In Illinois, It’s Still Pay to Play

Jack Ryan and Barack Obama weren’t the only winners in last week’s primary for Illinois’ open U.S. Senate seat. Nor are they the only ones looking forward to the general election.

“The winners are the TV stations,” said Thom Serafin of Chicago political and public relations consultancy Serafin & Associates.

Candidates—seven of them millionaires—raised more than $55 million and poured much of it into the Chicago and downstate media markets since last fall. With eight political neophytes in the field of 15, Illinois residents were subjected to an incessant barrage of ads that made household names out of unknowns.

In a state that includes the expensive Chicago market, the race offered a two-tiered message: Candidates do need significant money just to compete, but in the end, even the heaviest TV blitz doesn’t always pay off at the polls.

The biggest spender, Democrat Blair Hull, whose wealth is estimated at as much as $450 million, emptied $29 million from his own bankroll but wound up with just 11 percent of the vote in the Democratic primary, a distant third behind Obama and the state’s comptroller, Dan Hynes.

Thanks in part to TV spots that broke early and ran often, Hull led in the polls until a little more than a month before the election. In a mainly positive, issues-focused campaign, he was buffeted by revelations of a messy 1998 divorce and admitted drug use and alcohol treatment during his high-flying days as a securities trader.

The GOP’s Ryan was also largely self-funded. An Ivy Leaguer from Chicago’s wealthy North Shore, he shucked his job as a trader three years ago to teach at an inner-city high school. That story was the subject of a frequently aired TV spot from Minneapolis adman Bill Hillsman.

Ryan’s fundraising haul of more than $5 million—about $3 million from his own pocket—was closely matched by Obama, a state senator from Chicago’s South Side who saved most of his TV dollars for the campaign’s home stretch.

John Kupper of Axelrod & Associates, the political consultancy that produced Obama’s ads, said the general campaign will cost his candidate $15-20 million overall. Obama, a Harvard Law School-trained attorney, “is a potential national figure, and I think he has the potential to raise substantial money,” Kupper said.

The seat being vacated is that of Republican Peter Fitzgerald. A wealthy banker, Fitzgerald spent $13 million of his own money to win the seat in 1998. But this primary suggests not every Richie Rich can waltz into office.

“Self-funded candidates win or lose with the same frequency as people that raise money from the general population,” said Kevin Lampe of Kurth/Lampe public relations in Chicago, which does extensive political consulting.

“We’ve seen plenty of millionaires run and lose,” added David Morrison, deputy director of the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform, a nonpartisan group that advocates public campaign funding, vouchers for TV spots and campaign contribution limits. “Our concern isn’t about raising the ceiling, it’s raising the floor. We’ve seen a number of folks raise around $5 million in the primary alone. If that’s the new floor, that’s going to discourage some credible candidates.”

For newcomers in Illinois, high-priced TV is the only way to overcome entrenched field organizations, Serafin said. “Infrastructure takes a long time to build,” he said. “Television gets you short-term name identification, then you hope it filters into the neighborhoods. The old-timers used to build from the bottom up. Now, with the new guys, it’s from the top down.”

Jon Corzine spent a record $63.2 million, including $60 million of his own money, on his successful Senate race in New Jersey in 2000.