Oberweis at it Again
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 state senate seat in 2012. That was after losing three statewide Republican primaries, and then a 2008 congressional election in a Republican district.
* Oberweis, the eponymous heir to the Oberweis Dairy chain, is ready to cause Republicans more grief, as a candidate for U.S. Senator against entrenched incumbent Dick Durbin (D). The question is not whether Oberweis can win. Instead, it 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 party knuckleheads got the idea that the best way to protect U.S. Senator Mark Kirk (R) from a 2016 primary challenge from Oberweis was to run Oberweis in 2014. They strategized that Oberweis, from Sugar Grove, has a four year term (2012-16), and that a race against Durbin would keep him busy, deplete his resources, and give the Tea Party activists some red meat. It would also give Kirk, who is slowly recovering from his 2012 stroke, more time to raise funds and campaign. Kirk’s term ends in 2016.
* But 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 four years of a senator’s six-year term are devoted to “solidification.” A newly-elected new senator travels the state, speaks everywhere, hypes popular, vote-getting issues, and establishes and entrenches himself. For example, Chuck Percy (R) was elected in 1966 by 422,302 votes; in 1972, he was re-elected by 1,146.047 votes. Adlai Stevenson (D) was elected in 1970 by 545,336 votes, and re-elected in 1974 by 726,612 votes. Paul Simon (D) 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 (D) was elected to succeed Simon in 1996, winning by 655,204 votes, and getting re-elected by 778,063 votes in 2002 and 2,095,222 votes in 2008. As senate majority whip, the highly-visible Durbin is intensely disliked by hardcore 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 Carol Moseley Braun (D), who won by 504,376 votes in 1992, and then lost by 98,545 votes to Peter Fitzgerald (R) 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/exurban areas, Braun figured her black base, coupled with white liberals, white women and soccer moms, would insure a second term.
In 2010, Kirk won his first term 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 over one million votes, Kirk has an impossible task. Barack Obama won the state by 1,388,348 in 2008, and by 884,296 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 (D) is the presidential candidate. To be competitive, Kirk would have had to bust his butt for six years, establish himself as a thorough “independent,” and cut into the minority, gay and liberal vote.
* The template is there: Chris Christie. And the opportunity was there: The “government shutdown” squabble and the 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 rotund governor, proved that voters respond favorably to officeholders who prioritize governing over politicking and bickering. In 2009, Christie won his first term with 49 percent, a margin of 104,218 votes; in 2013, he was re-elected with 60.4 percent, 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 MIA, and may not be re-electable. Democrats won’t give him a free pass.
* Now Republican leaders are in a bind. They have no obvious replacement candidate should Kirk retire, and no Republican with the money or credibility to block Oberweis in a primary.
* Nominating petitions are due Nov. 25-Dec. 2, and require 5,000-10,000 signatures. Oberweis is already circulating, promising to “retire (Durbin) permanently.” Doug Truax is the only other Republicans circulating. This 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 $1-2 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); that was an improvement over 2004, when Obama was running for the senate, and the Republican 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.
* But most of all, he could save himself from being 2014’s say-something-stupid poster boy, much like Todd Akin and Richard Mourdock were in 2012, and Christine O’Donnell and Sharron Angell were in 2010. Oberweis is an intelligent man, a millionaire stock investor. He is also self-righteous, intolerant, combative, ideological, and utterly convinced that anybody who disagrees with him is stupid, if not satanic. He is also mean, a bully, and is about as likeable as was Richard Nixon.
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. These are not the issues Republicans wish to emphasize in 2014.
How has Oberweis performed in previous races?
In 2002, Oberweis made his debut, finishing second in the U.S. Senate primary with 259,515 votes (31.5 percent), in a three-man race. The party-slated Jim Durkin won with 45.8 percent in an 825,237 turnout.
In 2004, the year of Obama’s statewide debut, Oberweis again ran for senator in an 8-man primary, finishing second with 155,794 votes (23.5 percent); the winner was Jack Ryan (35.6 percent) in a 662,004 turnout. Oberweis split the hard-right vote with Andy McKenna. Ryan later resigned the nomination, and Obama was elected.
In 2006, Oberweis switched to governor, facing Judy Baar Topinka, Bill Brady and Ron Gidwitz in the primary; Oberweis again finished second, with 233,576 votes (31.8 percent), losing to Topinka (38.2 percent) by just 47,125 votes, in a 735,810 turnout. Topinka then lost to Blagojevich.
It would seem that Oberweis performs better when fewer candidates run, and that his statewide primary base peaks out at about 250,000.
In 2008, Oberweis downsized. When U.S. House Speaker Denny Hastert resigned, Oberweis ran a “textbook campaign” for the solidly Republican 14th District seat, nestled in a rural area along I-80. In fact, the textbook would be entitled: “How to Lose an Unloseable District.” No Democrat had won the seat since the 1930s, and 22-year incumbent Hastert was popular and powerful, and the Republican party’s organization superb.
But the grim Oberweis ran his usual mean and nasty campaign, while the smiling, friendly Democrat, Bill Foster, let Oberweis self-destruct. In a 99,385 special election turnout, Foster won 52,205-47,180 (53.5 percent). 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 massive repudiation. Oberweis, it seemed, was over.
But then a state senate seat opened, and Oberweis is back, spreading grief with great gusto.
Russ Stewart is a political analyst for the Chicago Daily Observer