With socially liberal former Gov. Jim Edgar out of the way and liberal Judy Baar Topinka uncertain thus far about running for governor, the Illinois GOP's political right can draw a breath of relief, but only temporarily.
In mid-September, conservatives had held their own summit to endorse their favorite. Attending were representatives from its constituents: anti-abortion, pro-gun rights, home-schoolers, libertarians and anti-illegal immigration minutemen who interviewed four stalwarts in relative harmony.
Of the four, multimillionaire dairy owner and economic forecaster Jim Oberweis of Aurora seemed to start out leading the pack. He was the sentimental favorite, having stressed conservative themes in two failed U.S. Senate bids, with name recognition growing by the 2004 primary, in which he came in second to Jack Ryan. But after Ryan resigned after disclosure of his divorce record, the establishment-dominated State Central Committee passed up Oberweis because his vehement stand to curtail illegal immigration meant that President Bush could not campaign for him. So the committee picked Alan Keyes, who listened to nobody, was endlessly oracular and proved to be an inept candidate plus bad loser who refused to concede to Barack Obama. After the election, Oberweis offered to be state Republican chairman, but was again rebuffed.
At the summit, the first speaker was Oberweis, who won his usual applause. But Oberweis is, to the view of some summiteers, mistake-prone. Several elections ago, he said those who oppose abortion rights on religious grounds were similar to the Taliban. He apologized profusely and has since adopted an anti-abortion stance.
In the next campaign, he was in an over-the-top TV commercial on illegal immigration, flying in a helicopter over Soldier Field to illustrate that it could be filled each week with the number of illegals crossing the borders. He apologized again and said he overstated the issue.
Then the group looked at state Sen. Steve Rauschenberger of Elgin. Always impressive as a policy wonk, he bobbled a query on a major social issue. He was asked about his vote to force insurance companies to cover abortifacients and contraceptives. His response: "This was only one of thousands of bills I've voted on." Bad mistake since his audience rates social issues of top importance.
Joe Birkett, the DuPage County state's attorney, pleased them, but many felt he is too much the grim prosecutor. Also, he's had trouble raising money (with a $700,000 debt from his last attorney general's campaign) and could lose Hispanic votes because of his purported linkage to the Rolando Cruz prosecution. Although it was then-state's Atty. Jim Ryan's case and Birkett, Ryan's deputy, played no role in it, Birkett hasn't been able to shake himself of the link.
The true "Goldilocks" candidate proved to be state Sen. Bill Brady of Bloomington: not too hot, not too cold, just right. He won easily (with Oberweis coming in second). He embraces all the hot-button issues and is eager to cut taxes to apply the supply-side theory. An Irish Catholic in a party that now sets great political store by this group, he is a businessman (a Realtor-developer and owner of two radio stations whose net worth approaches $10 million), he appears gaffe-free from 10 years in the state Senate, where he also served as a committee chairman.
At 44, he's not unlike a young Ronald Reagan in appearance, tall, gregarious, witty and pleasingly shy. Moreover, he's rich enough not to pander for dirty--or gray--money, but not so independently wealthy as to discourage good Republican donors. Plus, he's from Downstate, which has been tipping Republican, a sharp contrast to a Democratic slate that is almost entirely from Chicago.
There's more. He has a jaunty self-confidence that is contagious. With his voice and movie-star good looks, he is eminently suited for the media. And it goes beyond looks. As charismatic as the young John Kennedy and the fledgling Reagan were, they avoided policy debates with wonks, particularly staffers, pretending superiority of status, but in reality fearful of stumbles. Not Brady. On my WLS talk show, he tussled on the budget and spending with Blagojevich's best: politically savvy budget expert Becky Carroll. They tied in strenuous forensics. But after Carroll, Blagojevich would be easy.
In the hope of building a dream ticket on the right, the summiteers recommended Brady for governor, Birkett for attorney general, Oberweis for secretary of state and Rauschenberger for either treasurer or comptroller with lieutenant governor left open. That slot just might be reserved for either Topinka or multimillionaire Ron Gidwitz who, though too liberal for the right, has financially supported some of its favorite candidates.
Does Brady have the nomination locked up? He would if the conservatives were not such a wild and woolly group. Oberweis has not only his own money, but the prospect of massive funding from multimillionaire Jack Roeser (no relation), who gave conservative aspirant Patrick O'Malley $500,000 in 2002. There is out there among the conservative grass-roots a bonfire burning against illegal immigration that Oberweis has fanned and that Brady can approach but not duplicate.
Will the conservative candidates agree to serve on the dream ticket? Birkett just might; Rauschenberger possibly. But if they all continue to run, there is a good chance that Topinka, who is an abortion-rights supporter and pro-gay rights, can capitalize on a divided vote and win the nomination. Despite spending $3 million, Gidwitz hasn't moved beyond three-point status in the polls.
But as of now, in the view of a majority of conservative leaders, Bill Brady of Bloomington is the candidate of the future.