Man and Machine
Will Hynes’ Institutional Support Lead to Victory?
This is the third in a five-part series on the March 16 Illinois Senate primaries.
Perhaps there is no place in America where the Democratic political machine thrives more today than in Illinois, home of the Daleys, longtime Chicago ward bosses — and state Comptroller Dan Hynes.
Hynes, one of seven Democrats vying to succeed retiring Sen. Peter Fitzgerald (R), has staked his campaign on support from the party’s establishment and his organization’s ability to turn out those loyalists in the March 16 primary.
After all, he is the only candidate who has run statewide before. He has the backing of organized labor, the blessing of the state’s political heavyweights and lineage rooted in a powerful Chicago dynasty. In short, he embodies all that has made the Land of Lincoln’s Democratic machine so successful.
But in a volatile race where a large chunk of voters remain undecided, there are lingering questions about whether the machine’s grease will be enough to push Hynes across the finish line ahead of a free-spending millionaire and a charismatic black state lawmaker.
That Hynes is in a tough race at all has mystified many political observers in the state, given his statewide organization.
But a tight race is what Hynes maintains he expected all along. And with the focus finally on the endgame, he says he couldn’t be more pleased.
“In terms of how this race was supposed to have shaped up, we never really had any expectations as to how it would evolve,” Hynes said in a recent interview. “All we knew is what we had to do on Election Day to win, and our plan hasn’t changed one bit.
“We knew what support we would have and we’ve built from there. We know that in crowded primaries it’s about having a solid base. Having a loyal support base and having the ability to deliver your votes on Election Day. And we’re the only campaign who has those things.”
With less than two weeks to go in the Democratic race, Hynes, millionaire securities trader Blair Hull and state Sen. Barack Obama appear to be in a virtual dead heat. A poll released earlier this week by the Hynes campaign confirms as much.
Hull had surged ahead in polls taken as recently as two weeks ago, but he spent the past week battling newly publicized allegations that he verbally and physically abused his now ex-wife as their marriage deteriorated in 1998.
Considering Hull’s pledge to spend up to $40 million on the race, and the fact that he’s plunked down $24 million so far, Hynes said he couldn’t feel better about where his campaign is positioned.
Hynes’ campaign only recently went up on television in the Chicago media market, where about 75 percent of primary voters reside.
“For six months, those of us who didn’t have $40 million had to hold back and just wait until we could afford to go up on TV, and that time is now,” Hynes said. “So in a way, the race is just beginning.”
Although he is from the heavily Irish Southside Chicago neighborhood of Beverly, Hynes has staked much of his campaign strategy on winning large margins downstate, the term used to describe the area exclusive of Chicago and its suburban counties.
Early on, Hynes’ strategists argued that he would be the only candidate who could compete for the support of more conservative Democratic voters in places like the Illinois suburbs of St. Louis, Moline, Carbondale and Bloomington.
But Hull, who began television advertising downstate last summer and stayed up on the airwaves for much of the fall, appears to have complicated that strategy.
“I think he’s been a little overwhelmed by Hull’s money and has been in a sense frozen by it,” said a strategist aligned with one of Hynes’ opponents. “They’ve spent a lot of resources trying to compete with Hull downstate. … That’s a problem for them because 75 percent of the vote is in this [Chicago] media market.”
Hynes’ current television buy in Chicago is about half the size of Obama’s, an indication that he is conserving resources to spend on downstate buys. This week, Obama reported that he had $1.27 million in his campaign fund as of Feb. 25, while Hynes had nearly $635,000 on hand.
While Hynes strategists acknowledge that Hull has made inroads downstate, they also maintain that they are in a strong position to bring their voters home as the races closes.
A Chicago Tribune/WGN-TV poll last month showed Hull 10 points ahead downstate, but Hynes’ internal numbers now show him leading there.
Hynes shrugged off Hull’s performance so far downstate, labeling it the best early, shallow support money can buy.
“No, I’m not concerned nor am I surprised that a candidate that has spent $20 million and has bought 20 weeks of TV has increased his name recognition,” Hynes said. “That is expected. But what really matters is who has a base of support, a loyal following and a proven track record.”
Focus on Jobs
While Hull has focused almost solely on the issue of affordable prescription drugs and health care, Hynes’ message has been just as narrowly trained on the state of the economy and job creation.
