Posted on July 9, 2004

GOP Told Thanks, But No Thanks Senate Rejection Another Setback

Rick Pearson, Chicago Tribune, Jul. 9

State Sen. Steve Rauschenberger took himself out of the running Thursday for consideration to replace Jack Ryan as the Republican U.S. Senate nominee, leaving GOP leaders scrambling for an alternative candidate to avoid tapping controversial boutique dairy owner James D. Oberweis.

Rauschenberger, a veteran lawmaker from Elgin, said money was the primary issue.

Lacking the personal wealth to self-finance a campaign, Rauschenberger said the failure of GOP officials to deliver a $3 million to $5 million financial plan would render it difficult to launch a campaign from scratch against Democratic nominee Barack Obama with less than four months to Election Day.

“Any candidate will have a harder time trying to make it from a standing start,” Rauschenberger said.

Rauschenberger’s decision was another setback for a state Republican organization in disarray for four years, its credibility tarnished by the scandal-clouded leadership of former Gov. George Ryan, who faces federal corruption charges.

Jack Ryan, who is no relation to George Ryan, was looked on by many Republicans as an energetic new face who could aid GOP rebuilding efforts. He won an eight-way race in the March 16 Senate primary, but then last month said he would withdraw amid controversy over the court-ordered release of sealed files from his divorce from actress Jeri Ryan.

That set off a scramble to find a replacement, with most of the also-rans in the primary asking GOP officials to pick them. Oberweis came in second to Ryan in the primary, but many leaders considered Rauschenberger, who finished third, the more palatable alternative.

That is because Oberweis antagonized many Republicans in the 2004 primary and in an unsuccessful 2002 Senate primary bid by appearing to flip-flop between positions designed to appeal to moderates and conservatives, particularly on abortion.

What’s more, party leaders grew uncomfortable with the strong anti-immigration themes of Oberweis’ campaign this year as well as his criticism of President Bush’s immigration reform plans.

Republican sources said the White House has registered strong objections to a potential Oberweis candidacy, particularly because of his critique of Bush when the re-election minded president was attempting to broaden his campaign outreach to Latinos.

Republican sources said an Oberweis candidacy would alienate Bush and result in the GOP presidential campaign writing off a state that it had held only scant hope of winning.

Oberweis, who also is a wealthy investment broker, said he did not feel party leaders were trying to work around him and said some had been quite encouraging. But he also said he deserved the nomination because of his second-place finish behind Ryan in the primary.

“I have said all along that in the Olympics or a horse race or most events, if the winner is disqualified or drops out, the runner-up steps up,” he said. “It seemed logical that they should make an offer to me in that regard.”

State Treasurer Judy Baar inka, who is chairman of the state GOP, said she was sorry that Rauschenberger had dropped out and called his decision unfortunate.

“The Illinois GOP continues to vet interested candidates and is still on schedule to announce a candidate in the very near future,” inka said. “Working closely with the National Republican Senatorial Committee, the Illinois Republican Party is committed to keeping this Senate seat in Republican hands.”

Already plagued by fissures between its moderate and conservative wings, Ryan’s decision to drop out of the race and the state GOP’s inability to quickly target an acceptable substitute has created cracks among the party’s core conservative base.

It has also resulted in an abundance of conspiracy theories among fringe elements in the party over who is in, who is out, whether a fix was in and whether Rauschenberger was being set up to fail or whether he ever was really interested in replacing Ryan.

Ryan has yet to file a formal request with state election officials to remove his name from the ballot, triggering even more whispers among some elements in the GOP. Republican officials in Washington and Illinois said they do not expect Ryan to try to resurrect his candidacy, despite a spate of recent TV interviews, and they anticipate he will formally file his withdrawal papers soon.

The vacuum created by the lack of a candidate has led to a fanciful guessing game, with some GOP hangers-on trying to mount draft movements for Republican-leaning celebrities, including former Chicago Bears coach Mike Ditka.

Ditka has been a frequent speaker at Republican rallies, including a November 2000 Bush-Cheney event at the College of DuPage that drew 10,000 people. But it was questionable whether Ditka would be willing to forgo his lucrative endorsements, particularly during the football season, to run for public office.

One leading Republican acknowledged privately that a Ditka candidacy was “wishful thinking,” but also called the Ditka speculation a creation of the electronic media.

Ryan announced on June 25 that he would withdraw from the Senate nomination amid the release of divorce files in which his former wife alleged he took her to sex clubs and asked her to perform sexual acts in front of strangers.

Ryan has maintained that the media would not allow him to talk about issues in the race and some Republican leaders maintained that he misled them and underplayed the seriousness of the allegations in the divorce files.

Ryan has appeared recently on several conservative-oriented cable TV talk shows. On Wednesday, he told Fox News interviewer Sean Hannity that he had not changed his mind about getting out of the race but facetiously indicated he could reconsider if thousands of people flocked to his Wilmette and begged him.

The Republican State Central Committee had hopes of being able to advance its mid-July timetable for naming a Ryan replacement, sources said, but that was while Rauschenberger was considered a candidate.

On Thursday, former federal prosecutors J. William Roberts and Tyrone Fahner began initiating background checks on the remaining GOP contenders.

Rauschenberger said his decision to drop from consideration was “absolutely not” because of the vetting process.

Rauschenberger said he believed a Republican could defeat Democratic nominee Obama, who led Ryan by 20 percentage points in a Tribune/WGN-TV poll even before the revelations from the divorce file.

Rauschenberger said Obama wasn’t even the Democratic favorite until damaging disclosures from Blair Hull’s divorce sank Hull’s campaign.

“Two rich guys, two sealed divorces” have helped Obama, Rauschenberger said. “If we can get a candidate to define Barack Obama, this guy can still be beat, even if Illinois is a tough state for Republicans.”