Less than a week into the race between Barack Obama and Alan Keyes for Illinois’s open Senate seat, the winner is already clear.
It’s the media by a landslide.
What a fascinating race they (okay, we) now have to watch. Two intelligent and articulate black candidates who both — Keyes in particular — provide usable copy almost every time they speak. In a special twist, Keyes appropriates the rhetorical notes of the black left to his own deeply conservative ends, accusing Obama of holding “the slaveholder’s position” on abortion. Obama, on the other hand, while substantively quite liberal, almost never makes a 19th-century allusion like that, instead sticking to the sort of unifying notes we heard in his “One America” speech at the Democratic National Convention; he didn’t make the deep inroads into a mostly-white electorate that he has by sounding like Al Sharpton (last seen in Boston demanding his 40 acres and a mule).
It isn’t shaping up as an exciting horserace, alas. Illinois is barren ground for a passionate pro-lifer like Keyes; the suburbs of Chicago, where elections in Illinois are swung one way or the other, tend to elect pro-choice Republicans like Reps. Judy Biggert and Mark Kirk (the latter even voted against a partial-birth abortion ban). An excited cohort of pro-life voters? With all due respect to Hunter Baker, we’re talking about a state where that and a buck-seventy-five will get you a ride home on the El, after you watch your disastrous election night returns come in. (The effects on the presidential race are irrelevant; Bush isn’t going to win Illinois.)
Add in the carpetbag factor — and Marylander Keyes’s hypocrisy on the subject, having berated Hillary Clinton for doing the same thing and said as recently last week that he’s against carpetbagging in principle — and Keyes faces insurmountable odds. Early polling shows Keyes with 28% support against Obama’s 67% among registered voters. Even amongst rural voters, where Keyes should find his natural base, Obama leads 57-39 (though it should be noted that, given the small size of the subpopulation, this is statistically less meaningful than it sounds.)
Mike Murphy, who clearly has an axe to grind, overestimates the damage that Keyes’s candidacy can do an Illinois GOP that wasn’t exactly a thriving institution before Keyes arrived. First came the scandal plagued debacle that was Governor George Ryan’s tenure. (Perhaps Ryan commuted the sentences of every single inmate on death row out of sympathy for his fellow criminals.) Then came 2002, a great year for Republicans elsewhere but not so much in Illinois: Jim Ryan — unrelated to George but tainted by the perception of corruption in the Springfield Republican establishment — was defeated by Rod Blagojevich, Illinois’s first Democratic governor in decades, who brought with him Democratic majorities in both houses of the state legislature. Then came another unrelated Ryan, Jack, whose candidacy went up in smoke after embarrassing details of his divorce became public. The decision to court Keyes may be a mistake, but after what they’ve been through it’s unlikely Illinois Republicans are sweating it too much.
The local media are clearly relishing it, though. Both the Chicago Sun-Times and the Chicago Tribune gave major play yesterday to Keyes’s demand for a full schedule of the six debates that Obama had proposed against Ryan, rather than the three that Obama now favors. It’s a sensible strategy for a frontrunner — why take the risk of too many public confrontations when you can coast to victory? — but its one he’s having some trouble getting away with. Reporters, of course, would love to see more debates — more fun stuff to write about! — and their questions about the debate schedule started to get on Obama’s nerves the other day. “”You know, come on,” he said to a reporter, according to the Sun-Times. “You’ve already had fun. You got one headline out of it today.”
Ah, but newspapers need headlines every day.