Overcoming Oberweis is Republican problem
ANALYSIS & OPINION BY RUSS STEWART
by RUSS STEWART
For Republicans in Illinois, there are four stages of grief: anger, denial, bargaining and Oberweis, and as the 2014 political cycle commences, there are four stages of Oberweis: pacification, trepidation, fear and panic.
Other than Rod Blagojevich and perhaps Todd Stroger, there is no politician in Illinois as toxic as Jim Oberweis, a self-righteous conservative zealot and chronic loser who managed to win a Kane County Illinois Senate seat in 2012. That was after losing three statewide Republican primaries and then a 2008 congressional election in a Republican district.
Oberweis, the heir to the Oberweis Dairy chain, is ready to cause the Republicans more grief, as a candidate for U.S. senator against entrenched Democratic incumbent Dick Durbin. The question is not whether Oberweis can win, it’s how badly he’ll poison the Republican brand and how many Republican congressional and state legislative candidates will drown because of a resounding anti-Oberweis undertow.
Dementia is supposed to be a hereditary disease. In Illinois, the Republican leadership is in an advanced stage.
According to party sources, some knuckleheads got the idea that the best way to protect Republican U.S. Senator Mark Kirk from a 2016 primary challenge from Oberweis was to run Oberweis in 2014. They strategized that Oberweis, of Sugar Grove, has a 4-year term (to 2016) and that a race against Durbin would keep him busy, deplete his resources, and give the Tea Party activists some red meat. It also would give Kirk, who is slowly recovering from his 2012 stroke, more time to raise funds and campaign. Kirk’s term also ends in 2016.
Now party leaders are having serious second thoughts. There is doubt that Kirk can undertake and withstand the rigors of an arduous 18-month re-election campaign, and polling has shown Kirk to be largely undefined and surprisingly unknown among voters.
The first 4 years of a senator’s 6-year term are devoted to "solidification." A newly elected senator travels the state, speaks everywhere, hypes popular, vote-getting issues, and establishes and entrenches himself. For example, Republican Chuck Percy was elected in 1966 by 422,302 votes; in 1972 he was re-elected by 1,146,047 votes. Democrat Adlai Stevenson was elected in 1970 by 545,336 votes and re-elected in 1974 by 726,612 votes. Democrat Paul Simon beat Percy in 1984 by 89,126 votes and was re-elected in 1990 by 979,749 votes. Percy’s problem was that after three terms he was too well known, too busy in Washington to campaign, too liberal, and increasingly disliked.
Durbin was elected to succeed Simon in 1996, winning by 655,204 votes and getting re-elected by 778,063 votes in 2002 and by 2,095,222 votes in 2008. As the Senate majority whip, the highly visible Durbin is intensely disliked by hard-core Republicans, loved by liberals, and generally respected by moderates and independents. There is no evidence of any Percy-like fatigue.
The one senator who did get bounced after a single term was Democrat Carol Moseley Braun, who won by 504,376 votes in 1992 and then lost by 98,545 votes to Republican Peter Fitzgerald in 1998. An endless succession of negative press and minor scandals, coupled with Braun’s complacency and arrogance, precipitated her defeat. Instead of intensively campaigning Downstate and in the rural and exurban areas, Braun figured her black base, coupled with white liberals and soccer moms, would ensure a second term.
Kirk won his first term in 2010 by 59,220 votes, in a turnout of 3.8 million, or about 50 percent of Illinois’ 7.5 million registered voters. In 2016, a presidential year, turnout will spike to 2008 levels, or about 5.5 million. If the Democratic presidential nominee wins Illinois by more than 1 million votes, Kirk has an impossible task. Barack Obama won the state by 1,388,348 votes in 2008 and by 884,296 votes in 2012.
Given that reality, Republican insiders don’t believe Kirk, despite sympathy for his plight and admiration for his recovery efforts, can win again, especially if Hillary Clinton is the Democratic presidential candidate. To be competitive, Kirk would have had to bust his butt for 6 years, establish himself as a thorough independent, and cut into the minority, gay and liberal vote.
The template is there, in Chris Christie, and the opportunity was there, in the "government shutdown" squabble and the fight over "Obamacare" defunding. Were Kirk healthy, he could have triangulated, emerging as a national leader of the "Responsible Party," chastising and criticizing the follies of Obama, Reid, McConnell, Boehner and every other so-called leader. His theme could have been: Grow up. Fix "Obamacare," don’t repeal it. Cut spending without a shutdown. Kirk would have been lionized by the national news media and become a regular talking head on the news shows, emerging as a major Capitol Hill player.
