Barack Obama’s Race for the Senate

What can we expect?

Yesterday, Democratic voters in Illinois made Barack Obama their nominee for the race to replace retiring Republican Senator Peter Fitzgerald.

The Illinois race is more than just the Democratic Party’s best chance to steal a Republican seat in the Senate; it could also put only the third African-American since Reconstruction in the world’s most exclusive club (the second was the woman Fitzgerald beat six years ago, Carol Moseley Braun).

Until a month ago, it appeared that multimillionaire investor Blair Hull would be able to spend his way to the Democratic nomination. But even the $29 million Hull spent couldn’t save his candidacy once the ugly details of his divorce became public. Hull’s campaign imploded, and Obama quickly emerged as the man to beat.

If Barack Obama wants to celebrate on November 2nd like he did yesterday, he will have to clear scores of hurdles ahead. What obstacles can Obama expect and not expect over the next eight months as Illinois voters decide if they once again will prove to the nation that a black face in the Senate is still long overdue?

Expect: Everyone in Illinois, the country – maybe even the world – to know that Obama is black. It will be in the headline of almost every newspaper article written about him. “Obama, hoping to become only the 5th black U.S. Senator…” – this qualifier will roll off the lips of news anchors, political reporters, pollsters and pundits as easily as the names of their own children. The problem is how this description juxtaposes with the next article or Illinois local news segment or teaser follows up Obama’s historic story with “X…who was killed by a black man,” or “Two African Americans robbed yet another liquor store today…” He’ll have to fight hard to make sure that Illinois voters really know exactly which black man he is.

Don’t Expect: Any Willie Hortonesque ads from Obama’s opponent, Republican nominee Jack Ryan. The nightly news will take care of that. When the words “African American” and murder, robbery, or crime are mentioned more than 200 times on the local news like they were in the last six months – who needs Willie? We can only hope that voters like those targeted by Jim Oberweis will have their TV sets turned off. Last week, Latino Democrats and Republicans alike rebuked Oberweis’ racist and “Nazi”-like tactics, when he aired an ad warning that “enough illegal immigrants to fill Soldier Field” were storming the U.S.

Expect: Welfare, Affirmative Action, and crime to be banished from Jack Ryan’s repertoire of racial code-words – they are what was. What is, and what we can expect to hear from Ryan, is his attacks or “contrasts” between himself and Obama’s “civil rights” policy (which mostly includes safeguarding civil liberties in the new Patriot Act America), his proposed tax breaks for “depressed areas,” his proposal to “reform the juvenile justice system,” safeguard against “employment discrimination”, and find more money for education in “low income” areas.

Don’t expect: Jessie Jackson Sr. and Jr., Al Sharpton and every black elected official across the country to sit idly by when these code-words come spewing out of Ryan’s mouth. One caution, however. Former Senator Carol Mosley Braun is probably one such official Obama doesn’t need getting his back when such attacks by Ryan do surface. Recent connections between her and a staffer alleged to be an Iraqi spy adds to her already tarnished image among Illinois voters, and could rub off on Obama.

Expect: A flurry of Obama ads that look as if there are no black people in Illinois. On TV he’ll be kissing white babies, shaking the hands of white farmers and in schools talking to white pupils. It’s one thing to win a congressional seat as an African American when the majority of the district is black. It’s even easy to win a congressional seat when a district is mostly white, but primarily made up of Democrats. But Obama knows by now that he’s in a whole different world now. He’s got to take his Harvard-educated, urban persona out to the rural highways and byways of the state where white, less educated, less affluent, politically engaged but undecided voters will likely determine his fate.

Don’t Expect: African Americans to criticize. They know what the deal is here, and though one or two “Uncle Tom” or “wanna-be white man” slips may find its way into the fray of personal allegations, most blacks will be happy to see one of their own – and a damned good one too – make it.

Expect: A treasure trove of Ryan money. We’ve already seen it, and we’ll probably see millions more. I’m not sure what the going price for an Illinois senate seat is these days, but I expect whatever it is, Ryan will pay it.

Don’t expect: Obama to lag too far behind to be competitive. We’ve seen Michael Jordan’s 10k already. No doubt he’s only the first in a long line of other celebrity, big-money black and other minority donors just itching to help a brotha out.

Expect: John Kerry, John Kerry, and more John Kerry. Mark my words, and you can say you saw it here first – Obama and Kerry’s election hopes will rise together or fall together. Kerry needs Illinois – and without the thousands of black voters turning out to support Obama, he won’t get it. And Obama could definitely use what that necessity will afford him in endorsements, hundreds of DSCC foot soldiers, free airtime, and the morphing of Ryan into George W. – who will no doubt be right there in the Illinois mix with all of them.

Barack Obama may well win the election in November. But Obama and his team, and the voters of Illinois will have much to grapple with between now and making that final decision. Expect to hear more from me about all the ups and downs in this campaign as it continues down the trail.

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