Monday, March 05, 2007

Rocky Road Smooths Out for Oberweis

Get ready to call him Congressman Oberweis. And if you're in the main stream media get ready to be surprised at how effective a Congressman he is. And if you're part of the Republican establishment get ready to be surprised at what an effective and broad-spirited party leader he becomes.

Poor Jim Oberweis: he's made all his political mistakes in front of God and everybody. Everybody has focused on the mistakes and miscalculations - and missed the political learning curve of a very good, if often frustrated, politician.

In 2002 Oberweis ran as Jolly Old St. Nicholas and was beat by little known state legislator Jim Durkin in the primary for U.S. Senate. In 2004 Oberweis ran as the angry white male and lost to Jack Ryan, who lapped the field with early ads and imploded after winning the nomination for U.S. Senate. In 2006 Oberweis ran a solid race and, for the first time, lost for reasons beyond his control in the primary for Governor. But in 2008, Oberweis will likely run for the 14th Congressional seat that former Speaker of the House Denny Hastert is expected to retire from - and may well get an outright majority in the primary race.

Let's start in 2002. Oberweis was a political neophyte - and it showed. He thought the whole deal consisted of handing out some ice cream, smiling for the crowd, spending some money and see what happens. Along the way he made a few unfortunate comments that offended much of the base and it didn't work out. For the money he spent he didn't get much of a return.

In 2004 he boned up on the issues important to the Republican Base. To a certain extent he got holier than the pope, and it created some problems. His first downstate radio ads highlighted his differences with a then relatively popular President Bush, earning him the undying, if behind-the-scenes, enmity of Karl Rove and company. An early anti-illegal immigration ad used some ominous imagery that created a bit of a backlash, particularly in the Chicago market. At most joint campaign events, Oberweis was the guy with the reddest, angriest face. Interestingly, by the last month the angry, red face was gone and Oberweis often delivered the most thoughtful, measured speeches of anyone in the race. But it was too late by then. Ryan had long since lapped the field and was busy playing out the clock. Nonetheless, Oberweis substantially improved his return, this time finishing a respectable second to a much stronger rival.

2006 was a whole different ball game. Early on, the race was anybody's to win. State Sen. Bill Brady was running circles around most everyone in the summer of 2005, coming out of nowhere, but being everywhere and charming everyone. By Labor Day, Brady was one of the best looking dark horse candidates I had ever seen. But from Labor Day until after New Year, the Brady campaign suddenly vanished. Perhaps it was the prolonged flirtation with former Gov. Jim Edgar, perhaps it was something else, but for those four months all my downstate friends said Brady must be spending all his time in the collar counties and all my Chicago-area friends said he must be spending all his time downstate. He just seemed to vanish - and that is the critical time when you must be doing something the media almost never sees - getting troops on the ground ready to march for you.

I am not one who subscribes to the conspiracy theory that Brady was running interference for Judy Topinka. He knew that conservative votes will win a Republican primary - but he was listening to rosy estimates of his own strength that bore no relation to reality. He honestly thought the race was between him and Oberweis, so he went after Oberweis instead of Topinka. But having squandered the critical army-building period between Labor Day and New Year's, Brady had not the strength to win, only the strength to divide the conservative vote.
Oberweis was busy peeling endorsements away from front-runner Topinka while Brady was busy pulling support away from Oberweis. He peeled just enough away that Oberweis lost a close battle to Topinka, a battle that he undoubtedly would have won had not the conservative vote been split.

Oberweis could be forgiven for wondering by this time if there were some conspiracy against him. He had made no major gaffes in this campaign and had run a largely intelligent, well-run race. Oh, he had come up with the goofy drawing straws idea, but that was merely goofy, not a big gaffe. Had any other candidate come up with it it would have been greeted with a few hoots and dropped. But the template of Oberweis as gaffe-prone had already been well established in the media. Don't get me wrong, I don't particularly blame the media for this one: Oberweis had established the template in his first two races. But just as the template of Gerald Ford as an uncoordinated klutz after an unfortunate public stumble masked the fact that he was perhaps our most gracefully athletic president, the template assigned to Oberweis masked the political maturity he had developed in his three high-profile races.

In the aftermath of the 2004 race, Oberweis had been first at the podium the day after the primary publicly giving a big check and pledging his support to the nominee, Jack Ryan. His grace in defeat mirrored his behavior in 2002. Somebody at the State Party should have figured out then that, hey, this guy plays hard, but when the primary is over he's a team player. And they should have been trying to find a place on the team for him.

After the 2006 primary, Oberweis was a bit crankier. But frankly, not much. It had to go down hard that, were it not for Brady's miscalculation, Oberweis would have been the nominee. Now I'm not denigrating Brady either. Before he won a very focused race for the State Senate, Brady had lost in a bewilderingly unfocused effort for U.S. Congress. Brady is a very talented politician who is sometimes given to inexplicable lapses in prudence. But he, too, has a strong learning curve and will play an important role in any Republican revival here in Illinois.

What got lost in the shuffle of the bizarre 2006 race was that Oberweis had learned how to put together a well-organized, disciplined and motivated grass-roots effort. He had worked out most of the kinks in his message - and stayed disciplined on message. At events he had developed a real charm that engaged voters - not too light, not too edgy, but just about right.

