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JULY 30, 2003


Illinois Senate candidate compared to Moseley Braun
Barack Obama may benefit as top candidates vie

There’s a lot standing between Barack Obama and a seat in the U.S. Senate.
For example, there’s Dan Hynes, with his record as Illinois comptroller, his deep Democratic Party roots and his widespread support from trial lawyers and labor unions.

And there’s Blair Hull, the 60-year-old former financial tycoon who’s promised to spend upwards of $20 million to win the state’s Democratic primary.

But for Obama — state senator, University of Chicago law professor and, perhaps most important, one of only two black candidates in the race — none of the above may matter that much.

The growing consensus among many Democrats and Republicans in Illinois and Washington is that Obama will pick up as much as 80 to 90 percent of the black vote and stands to win large pockets of liberal support in the Chicago area, Champaign and the Quad Cities.


Courtesy of Sen. Barack Obama

State Sen. Barack Obama is building up support in his race
for the Democratic nomination for the U.S. Senate in Illinois.

Although he has raised less money than Hynes and will never have as much as Hull, the 41-year-old Obama does have $1 million in the bank. That’s more than Dick Durbin, Illinois’ senior Democratic senator, had at the same point in his first run in 1996.

One prominent Chicago Democrat described Obama as steadily cobbling together a winning plurality: “He starts to get in the 30 to 35 percent range and you got to take him seriously as a bona fide contender.”

That has led to comparisons between 2004 and 1992, when a little-known Cook County recorder of deeds named Carol Moseley Braun toppled Sen. Alan Dixon and attorney Al Hofeld in the Democratic primary and went on to become the first black woman elected to the Senate.

As one Democratic congressional aide well versed in Illinois politics put it: “There are distinct parallels, with Blair Hull being Al Hofeld and Dan Hynes being Dixon and Obama being Carol. The difference is Carol was not a serious candidate and thought this would be an interesting thing to do. I don’t think it ever entered her head that she would win.”

Obama, most Illinois political observers agree, has all intentions of winning.

Illinois congressional Democrats who are backing Obama — Jesse Jackson Jr., Danny Davis and Lane Evans — cite his intelligence and experience representing Hyde Park in Springfield. “He’s the only candidate in the race who’s passed a piece of legislation,” said Jackson.

And, they argue, even though his race will help, Obama’s not running a race-based campaign. Instead, they portray the constitutional scholar, who was the first black editor of the Harvard Law Review, as a populist whose concern with healthcare, jobs and the environment will excite voters well beyond Chicago’s heavily black Southside.

Still, Obama needs a large majority of African American voters to have any hope of winning the March primary. For now, the only candidate standing in his way is Joyce Washington, a black healthcare administrator whom many Illinois Democrats are not taking seriously even though she’s run statewide before.

Rep. Bobby Rush’s endorsement of Hull last week also could complicate Obama’s effort to be the “black candidate.” Some Democrats say the endorsement would only have mattered had Rush, whose congressional district overlaps with Obama’s state Senate district, backed Washington.

Obama acknowledged that should he win the Democratic nomination, the race is likely to take on national significance given the dearth of black senators. He repeatedly stressed that there is no color divide when it comes to job creation or Social Security.

“I’m deeply rooted in the African American community, but I don’t feel limited by the African American community,” Obama said. “Issues that are of concern to the African American community are of concern to all Americans.”

Republicans seem to like the idea that Obama is a sleeper candidate who could emerge from the shadows early next year and beat Hull, who is expected to spend his fortune attacking Hynes, and Hynes, who will likely devote his resources to fending off Hull.

That could be because Republicans believe they will have an easier time beating Obama. “I think it’s hard for an African American to get elected in southern Illinois,” said GOP Rep. Ray LaHood, whose downstate district includes Peoria and part of the state capital of Springfield.

Also casting doubt on Obama’s electability is his relative inexperience as a three-term state senator.

Hynes can draw on friends and family — his father, Tom Hynes, runs Chicago’s 19th Ward and sits on the Democratic National Committee (DNC) — and Hull can launch expensive ad campaigns.

By contrast, Obama, one supporter observed, has “a lot of vertical and very little horizontal,” meaning he’s ascended the party ranks but hasn’t taken the time to build a base of powerful allies.

What’s more, it may be difficult for Obama to reach liberals outside Chicago.

“On the lakefront, for example, he doesn’t have any of the political operation,” Hynes spokeswoman Chris Mather said. “You’ve got to do more than direct mail, so he’s got to have the money to go on television. This is going to be an expensive race. If you got up on television for two weeks or three weeks, it might not be enough.”

Obama’s supporters concede their candidate will have a difficult time beating Hull or Hynes, who has an army of aldermen, committeemen, pre-cinct captains and party activists all across the state.

But they are convinced that if he’s able to solidify the black vote and then head downstate he’ll beat his Democratic rivals and, ultimately, the three major Republicans in the race: Jack Ryan, Jim Oberweis and Andrew McKenna.

“If this man is nominated, he’ll win by a landslide,” Evans predicted.

David Wilhelm, a former DNC chairman based in Chicago, said there are too many unknown variables to say for sure what will happen in the coming months.

“We won’t know until December what the field actually looks like,” Wilhelm said.

“Does Joyce Washington stay in the race? Does Hull’s early advertising get any traction? Is Dan Hynes the kind of candidate that his supporters hope and believe that he will be? Can Obama solidify the African American base of support even as he reaches out to others?”


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