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The Illinois United States Senate election of 2004 was held on November 2, 2004. Democratic state senator and future US President Barack Obama defeated Republican former Ambassador Alan Keyes by 70% to 27% in the race to represent Illinoismarker in the United States Senate. Before election day in July 2004, Obama wrote and delivered the keynote address at the 2004 Democratic National Convention on July 27, 2004, and his victory in the November 2004 election raised his profile nationally and within the Democratic Party.

After Republican incumbent Sen. Peter Fitzgerald, announced on April 15, 2003, that he would not seek re-election and his predecessor, Democrat Carol Moseley Braun declined to run for election, the Democratic and Republican primary elections held on March 16, 2004, included a total of 15 candidates, who combined to spend a record total of over $60 million seeking the open seat. The Democratic primary election, including seven candidates who combined to spend over $46 million, was the most expensive U.S. Senate primary election in history. Support for Obama surged when he began television advertising in the last three weeks of the campaign and he won the Democratic primary in an unexpected landslide with a margin of 29% over his closest Democratic rival; his vote total nearly equalled the combined total of votes for all eight candidates in the Republican primary. Jack Ryan won the crowded Republican primary with a plurality of votes by a margin of 12% over his closest Republican rival, but three months later, on June 25, 2004 announced his withdrawal from the race — four days after the Chicago Tribune succeeded in persuading a California court to release previously-sealed child custody records containing embarrassing allegations by Ryan's ex-wife. The Illinois Republican State Central Committee then assembled to choose a replacement candidate. Six weeks after Ryan's withdrawal, on August 4, 2004, the Illinois Republican State Central Committee asked Alan Keyes of Marylandmarker to replace Ryan as the Republican candidate. Keyes accepted four days later and moved into an apartment in Illinois four days after that, less than 3 months before the general election. The election was the first in which both major party candidates were African Americans, and the 43% margin was the largest in Illinois history in a U.S. Senate election.

Democratic primary

Barack Obama, a member of the Illinois Senate since 1997 and an unsuccessful 2000 Democratic primary challenger to four-term incumbent U.S. Rep. Bobby Rush for Rush's U.S House seat, launched a campaign committee at the beginning of July 2002 to run for the U.S. Senate, 21 months before the March 2004 primary, and two months later had David Axelrod lined up to do his campaign media. Obama formally announced his candidacy on January 21, 2003, four days after former U.S. Sen. Carol Moseley Braun announced she would not seek a rematch with U.S. Sen. Peter Fitzgerald.

On April 15, 2003, with six Democrats already running and three Republicans threatening to run against him,

Fitzgerald announced he would not seek a second term in 2004, and three weeks later popular Republican former Governor Jim Edgar declined to run, leading to wide open Democratic and Republican primary races with 15 candidates, including 7 millionaires

(triggering the first application of the Millionaires' Amendment of the 2002 McCain–Feingold Act), in the most expensive Senate primary in U.S. history.

Obama touted his legislative experience and early public opposition to the Iraq War to distinguish himself from his Democratic primary rivals. Illinois Comptroller Dan Hynes won the endorsement of the AFL-CIO, but Obama countered by winning the support of three of its largest and most active member unions: AFSCME, SEIU, and the Illinois Federation of Teachers. Hynes and multimilionaire former securities trader Blair Hull each won the endorsements of two of nine Democratic Illinois congressmen, but Obama trumped them by winning the endorsements of four: Jesse Jackson, Jr., Danny Davis, Lane Evans, and Jan Schakowsky.

Obama surged into the lead after he finally began television advertising in Chicago in the final three weeks of the campaign, which was expanded to downstate Illinois during the last six days of the campaign. The ads included strong endorsements by the five largest newspapers in Illinois--the Chicago Tribune, Chicago Sun-Times, Daily Herald, The Rockford Register Star, and Peoria Journal Star--and a testimonial by Sheila Simon that Obama was "cut from that same cloth" as her father, the late former U.S. Senator Paul Simon, who had planned to endorse and campaign for Obama before his unexpected death in December 2003.