Now comes the 2008 primary for U.S. Congress in the 14th District. Besides the fact that Oberweis has gotten significantly better with each race he has run, this one plays to all of his strengths and few of his weaknesses. Much more manageable than a statewide race, his skill at grass-roots politics will play a much more decisive role. While the media will almost certainly see him in the old Oberweis template, the portion of the district that is in the Chicago market is on his home-turf. The rest of the district is divided between the Rockford and the Quad Cities market. Oberweis can buy up nearly all the TV time in both of those markets and largely control his message. Besides the grass-roots advantage of running in the geographically smaller district, Oberweis can do a lot more one-on-one campaigning, and he has developed into a formidable stump campaigner. Finally, he has done very well in that district in all of his state-wide bids.
Right now his most likely primary challengers are State Sen. Chris Lauzen, a solid grass-roots conservative candidate himself and State Rep. Tim Schmitz, who some of the establishment are lining up behind. Neither has the money Oberweis can bring to bear. While both have had electoral success in low-profile races, neither has been in the sort of high-profile race this will be. Lauzen was the nominee for comptroller in 1998, but though statewide, that is still a low-profile race.

Oberweis will start with at least double the name recognition of any other candidate and has the money to keep it that way through election day. His toughness, which makes him the candidate you love to hate when you support someone else in a primary, will likely become a mark of unity when he is a nominee. And I predict he will be as magnanimous in victory as he usually is gracious in defeat. Because of the low expectations the media and some others have assigned to him, he will turn out to be a pleasant surprise to most of his critics after election and will rapidly become a leader in state Republican circles.

Cross-posted at Illinois Review

9 comments:

So-Called Austin Mayor 12:57 PM  

Uberweise as GOP nominee in the 14th Dist?

Oh Lord, please grant Your humble servant's prayer.

I cannot imagine a better way to organize the growing Hispanic population of the 14th District.

fdajb,  1:49 PM  

He does have some good chocolate milk. Milk in the glass is better too, but so is Coca-Cola and Root Beer. Could be better environmental for recycling.

But a good candidate he is not.

NW burbs,  3:02 PM  

As Mr. Johnston has alluded, we've now seen 3 variations of Oberweis as candidate... Which one do we think will show up to run for Congress?

And will the conservative universe implode upon itself if Oberweis is challenged by Lauzen?

Could there be a Congresswoman Chapa LaVia in the 14th's future (to that end, ditto S-CAM's comments)?

Rob 5:11 PM  

Oberweis spent what, twice as much as Brady did in the primary? And still Brady pulled almost 20 percent of all Republican voters, including many of the social conservatives, Oberweis's natural base. If the dairy man runs in the 14th against two socially conservative candidates who have actually held elected office, it's hard to see any voter would decide Oberweis was the best man for the job.

But hey whatever, to me the district is starting to sound like a pickup opportunity for the Democrats...

Chris 5:37 PM  

Interestingly, by the last month the angry, red face was gone and Oberweis often delivered the most thoughtful, measured speeches of anyone in the race. But it was too late by then.

Hmmmm . . .

This misses my favorite Oberweis story. At the '04 RNC, Alan Keyes created yet another controversy. He said gays/lesbians are "selfish hedonists" and when on to say that Dick Cheney's daughter was a selfish hedonist as well. While everyone else in the party stayed away from that one (moderates like Topinka decrying his message, while at least one conservative said if you want to win an election you need to sound like a decent human being).

Not our boy, Oberweis, though. He was the only well-known politician in the state to back up Keyes. Specifically, he compared trying to turn a gay straight to a fat man trying to lose weight.

It wasn't picked up on, because Oberweis wasn't a candidate at the moment, and the real story was what a giant flaming turd Keyes was, but it was well after Oberweis had entered his supposed learning curve.

Screwed up badly in 2002. Screwed up badly in 2004. Made a very bizarre comment in late 2004. Had trouble winning votes away from a low-budget candidate in 2006.

By all rights, the fourteenth should be an easily retained seat for the GOP. Oberweis wins the nomination and it's in play.

Foley,  10:22 PM  

One of his (Fulton Sheen's) best remembered presentations came in February 1953, when he forcefully denounced the Soviet regime of Joseph Stalin. Sheen gave a dramatic reading of the burial scene from Shakespeare's Julius Caesar, substituting the names of Caesar, Cassius, Marc Antony, and Brutus with those of prominent Soviet leaders: Stalin, Beria, Malenkov, and Vishinsky. From the bishop's lips came the pronouncement, "Stalin must one day meet his judgment." On March 5, 1953, Stalin died

Could Julius Caesar be read with the names of Jim Thompson and his co-horts.

grand old partisan 8:41 AM  
This comment has been removed by the author.
grand old partisan 8:42 AM  
This comment has been removed by the author.
grand old partisan 8:49 AM  

Charlie, but I couldn't disagree with you more.

I don't care how politely he smiled at the unity breakfast, being "gracious in defeat" didn't undo the damage he inflicted to our party's nominee with millions of dollars worth of extremely negative attack ads.

Besides, if Oberweis really wanted to be a team player, he'd volunteer to challenge Durbin....the nomination is pretty much his for the taking this time. He can use his money to give a Senior Democrat a run for their money instead of essentially trying to buy an already safe Republican congressional seat for himself, where I might add, his enormous ego would make him grossly effective.

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