Securities trader Blair Hull (D) isn’t the first Senate candidate to pour multi-millions of his personal wealth into a campaign — and he isn’t even the first to do so in Illinois.
But his ability to spend freely has catapulted him from obscurity to frontrunner in the wide-open race.
Last fall, when the political novice was barely registering in polls matching him against a primary field crowded with polished political résumés, some Democrats were privately speculating that Hull might look to exit the race.
Hull, who parlayed Las Vegas blackjack winnings into a career in the securities market that culminated with the sale of his firm to the Goldman Sachs Group for $531 million, should know a poor investment when he sees one, they said.
But this week, just days after he reported dumping another $5.4 million into the race (bringing his total to $24 million), Hull saw some long sought-after dividends added to his campaign prospectus.
“It takes a while, particularly with a candidate who starts at zero to really get through in a state this large,” said Anita Dunn, a consultant to Hull’s campaign.
New polling shows Hull has surged ahead in the crowded race for the Democratic nomination. In a Market Shares Corp. poll conducted Feb. 11-17, Hull registered 24 percent, up 14 points from his standing in the same poll, conducted in early January for the Chicago Tribune and WGN-TV.
State Sen. Barack Obama followed with 15 percent, state Comptroller Dan Hynes had 11 percent and Cook County Treasurer Maria Pappas got 9 percent. Obama, Hynes and Pappas had all registered 14 percent in the January poll.
Still, the Tribune/WGN poll found that roughly one-third of the voters surveyed remained undecided, and 55 percent of the likely primary voters surveyed said they have paid little to no attention to the contest so far.
Internal polling confirms the primary is shaping up to be a three-way horse race between Hull, Hynes and Obama, leading campaign operatives and outside observers alike to wonder whether an onslaught of negative ads is on the way in the final three weeks of the primary.
There is varying speculation about whether Hull or Hynes will be the be first to go negative, if anyone does.
Hynes has said he will adhere to a plea issued by Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) to keep the campaign positive. He was the only candidate in the seven-way primary to do so, although he would have some leeway to go negative in response to an attack.
A mudslinging match between Hull and Hynes could serve to boost Obama’s candidacy, a scenario that might end up unfolding in much the same way as the 1992 Illinois Senate primary from which Carol Moseley Braun (D) emerged.
The 1992 race featured a free-spending millionaire, attorney Al Hofeld, who used his money primarily to attack two-term incumbent Sen. Alan Dixon (D) in the primary. Moseley Braun, who had sizeable name identification in Chicago as the Cook County recorder of deeds, stayed relatively above the fray and eeked out a 38 percent to 35 percent win over Dixon in the primary. She went on to win the 1992 general election and was defeated for re-election by Sen. Peter Fitzgerald (R) in 1998. Fitzgerald, who is retiring this year, spent $14 million of his personal fortune in that race.
Hull and Hynes now appear positioned to go head to head downstate, an area considered key to Hynes’ winning strategy. The Tribune/WGN poll found that Hull led Hynes 30 percent to 20 percent among voters outside of Chicago and its suburbs.
Hull has been flooding the downstate airwaves for months. Hynes has also been on the air downstate since mid-January.
Saturation Equals Maturation
Hull’s opponents argue that his surge in the polls is largely a product of television ads, which have saturated the expensive Chicago media market for about three weeks.
He is currently up with two spots, one of which singles him out as the only Democratic candidate who isn’t taking special interest money and another that touts his vision for cutting taxes and creating jobs. The recent blitz also included a 60-second bio ad and a 30-second ad introducing his health care plan.
In the Senate race, Hull, who rose from modest beginnings, has staked his platform on the issue of health care reform. He has organized three bus trips to Canada for seniors looking to buy reduced-price prescription drugs. A fourth trip is scheduled for Monday.
Meanwhile, Hull’s leading opponents for the Democratic nomination, Obama and Hynes, both went up with Chicago TV buys on Monday. Hynes and Obama had only done radio in Chicago until now.
A strategist working for one of Hull’s opponents said the volume of his advertising, not the content, is having the biggest impact.
“The big issue with him is just sheer throw weight, at every level,” the strategist said. “It’s not just the TV ads.It’s the Internet ads. It’s the radio. It’s the mail. It’s the comprehensive blended strategy.”
Hull has vowed to spend as much as $40 million to win the Senate seat.
In addition to the blanket ads, his money has also bought some of the best consultants in the business. His fourth-quarter FEC report showed he had as many as 28 consultants on the payroll during the period.
His campaign manager receives a $20,000-a-month salary, and it has been reported that the campaign pays people $75 a day to plant yard signs.
“We’ve put more people to work in Illinois than George Bush has in the last month. So yes, we’ve had to pay some people,” a Hull spokesman told the Chicago Tribune earlier this month when asked about paying for work that is generally done for free. “Blair is not a professional politician and doesn’t have a built-in ward organization or patronage operation. That’s why we have had to build this state-of-the-art campaign.”
Hull’s campaign employed nearly 150 people in the last three months of 2003. He has a staff of almost 40 people in his Chicago headquarters and dozens more in nine field offices across the state.
He travels to campaign events either via corporate jet (for which he has a timeshare) or his $40,000 red, white and blue recreational vehicle, called “Hull on Wheels.”
His personal spending has been the first significant test of the so-called “Millionaire’s Amendment,” a complicated provision of the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act designed to level the playing field for candidates facing wealthy opponents.
