Dems groom Duckworth for U.S. senator in 2016


As the "Obama Nation" fades into historical oblivion, perhaps to be replaced by the "Clinton Nation II," one political trend is unmistakable: distinctiveness has replaced distinction.

In the realm of electability, personal superficialities (meaning distinctiveness) are now deemed more advantageous than talent and qualifications (meaning distinction). In a country where roughly 40 percent of the electorate is liberal/Democrat and 40 percent is conservative/Republican, appealing to the remaining unaligned, uninterested, usually ill-informed 20 percent is the key to victory. Perceptions, not issues, capture that voting segment.

In a tight election, one’s gender, sexual orientation, race, linguistic skills, body image and personal history are decisive. When the swing voters’ mentality is, "I want to vote for the first black/woman/gay/handicapped candidate for that office," qualifications and issue stances are meaningless.

In the 2013 New York City election, obscure white liberal Bill de Blasio catapulted to victory when he ran saturation television ads highlighting his mixed-race children, and his black wife made no secret of the fact that she was a lesbian before she married him. That was a "bingo." De Blasio campaigned on a platform of "raising taxes on the rich," but every other Democrat running was equally liberal. By appealing superficially to black and gay voters, even though he had a black and a lesbian opponent, de Blasio got the 40 percent of the vote needed for the Democratic nomination and was subsequently elected.

In the 2012 Wisconsin U.S. Senate race, the Republican candidate was the staid, aging former governor, Tommy Thompson, a onetime Bush Administration official. The Democrats ran Tammy Baldwin, a lesbian congresswoman from Madison. The issues were clear: Baldwin was pro-Obama and for "Obamacare," and Thompson was anti-Obama. In 2010, an anti-Obama, pro-Republican "wave" year, wealthy Republican businessman Ron Johnson beat liberal 18-year incumbent Democrat Russ Feingold in the Senate race by 1,125,999-1,020,958, getting 52 percent of the vote in a turnout of 2,146,957. Turnout in 2012 blossomed to 2,927,230 (780,273 higher than 2010), and Baldwin beat Thompson 1,547,104-1,380,126, with 51 percent of the vote. In the 2012 Obama-Romney race, the president won the state 1,620,985-1,407,966, which was almost identical to his 1,677-211-1,262,393 2008 vote, but Romney got 145,573 more votes than McCain got in 2008. Baldwin got 73,881 votes fewer than Obama.

That didn’t aid Thompson, who got 254,127 more votes than Johnson and lost. Baldwin got 526,146 more votes than Feingold. The obvious conclusion: Diversity works. It drives turnout. Having two white heterosexual males running against each other is a non-starter. Mix in a black, female or gay candidate or a combination thereof, and the Democrats have a winner.

This column is about a whole bunch of political dancing partners: Carol and Al and Al, Dick and Al, Carol and Pete, Barack and Blair, Barack and Hillary, Mark and Alexi, Dick and Jim, Pat and Bruce, Tammy and Kwame, and Mark and Tammy. Those are not contestants on "Dancing with the Stars." They are former, current and anticipated political matchups wherein distinctiveness or the lack thereof is or was the ticket to victory.

1992: After Clarence Thomas’ U.S. Supreme Court confirmation hearings, which made former staffer Anita Hill a feminist heroine, the "Year of the Woman" commenced in Illinois. Two-term Democratic U.S. Senator Alan Dixon voted for Thomas, rich trial lawyer Al Hofeld spent $5 million tearing apart Dixon, and the bid of Carol Moseley Braun, a black woman then the Cook County recorder of deeds, looked clueless and hopeless, but a "perfect storm" erupted and the two white guys neutralized and neutered each other. In a monster Democratic primary turnout of 1,456,268, Braun topped Dixon by 53,617 votes, amassing 38.3 percent of the vote. Dixon, with his Downstate base, got 504,077 votes (34.6 percent), and Hofeld got 394,497 votes (27.1 percent), but Braun, getting 409,574 votes in Cook County, which was almost 71 percent of her statewide total of 557,694, tapped into the Democrats’ long-dormant mother lode: black and female voters. White guys could be beat.

1996: Back to the same old, same old. When two-term Democratic Senator Paul Simon retired, Republican Lieutenant Governor Bob Kustra looked like a lock for the job, but state Representative Al Salvi stirred ideological fervor among the Republicans’ conservative base voters and upset Kustra by 34,206 votes. Dick Durbin, a 14-year Springfield-area congressman, had his opening. Durbin hammered Salvi as an "extremist" and won by a 655,204-vote margin (with 56 percent of the vote), while Clinton won the state by 754,723 votes. In Illinois, when two white guys run, the least conservative usually wins.

