments made in 2000 by the California judge who sealed the records after initially declining to — raised questions about whether the documents were made off-limits to protect Ryan’s reputation.
Sealed divorce file
Last week, a Republican political operative claimed to have seen pages of the sealed file, saying they contain embarrassing allegations against Ryan. But because he offered no substantiation for his claims, media outlets held off detailing the assertions. This past weekend, Oberweis ignored the political convention of halting attack ads in the final days of a campaign when he ran a radio commercial suggesting Ryan had something to hide.
All the while, Ryan never answered the questions, saying he wasn’t going to dignify “rumors.”
Before Ryan claimed victory, both Oberweis and Rauschenberger attempted to telephone him to concede, but neither got through to the candidate himself. When Oberweis called, Ryan had already left his hotel room and was headed toward the elevator to declare victory.
In conceding to Ryan, Oberweis said he was pleased to have raised the illegal immigration issue, despite some of the negative backlash he got for it, especially from immigrant groups.
“While we fell short tonight, we’ll continue to push for the ideas that concern so many of my fellow Illinois citizens today,” Oberweis said. “We live in a country of optimism.”
Rauschenberger was the only major opponent of Ryan’s who had any legislative experience, a point he mentioned repeatedly on the campaign trail and one that helped him earn a number of endorsements from newspaper editorial boards. But because he was underfunded compared to his opponents, he was unable to amass much public backing.
“The people who were supporting the higher-profile candidates weren’t really attached to them,” Rauschenberger said from his campaign headquarters at the Marriott Northwest in Hoffman Estates. “If we had a little more time, who knows? I think we persuaded people that the strongest candidate against Barack would be a fellow legislator.”
Despite his political inexperience, Ryan, who had toyed with running for political office before but never done so, was able to claim the mantle of front-runner from the start. He was the first major candidate to declare his candidacy after Fitzgerald announced he was not running for re-election, and he almost immediately hired a large campaign staff. Even before he announced he was running, Ryan traveled Downstate, attending GOP “Lincoln Day Dinners” and putting out feelers for how those outside of Chicago would accept his candidacy.
Surprised by reception
He said he was surprised how well he was received, acquiring a significant number of early endorsements from county GOP officials south of Interstate Highway 80.
“Because I had spent a lot of time south of Springfield, doing those Lincoln Day dinners before, a lot of the county chairmen had known me,” he said. “So, I think we got about 10 county chairmen south of Springfield to endorse us right away. And there it was building momentum.”