On the stump he touts his plan for creating jobs, and one of his more effective radio ads features a 30-year Maytag employee who is losing his job because the Galesberg, Ill., plant closes. The employee, Dave Bevard, has traveled the state to stump with Hynes.
“We helped build the first Maytag refrigerators,” Bevard says in the radio spot. “Now this plant is closing and moving 1,600 jobs to Mexico.”
In January, Hynes got the endorsement of the state AFL-CIO, a constituency that largely forms the backbone of his campaign.
Last fall, after Obama scored the endorsements of two of the largest and most progressive unions under the labor umbrella, the Service Employees International Union and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, there was speculation that the AFL-CIO might forgo endorsing in the race.
It didn’t, and when Hynes won the federation vote outright he called it the most important endorsement of his campaign.
Still, even with the boost Hynes got from the labor endorsement, his campaign has still had to fight charges that it has been unexpectedly static.
Press accounts and newspaper columnists in the state have helped to perpetuate a belief that Hynes’ campaign has not taken off the way in which a statewide officeholder’s should.
“His campaign has been surprisingly laggard and low energy,” charged the strategist working for one of Hynes’ opponents. “I’ve been very surprised because I thought he would show stronger than he has, and I expect he’ll close strongly because of the assets he has on the ground. But yeah, I thought he’d put up a bigger fight.”
Hynes’ response is that no campaign has more energy than his right now, and he and his operatives are quick to rattle off statistics to back that boast up.
They say they have had on average 3,000 volunteers walking precincts every weekend, and they just placed an order for more yard signs after already planting some 75,000.
Friends in High Places
Almost equally as important as labor’s support to Hynes’ campaign is the support of the party’s organizational backbone — namely the ward leaders, aldermen and county chairmen who comprise the state’s political network.
Among the endorsements listed on his campaign Web site are the names of three Daleys (not Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley but his brother, Cook County Commissioner John Daley), two Congressmen and former Rep. Dan Rostenkowski (D-Ill.), the one-time chairman of the Ways and Means Committee who lost a re-election bid in 1994.
Aside from John Daley, the heaviest political hitters on the list by far are House Speaker Michael Madigan, the chairman of the state Democratic Party, and Cook County Board President John Stroger.
Hynes’ most important supporter, however, is not listed. His father, Democratic power broker Tom Hynes, is a former president of the Illinois Senate who still runs a ward organization on the Southwest side of Chicago, where the younger Hynes grew up.
Like the Daleys, Hynes is part of a proud Irish-American political family. The second youngest of four children in a family in which all four kids attended Notre Dame University, Hynes was elected state comptroller in 1998 at the tender age of 28. His younger brother, Matt, is his campaign manager.
Hynes’ opponents acknowledge the weight of the family’s political connections, something they know will be almost impossible to effectively gauge before election day.
“I think that the Democratic organization here will be working hard for Hynes. He’s got some key ward committeemen,” said a source with ties to a rival campaign. “I’m sure that he will move up in these polls. That’s something you can’t measure.”
But the March 16 primary may be the greatest test of the machine organization in recent memory. The Cook County Democratic organization isn’t anywhere near as powerful as it was when Mayor Daley’s father, first Richard J. Daley, ran the machine with an iron fist from the 1950s to the 1970s.
“It’s a rusty machine,” said the strategist not working for the Hynes campaign. “But he does have many of the working parts of it.”
When asked whether his image as the machine-backed political insider could end up being used against him in the long run, Hynes strategically demurred.
“I really don’t buy into any of those labels,” he said. “But if you’re asking whether I think the 800 elected officials and party leaders who have endorsed me is a good thing or a bad thing, I’d say it’s a good thing and it’s going to make the difference on election day.”
Still, his status as the machine candidate has led to some embarrassing headlines — most notably when an Illinois newspaper reported earlier this year that he had funneled campaign funds between his state and federal accounts using the Chicago Democratic ward structures as a conduit. Hynes released a four-page rebuttal of the charges.
Hynes said there are important distinctions between how he is able to maximize his vote and what other candidates are doing.
“The advantage of having unlimited resources is no longer operative,” he said, referring to Hull. “The real advantages and necessities going forward are having a strong, solid base of support — not superficial support that was created over the course of three months — and having the ability to get your supporters energized and voting on election day.”