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There’s No Sure Thing When It Comes to the Illinois Senate Race

With a list of candidates only slightly shorter than the California recall ballot, the outcome of next year’s Illinois Senate race is about as predictable as the path of a late-summer hurricane. [IMGCAP(1)]

The retirement of Sen. Peter Fitzgerald (R) obviously gives Democrats in the Land of Lincoln a great opportunity to pick up a Senate seat. But before they start counting their chickens, they better wait to see what hatches.

The Democratic near-sweep in Illinois in 2002 left only one state office in Republican hands (the state treasurer is GOPer Judy Baar Topinka) and gave both houses of the state Legislature to the Democrats. In presidential races, the state has evolved from a tossup to leaning Democratic.

Filing for the mid-March primary won’t begin until December, but at this point the Democratic contest includes five credible contenders: state Comptroller Dan Hynes, wealthy businessman Blair Hull, state Sen. Barak Obama, former Chicago Board of Education President (and one-time chief of staff to Mayor Richard Daley) Gery Chico and Cook County Treasurer Maria Pappas.

Insiders generally believe that the top contestants are Hynes, whose father served as Cook County assessor and in the state Senate, and Obama, who lost a primary challenge to Rep. Bobby Rush (D) in 2000 but won a third four-year term in the Legislature in 2002.

Hull, of course, is the wild card, since he has already put millions of dollars from his own pocket into the race and is widely believed to be ready to invest millions more. So far, his spending hasn’t produced much movement in the polls.

Pappas’ name recognition has her showing well in early polling, but local observers wonder about her appeal (and Chico’s) over the long term.

Hynes has the support of many in the party establishment, and much of organized labor. He leads in early polling, his fundraising has been impressive and he is widely regarded as the favorite in the race. But observers also say that he is running a “Rose Garden” strategy, in part because retail campaigning is not his strength.

Obama, on the other hand, is smart, poised and articulate, and has all the candidate qualities a campaign manager would want.

The African-American legislator graduated from Columbia and earned a law degree from Harvard. He benefits from the fact that blacks are expected to make up between one-quarter and 30 percent of the primary electorate, but he’ll need to attract the votes of some white liberals to win the primary.

The GOP race is a battle of wealthy businessmen. Taken together Jack Ryan, Andy McKenna Jr., Jim Oberweis and businessman Chirinjeev Kathuria have zero years of significant elective office under their collective belts. All, however, have some financial resources. State Sen. Steve Rauschenberger and retired Gen. John Borling are also running.

Ryan, who has the same last name but isn’t related to either unpopular former GOP Gov. George Ryan or well-regarded former state Attorney General/2002 Republican gubernatorial nominee Jim Ryan, appears to enjoy the best positioning in the race.

Ryan’s good looks, great résumé, interesting background — he walked away from a lucrative partnership at Goldman, Sachs & Co. to teach in a minority, inner-city school — and financial investment in his own race give him an initial advantage.

Ryan, who graduated from Dartmouth and has both a law degree and a master’s in business administration from Harvard, has put together an experienced, if quirky, political team that includes former National Republican Senatorial Committee Political Director Chris LaCivita as general consultant, Bill Hillsman for media and Glen Bolger for polling. Hillsman is best known for creating ads for Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.) and former Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura (I) in their initial successful bids for statewide office.

McKenna, who has an MBA from Northwestern’s Kellogg School, has been active in several Illinois business groups. Oberweis, who holds an MBA from the University of Chicago, owns and now runs his family’s dairy businessman. But he is also a money manager/investment adviser of some notoriety.

Kathuria is a doctor with a medical degree from Brown and an MBA from Stanford. A practicing Sikh, he has considerable personal wealth and promises to put millions of dollars into his race. Rauschenberger was first elected to the Illinois Legislature in 1992, and he previously chaired the Appropriations Committee.

Ryan, McKenna and even Oberweis have some establishment backing. Borling has positioned himself as the only major pro-choice candidate in the race, while Rauschenberger is the only major contender elected to office.

None of the Republicans begin with a large, reliable political base, so other factors — including money, personal appeal and campaign quality — could be crucial. That probably makes Ryan the favorite for his party’s nomination.

The crowded primary contests make it impossible to handicap these contests with any certainty. The Democratic nominee ought to start out with an edge, but the size of the field

Stuart Rothenberg is editor of the Rothenberg Political Report. Due to the Columbus Day holiday, his column appears today. “Campaigning” will return to its regular schedule Thursday.

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