Over the past week or two, talk in Illinois of former Chicago Bears coach Mike Ditka making a run for the U.S. Senate became surprisingly serious. Before Ditka announced yesterday that he’s not interested, enough members of the Illinois Republican State Central Committee, which will select a nominee to replace Jack Ryan, had endorsed Ditka that the nomination was his for the taking. This despite his lack of campaign experience and an apparent ineptness at packaging his message: in a moderate-to-liberal state, Ditka declares himself “ultra-ultra-ultra-conservative,” despite being anti-gun.
To understand why so many were so quick to embrace Ditka, it’s necessary to understand just how desperate the Republican Party has become in the Prairie State.
For decades, Illinois was politically divided between the machine politics of Chicago, uniformly Democratic since the Depression, and a mostly Republican downstate, with the suburbs holding the balance of power and usually looking to Springfield to balance the city. Republicans held the governor’s mansion continuously from 1976 to 2002, and Daniel Walker, the Democratic governor immediately before that, was a maverick against Richard J. Daley’s Chicago machine. Until 2000, Illinois was a national bellwether, voting for the winner in all but two presidential elections from 1896 to 1996 (the exceptions were 1916 and 1976).
If national suburban trends toward Clinton and Gore combined with the successful leadership of Richard M. Daley — mayor of Chicago since 1989 and consistently the most popular politician in Illinois — to help make the Chicago suburbs more friendly territory for Democrats, it was the disarray of the Illinois GOP itself, in the wake of Governor George Ryan’s disastrous tenure, that made Illinois the solid blue state it is today. While he was governor, it came out that the Secretary of State’s office, when Ryan had held that post, had been a den of corruption. Campaign documents were shredded to thwart federal investigators looking for government workers doing political work on state time, and an ex-aide testified last year that Ryan knew about this act of justice-obstruction. In the most prominent scandal, truckers’ licenses were issued for bribes; six children burned to death in an accident involving an unqualified trucker who got his license this way. (For good measure, Ryan was the first sitting U.S. governor to do a photo-op with Fidel Castro, and he emptied death row with a blanket commutation, saving the lives of over 150 convicted murderers.)
Ryan declined to seek a second term, but the Republican nominee who ran in his place was the unfortunately-named Jim Ryan — no relation, though he was George Ryan’s attorney general. Hobbled by association with George Ryan, Jim Ryan lost to the Daley-allied Rod Blagojevich; Democrats meanwhile increased their majority in the state House and took control of the state Senate for the first time in 10 years. This gave Springfield its first Democratic government on friendly terms with Chicago since 1968.
Smarting from its losses, the Illinois GOP nominated yet another Ryan, Jack, unrelated to the other two. He was the strongest of the primary candidates, but after winning the nomination he faced his own scandal, and despite his momentary defiance was forced from the nomination by the GOP leadership.
For weeks, Republicans have cast about for a candidate to put up against Barrack Obama, the Democratic candidate who, as a black politician of middle-class and Ivy League pedigree with proven appeal to white voters, seems destined for stardom: he’ll be giving the keynote address at the Democratic National Convention this year, and if elected will become a perennial favorite of tea-leaf readers looking for the next presidential or vice-presidential candidate. The former governors Jim Thompson and Jim Edgar could seriously challenge Obama, but both are uninterested; the various names that are being thrown around are universally unimpressive.
The Hail Mary movement to draft Mike Ditka, then, made complete sense. While all the other candidates look like sacrificial lambs, it’s possible that Ditka’s celebrity appeal might have generated enough buzz to stop Obama. Unless Iron Mike changes his mind, we’ll never know.
John Tabin is a frequent online contributor to The American Spectator.
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