With six weeks to go before the Illinois Senate primary, the race appears as muddled as it was six months ago — or even more so — as crowded fields in both parties struggle to break from the pack and get the attention of an electorate that has yet to tune into the contest.
No clear heir to the nomination has emerged in either party thus far, although each side has a nominal frontrunner.
All told, seven Democrats and six Republicans are vying for the seat of retiring Sen. Peter Fitzgerald (R).
While the Land of Lincoln provides Senate Democrats with their best chance of picking up a GOP-held seat this cycle, party insiders warn against taking the state’s favorable demographics for granted, even in a presidential election year.
Little public polling has been released in the Senate race so far, but most people remain undecided.
The most recent survey — a poll conducted for the Chicago Tribune and WGN-TV early last month — showed 38 percent of Democratic primary voters and 57 percent of Republican primary voters were uncommitted.
Washington, D.C.-based Democratic consultant Anita Dunn, who is working for multimillionaire investor Blair Hull’s (D) campaign, described the race in terms much like the Democratic presidential contest, when voters didn’t really begin to tune into the race until about three weeks before the Iowa caucuses.
At this point, polling still appears to largely be a reflection of name identification, although strategists like Dunn know that voters will start paying attention to the race soon.
“I think that if you look at Illinois right now we’re kind of in November and December,” Dunn said, referring to the presidential calendar. “You haven’t gotten to the point in this race yet where people are really being driven to choices, either on the Democratic or Republican side.”
State Comptroller Dan Hynes (D), the closest to achieving frontrunner status among Democrats, suffered a week’s worth of negative press last week amid charges that he illegally funneled campaign funds between his state and federal accounts, via Chicago Democratic ward structures.
Nevertheless, Hynes still looks like the man to beat. He is a political legacy with access to Chicago’s political machine who nabbed the key endorsement of the state’s AFL-CIO organization.
Hynes and his campaign have categorically denied any wrongdoing and released a four-page document refuting the charges. A Hynes campaign spokeswoman attributed the allegations, first reported by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch on Jan. 25, to the start of negative campaigning.
“Our opponents would rather focus on negative attacks than campaigning on the issues, and that’s what this is about,” said spokeswoman Chris Mather. “We’re going to keep talking about the issues.”
And while all of the other campaigns will be fighting for their share of the undecided vote over the next six weeks, Mather maintained that Hynes is still the candidate best positioned to win the primary. Hynes has made job growth and the economy one of the primary issues of his campaign.
“We’ve got the two things that matter. We’ve got the momentum and the message,” Mather said.
Taking issue with that assessment are three other Democrats shown to be in a virtual dead heat with Hynes in last month’s Chicago Tribune/WGN-TV poll.
Hynes, state Sen. Barack Obama and Cook County Treasurer Maria Pappas each got 14 percent in the survey, while Hull took 10 percent. The poll, conducted Jan. 6-11, had a 5 percent margin of error.
Observers admit that Hull’s deep pockets remain one of the biggest question marks in the race. So far, Hull has put a whopping $18.7 million into the race.
And while some of his opponents privately question whether Hull is seeing the desired returns from his investment, Dunn maintains that a candidate starting at zero name recognition when the campaign started has nowhere to go but up.
“I know of no candidate in the race who has moved up as much as we have,” Dunn said, adding that Hull has “gone from being unknown to achieving a level of credibility.”
Hull has defined his campaign around the issue of health care, and last week he missed a candidate forum while making his third bus trip with seniors to Canada to buy prescription drugs.
Pappas, a well-known, quirky figure in the Chicago area, entered the race late, pledging to run an unconventional campaign.
Obama, however, is the candidate some Democrats see as the biggest threat to Hynes. The Harvard-educated lawyer ended 2003 with $1.8 million in the bank, a sum that his supporters note is on par with Hynes’ $1.8 million cash-on-hand figure.
“The knock on Barack is that he couldn’t raise the money, and he couldn’t run a modern campaign,” campaign manager Jim Cauley said, arguing that Obama has proved both assertions wrong.
Former Chicago School Board President Gery Chico (D) gets high marks for his debate performances so far.
Chico has also proved to be a strong fundraiser, yet his poll numbers still hover in the low single digits.
Health care executive Joyce Washington and former talk-show host Nancy Skinner are also seeking the Democratic nomination, although both are hardly registering in early polls. Washington is black like Obama, and could siphon critical votes away from the state lawmaker.
“The fact of the matter is that all seven are credible candidates,” Dunn said. “It’s a good field of candidates. It is not impossible to see a situation where one of any of them catches fire.”
On the Republican side, investment banker-turned teacher Jack Ryan has done a good job of billing himself as the frontrunner, although some of his opponents say there is little empirical evidence to support that claim so far.
Both Hynes and Ryan have attempted to gain momentum by fostering an air of inevitability around their campaigns, although Ryan appears to have met with more success in that endeavor.
Both candidates released polls last fall showing them with double-digit leads in their respective primaries while more recent independent polling has indicated otherwise.
The Chicago Tribune/WGN-TV poll in January showed Ryan slipping behind wealthy dairy magnate Jim Oberweis in the GOP primary. Oberweis, who has been criticized heavily for using appearances in dairy ads to boost his name recognition, got 16 percent in the poll while Ryan got 12 percent.
A Ryan campaign consultant said they expected their poll numbers to drop once they pulled down television ads. He also said the campaign’s internal polls don’t reflect a significant drop.
“We knew that the numbers we first published were soft,” said Chris LaCivita, a Ryan campaign consultant.
He added, “The only polls we believe are the ones we pay for and the only poll that counts is the one taken on Election Day.”
Overall, LaCivita said the campaign is where the operatives want it to be. He dismissed some recent staff turnover as “fine tuning” and put aside some GOP concerns over a potential nominee named Ryan.
State Republicans are still reeling over a series of scandals surrounding the administration of former Gov. George Ryan (R).
Jack Ryan is not related to the former governor.
“We’re very comfortable where we are,” LaCivita said. “We have a plan and we’re executing the plan. I would much rather be in our position than any of the other candidates’.”
Businessman Andy McKenna and state Sen. Steve Rauschenberger both registered 5 percent in the Tribune survey.
McKenna, like Ryan, has been up on television with ads.
Retired Maj. Gen. John Borling and Chirinjeev Kathuria, a millionaire doctor, are also seeking the GOP nomination.
Ryan recently brought in Jack Kemp to campaign with him, and he has also received the backing of the Club for Growth, although the conservative group has said it doesn’t plan to spend money on the primary.
“I think that many Republicans believe that it’s really Jack Ryan’s to lose, with the possibility that Rauschenberger, if he has the organization, could be somebody who closes at the end,” said one GOP strategist not aligned with any campaign.