Christie, New Jersey’s governor, proved that voters respond favorably to office holders who prioritize governing over politicking and bickering. Christie won his first term in 2009 with 49 percent of the vote, a margin of 104,218 votes, and he was re-elected in 2013 with 60.4 percent of the vote and by a margin of 461,855 votes. Christie won a near majority of Hispanic voters, a fifth of black voters, and a solid majority of women and younger voters. He did precisely what the media said a Republican cannot do.
Kirk, however, has been missing in action, and he may not be re-electable. The Democrats won’t give him a free pass.
The Republican leaders are in a bind. They have no obvious replacement candidate should Kirk retire, and no Republican with the money or credibility to black Oberweis in a primary.
Nominating petitions can be filed from Nov. 25 through Dec. 2, and they require 5,000 to 10,000 signatures. Oberweis is already circulating his petitions, promising to "retire (Durbin) permanently." Doug Truax is the only other Republican circulating petitions. That gives Oberweis terrific leverage: If he files, he beats Truax. If he doesn’t, what’s in it for him?
First, of course, he will save himself and his conservative donor base $1 million to $2 million, which he can stockpile for a future contest.
Second, he will save himself the humiliation of being crushed by Durbin. The Republican Senate nominee in 2008 got an anemic 1,520,621 votes (28.5 percent of the total cast). That was an improvement over 2004, when Obama was running for the Senate and Republican candidate Alan Keyes got 1,390,690 votes (27.1 percent). Oberweis should be able to crack 30 percent in 2014.
Third, Oberweis may get a promise for the senatorial nod if Kirk quits. In reality, the nomination would be a throwaway, but at least there will be no Republican statewide ticket to sink.
Most of all, Oberweis could save himself from being 2014’s say-something-stupid poster boy, much like Todd Akin of Missouri and Richard Mourdock of Indiana were in 2012 and Christine O’Donnell of Delaware and Sharron Angell of Nevada were in 2010. Oberweis is an intelligent man, a millionaire stock investor. He also is self-righteous, intolerant, combative, ideological, utterly convinced that anybody who disagrees with him is stupid, and about as likable as Richard Nixon was.
There is no reasonable discourse with Oberweis: You’re wrong and he’s right.
Oberweis is forthrightly opposed to gay marriage, gun control, abortion choice and immigration reform. Those are not the issues Republicans wish to emphasize in 2014.
How has Oberweis performed in previous races? He made his debut in 2002, finishing second in a three-man race in the U.S. Senate primary with 259,515 votes (31.5 percent of the total cast). The party-slated Jim Durkin won with 45.8 percent of the vote in a turnout of 825,237.
Oberweis again ran for senator in 2004, the year of Obama’s statewide debut, finishing second in an eight-man primary with 155,794 votes (23.5 percent of the total cast). The winner was Jack Ryan, who got 35.6 percent of the vote in a turnout of 662,004. Oberweis split the hard-right vote with Andy McKenna. Ryan later resigned the nomination, and Obama was elected.
Oberweis ran for governor in 2006, facing Judy Baar Topinka, Bill Brady and Ron Gidwitz in the primary. He again finished second, with 233,576 votes (31.8 percent of the total), losing by just 47,125 votes to Topinka, who got 38.2 percent in a turnout of 735,810. Topinka then lost to Blagojevich.
It seems that Oberweis performs better when fewer candidates run and that his statewide primary base peaks out at about 250,000 votes.
Oberweis downsized in 2008. When U.S. House Speaker Denny Hastert resigned, he ran a "textbook campaign" for the solidly Republican 14th U.S. House District seat, in a rural area along Interstate 80. In fact, the textbook would be titled: "How to Lose an Unloseable District." No Democrat had won the seat since the 1930s, 22-year incumbent Hastert was popular and powerful, and the Republican Party’s organization was superb.
However, the grim Oberweis ran his usual mean and nasty campaign, while the smiling, friendly Democrat, Bill Foster, let Oberweis self-destruct. In a special election with a turnout of 99,385, Foster won 52,205-47,180, getting 53.5 percent of the vote. Oberweis even managed to lose his base, Kane County, by 4,567 votes. Undaunted, Oberweis stayed on the ballot for the November rematch, this time losing 184,404-136,653 — a huge repudiation.
Oberweis, it seemed, was over, but then a state Senate seat opened and Oberweis is back, spreading grief with great gusto.
Send e-mail to russ@russstewart. com or visit his Web site at www. russstewart.com.