1998: Instead of emerging as senator for life, Braun’s ethical scrapes undermined her re-electability and exhausted her distinctiveness. In 1992 she beat Rich Williamson 2,631,229-2,126,833, getting 53.3 percent of the vote in a turnout of 5,164,357; she ran 177,879 votes ahead of Bill Clinton. The Republicans’ nominee in 1998 was Peter Fitzgerald, a bland suburban state senator. In a turnout of 3,394,521, 1.7 million less than 1992, Fitzgerald won 1,709,041-1,610.496, getting 50.3 percent of the vote and winning by a margin of 98,545 votes. White guys can win against flawed non-white guys in a low turnout. Ironically, had the Republicans nominated state Comptroller Loleta Didrickson, who Fitzgerald beat in the primary by 26,310 votes, in 1998, she probably would still be an Illinois senator.

2004: Unable to entrench himself in a Democratic state, Fitzgerald quit after one term. The Democratic front runner was rich businessman Blair Hull, who had contribu

ed lavishly to Governor Rod Blagojevich and other Democrats. His chief challengers were Cook County Treasurer Maria Pappas, who presumably would get the bulk of the female vote, and state Comptroller Dan Hynes, who would have appeal to white ethnic voters in Chicago. Also in the race was an obscure black state senator from Hyde Park, Barack Obama. But Hull’s campaign imploded, with a domestic battery allegation surfacing, Pappas’ campaign fizzled, and suddenly Obama was the flavor of the month among liberals and minorities. Obama won the eight-candidate primary with 52.8 percent of the vote; 464,917 of his 655,923 votes came from Cook County, where a huge turnout in the black community gave him 64.4 percent of the county vote.

To be sure, Obama had distinction, with a Harvard law degree and a lecturing post at the University of Chicago Law School, but he won because of his distinctiveness. Hynes finished a distant second (with 23.7 percent of the vote), Hull was third (with 10.8 percent), and Pappas was fourth (with 6.0 percent). Obama was on track for the presidency.

2008: Given the unpopularity of the Bush Administration, it was a given that any competent Democrat would win the White House in 2008. Hillary Clinton, an Illinois native and an Arkansas resident, transplanted herself to New York in 2000 to win a Senate seat. Her competitors were Obama and John Edwards, the 2004 vice presidential candidate. Her nomination seemed assured, but Democratic primary voters are decidedly more liberal and less white than the general electorate. The choice: a black male, a white female, or a white male? All were equally liberal, pro-choice, pro-gay rights, anti-Bush and anti-war. Do we nominate a black man or a white woman for president?

Clinton won Massachusetts (56-41 percent), New Hampshire (39-36 percent), Michigan (55-40 percent), New York (57-40 percent), Ohio (53-45 percent) and Pennsylvania (55-45 percent) but still lost the nomination.

2010: Exploiting the negative reaction against Obama and "Obamacare," Republican U.S. Representative Mark Kirk ran for Obama’s open Senate seat, facing state Treasurer Alexi Giannoulias. Statewide turnout in 2008 was 5,577,509. In 2010 it was 3,792,770, a dropoff of almost 1.8 million.

Kirk won 1,778,698-1,719,478, a margin of 59,220 votes. In a contest between two white guys, issues and distinction mattered, and Kirk prevailed.

2014: Durbin has been in Washington since 1982. He is the Democratic Senate majority whip, and at age 69, he is on track to be the majority leader when Harry Reid retires or is defeated. In Kentucky and Mississippi, longtime Republican senators are being attacked for their longevity. Not in Illinois. Durbin’s opponent is state Senator Jim Oberweis, who has lost three statewide Republican primaries and who is a fervent conservative on social issues. Fund-raising disclosures as of March 31 have Durbin with $6,062,00 on hand, to $473,000 for Oberweis. The issue should be that Durbin is part of the Washington problem, has been there too long, and pursues what is best for the Democrats, not necessarily Illinois, but Oberweis is a distinctively poor messenger. In a race between two white guys, Durbin wins.

2016: Kirk suffered a stroke in 2011, and he is deemed eminently beatable in 2016, particularly if Clinton is atop the Democratic ticket. Turnout in Illinois will bounce back to 5.7 million, and the presumptive Democratic nominee is either U.S. Representative Tammy Duckworth (D-8) or state Senator Kwame Raoul, who occupies Obama’s former Hyde Park seat. Duckworth has the distinctiveness to win, as a woman and an Iraq War combat veteran who lost parts of both legs and an arm when the helicopter she was flying was shot down. She is loyally pro-Obama. She is a former assistant secretary of intergovernmental affairs in the U.S. Veterans Affairs Department, and she was the state veterans director. With the controversy over U.S. Veterans Affairs hospital wait time and poor care, one would think Duckworth would be front and center. She’s nowhere to be seen, as the Obama Administration is taking the blame.

Going into 2016, Duckworth is the odds-on favorite to beat Kirk and win Obama’s former Senate seat.

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