Mendell (2007), pp. 227–232

On March 16, 2004, Obama won the Democratic primary by an unexpected landslide, receiving 53% of the vote, 29% ahead of his nearest Democratic rival, with a vote total that nearly equaled that of all eight Republican candidates combined.

Mendell (2007), pp. 235–246.

Republican primary

GOP frontrunner Jack Ryan had divorced actress Jeri Ryan in 1999, and the records of the divorce were sealed at their mutual request. Five years later, when Ryan's Senate campaign began, the Chicago Tribune newspaper and WLS-TVmarker, the local ABC affiliate, sought to have the records released. On March 3, 2004, several of Ryan's GOP primary opponents urged Ryan to release the records. Both Ryan and his wife agreed to make their divorce records public, but not make the child custody records public, claiming that the custody records could be harmful to their son if released. Ryan went on to win the GOP primary on March 16, 2004 defeating his nearest competitor, Jim Oberweis, by twelve percentage points.

Ryan was a proponent of across-the-board tax cuts and tort reform, an effort to limit payout in medical malpractice lawsuits. He was also a proponent of school choice, an approach that stresses accountability in education and the freedom to choose which public school one's children attend. He also supported vouchers for private school students.

Oberweis's 2004 campaign was notable for a television commercial where he flew in a helicopter over Chicago's Soldier Fieldmarker, and claimed enough illegal immigrants came into America in a week (10,000 a day) to fill the stadium's 61,500 seats. Oberweis was also fined $21,000 by the Federal Election Commission for a commercial for his dairy that ran during his 2004 Senate campaign. The FEC ruled that the commercial wrongly benefited his campaign and constituted a corporate contribution, thus violating campaign law.

General election

Obama vs. Ryan

As a result of the GOP and Democratic primaries, Democrat Barack Obama was pitted against Republican Jack Ryan.

Ryan trailed Obama in early polls, after the media reported that Ryan had assigned Justin Warfel, a Ryan campaign worker, to track Obama's appearances. The tactic backfired when many people, including Ryan's supporters, criticized this activity. Ryan's spokesman apologized, and promised that Warfel would give Obama more space. Obama acknowledged that it is standard practice to film an opponent in public, and Obama said he was satisfied with Ryan's decision to have Warfel back off.

As the progressed, the lawsuit brought by the Chicago Tribune to open child custody files from Ryan's divorce was still continuing. Barack Obama's backers emailed reporters about the divorce controversy, but refrained from on-the-record commentary . On March 29, 2004, Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Robert Schnider ruled that several of the Ryans' divorce records should be opened to the public, and ruled that a court-appointed referee would later decide which custody files should remain sealed to protect the interests of Ryan's young child. A few days later, on April 2, 2004, Barack Obama changed his position about the Ryans' soon-to-be-released divorce records, and called on Democrats to not inject them into the campaign.

On June 22, 2004, after receiving the report from the court-appointed referee, the judge released the files that were deemed consistent with the interests of Ryan's young child. In those files, Jeri Ryan alleged that Jack Ryan had taken her to sex clubs in several cities, intending for them to have sex in public. The decision to release the files generated much controversy because it went against both parents' direct request, and because it reversed the earlier decision to seal the papers in the best interest of the child. Jim Oberweis, Ryan's defeated GOP opponent, commented that "these are allegations made in a divorce hearing, and we all know people tend to say things that aren't necessarily true in divorce proceedings when there is money involved and custody of children involved."

Although their sensational nature made the revelations fodder for tabloid and television programs specializing in such stories, the files were also newsworthy because of questions about whether Ryan had accurately described the documents to GOP party leaders. Prior to release of the documents, Ryan had told leading Republicans that five percent of the divorce file could cause problems for his campaign. But after the documents were released, GOP officials including state GOP Chair Judy Baar Topinka said they felt Ryan had misleadingly indicated the divorce records would not be embarrassing. That charge of dishonesty led to intensifying calls for Ryan's withdrawal, though Topinka, who was considering running herself, said after the June 25 withdrawal that Ryan's "decision was a personal one" and that the state GOP had not pressured Ryan to drop out. Ryan's campaign ended less than a week after the custody records were opened, and Ryan officially filed the documentation to withdraw on July 29, 2004. Obama was left without an opponent.