Hull first reported that his spending had triggered the state’s threshold as determined under the new guidelines in January 2003, even before the FEC had approved a reporting form for self-funding candidates. Now, Hull’s opponents are allowed to raise up to $12,000 from individuals, six times the normal limit.
Assets and Liabilities
Hull, 61, is reportedly worth between $300 million and $440 million.
And as if his millionaire image needed any further polishing, this week it was reported that Hull is a major shareholder in a California gold mine.
However, the $1.2 million estimated worth of his holdings in the company, which he invested in in the early 1970s, is a small drop in the bucket when it comes to his portfolio.
Some national Democrats look at the 2004 Senate map, notably the five Southern open seats the party is defending, and see Hull’s nomination as a way of freeing the party to spend valuable resources elsewhere.
But while some Democrats make the strategic argument for Hull’s nomination, his opponents are quick to point to liabilities that they say far outweigh his self-financing capability in the general election.
Late last week, Hull issued a statement in which he did not dispute a February 1998 police report which alleges that during an argument he hit his now-ex wife Brenda Sexton in the shin.
The statement came after Hull repeatedly refused to discuss the circumstances surrounding two orders of protection Sexton filed before their 1998 divorce. Previously, Hull would only describe the divorce as “contentious.”
“We both said painful things to each other that I am sure we both wish we could take back,” Hull said in the statement. He also said that he would “never intentionally harm” Sexton, who is now supporting his Senate campaign.
Last year, Hull recommended Sexton to Gov. Rod Blagojevich (D) for her $80,000-a-year position as head of the Illinois Film Office.
At a Democratic radio debate Monday night, Hull’s opponents argued that he should expect public scrutiny of his personal life, including his messy divorce. Hull and Sexton were married twice, and their divorce records remain sealed.
“The key is that my former spouse supports me and believes that I will be a very good United States Senator,” Hull said in an interview Monday, adding that while traveling the state he finds voters are more concerned about issues than his personal life.
The Freedom of Millionaires
Following in the footsteps of many millionaire candidates who rail against the undue influence of “special interests” in politics, Hull does not accept donations from political action committees and won’t take individual contributions of more than $100. If elected to the Senate, he says he won’t take a salary or a pension.
In what has become the central theme of his campaign, Hull contends that he is the only candidate who can independently “represent all the citizens of Illinois.” He says he wants to come to Washington to challenge the status quo and that voters want a Senator who raises issues instead of traveling around the country raising money.
“It’s not about my money, it’s about the money that the special interests give to legislators,” Hull said.
Dunn said that Hull’s message is breaking through to Illinois voters, who are fed up with the state’s revolving-door scandals and are looking for someone who wants to come to Washington to do something.
“Self-funding candidates lose races all the time … when what they’re saying to voters doesn’t resonate with voters,” Dunn said.
She argues that Hull’s middle-class background, and that fact that his money came to him later in life, are key selling points.
While Hull has embraced his past participation in a notorious card-counting ring that operated in Nevada during the 1970s — because he believes that it is demonstrative of the type of quantitative and analytical skills he will bring to the Senate — it is his working-class background that he touts most on the stump.
Playing to key Democratic constituencies, Hull’s campaign biography describes how his parents struggled paycheck to paycheck as he was growing up in a middle-class San Francisco suburb during the Depression.
By age 19 he had earned a union card working on the assembly line in a cannery. He went on to become a high school teacher, furthered his education under the GI Bill and then used his accumulated blackjack winnings to become a pioneer in the trading industry.
“His is a rags to riches story,” said Rep. Bobby Rush (D-Ill.), who is chairing Hull’s campaign.
Rush said he thinks Hull’s humble beginnings put him in a unique position to identify with voters.
“I think that Blair would be open and be receptive to and be accessible to constituencies that don’t feel as though they can get the ear of a Senator,” he said.
Other candidates like Hynes and Obama race to tout the support of interest groups, labor unions and powerful political players in the state, but endorsements have not been a priority for Hull’s campaign.
While Rush has claimed no ulterior motives, his decision to chair Hull’s campaign is largely viewed as an act of revenge against Obama, who challenged the South Side Congressman in a 2000 primary. Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.) and former Rep. Cardiss Collins (D-Ill.) are also supporting Hull.
But the man perceived to be Hull’s biggest backer is not taking a public role in the campaign.
Blagojevich, who was elected governor in 2002 with heavy financial support from Hull, is said to be privately backing Hull although he is publicly neutral in the race. Instead, Hull has the public support of powerful Chicago Alderman Dick Mell (D), Blagojevich’s father-in-law.
Hull was an early supporter of Blagojevich’s primary campaign, loaning him $200,000 and donating another $250,000-plus in cash or services over the course of the election.
All told, it is estimated that Hull has donated more than $1 million to Democratic causes and candidates in the state since 2000, although he skipped voting in that year’s presidential election.
Despite the mixed success of multimillionaire Senate candidates, Dunn said it would be foolish for other candidates to attack Hull on personal issues like his spending.
“They’re not attacking him on the issues because they can’t,” Dunn said.
In the Tribune/WGN poll, the percentage of those surveyed who said Hull’s towering financial advantage was unfair equaled the percentage who thought it was fair.
“I think that if you look at the history of self-financing candidates, people would rather have a candidate spend their own money than a candidate who runs a campaign and ends up so in hock to special interests that when they get to Washington they can’t do anything,” Dunn said.