Obama vs. Keyes

Keyes, a conservative Republican from Maryland, faced an uphill battle. First, Keyes had few ties to Illinois political leaders. Second, during the time when Obama had no opponent, he had campaigned throughout the more conservative downstate regions to build up name recognition. Third, Keyes was seen as a carpetbagger, only establishing legal residency in Calumet City, Illinoismarker days before running. The Chicago Tribune in an editorial, stated that "Mr. Keyes may have noticed a large body of water as he flew into O'Haremarker. That is called Lake Michiganmarker." In 2000, Keyes had attacked Hillary Clinton for running for US Senator from New York even though she had never lived there, calling her a carpetbagger. When asked what was the difference between what he was doing and what he had slammed Clinton for doing, Keyes had no good answer.

Keyes, 2 days after entering the race, began what would become a consistent pattern of repeatedly attacking Barack Obama on his support for the practice of 'live birth abortion', also known as partial birth abortion, stating that "[Obama] has broken and rejected those principles — he has taken the slaveholder’s position.". Keyes went so far as to accuse Obama of supporting infanticide.

Obama ran the most successful Senate campaign for a non-incumbent in 2004, and was so far ahead in polls that he soon began to campaign outside of Illinois in support of other Democratic candidates. He gave large sums of campaign funds to other candidates and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and sent many of his volunteers to work on other races, including that of now-Congresswoman Melissa Bean who defeated then-Congressman Phil Crane in that year's election. Obama and Keyes differed on many issues including school vouchers and tax cuts, both of which Keyes supported and Obama opposed.

General election results

The Obama-Keyes race was one of the first to be called on Election Day, November 2, 2004.

At the start of Keyes' candidacy in August, Keyes had 24% support in the polls. He received 27% of the vote in the November general election to Obama's 70%.

Following the election, Keyes refused to call Obama to congratulate him. Media reports claimed that Keyes also failed to concede the race to Obama. Two days after the election, a radio interviewer asked Keyes whether he had conceded the race. Keyes replied, "Of course I've conceded the race. I mean, I gave my speech to that effect."

On the radio program, Keyes explained that his refusal to congratulate Obama was "not anything personal," but was meant to make a statement against "extend[ing] false congratulations to the triumph of what we have declared to be across the line." He said that Obama's position on moral issues regarding life and the family had crossed that line. "I'm supposed to make a call that represents the congratulations toward the triumph of that which I believe ultimately stands for... a culture evil enough to destroy the very soul and heart of my country? I can't do this. And I will not make a false gesture," Keyes said.


  1. Fornek, Scott; Herrmann, Andrew. “Senate rivals urge Ryan to unseal divorce records”, Chicago Sun-Times (2004-03-04).
  2. Davey, Monica. “From Crowded Field, Democrats Choose State Legislator to Seek Senate Seat” (2004-03-17).
  3. - Oberweis Fined For Funding Campaign With Dairy Ad
  4. Ford, Liam. “Some Ryan divorce files should be unsealed”, Chicago Tribune (2004-03-30).
  5. Fornek, Scott. "Obama: Back off divorce files", Chicago Sun-Times (2004-04-03).
  6. Martinez, Michael; Pearson, Rick. “Court sets release of Ryan's divorce file”, Chicago Tribune (2004-06-18).
  7. Pearson, Rick; Ford, Liam. “GOP leaders say they felt misled on Ryan file”, Chicago Tribune (2004-06-23).
  8. Ford, Liam; Bush, Rudolph. “Ryan Quits Race”, Chicago Tribune 2004-06-26.
  9. Robinson, Mike. “Keyes assails Obama's abortion views”, Associated Press (2004-08-09).
  10. Alan Keyes Archives, 2004 Illinois Debates

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