One for the History Books: Not since 1858 has one Senate election had such an impact

Feb 1, 2007

Barack Obama's election to the U.S. Senate from Illinois may prove to be one of the most significant in American history. Perhaps not since the Senate election of 1858, when Stephen Douglas defeated Abraham Lincoln, has one Senate election had such an impact on the national leadership cadre. Although Lincoln lost that election, his speeches and debates with Douglas over slavery and the future of the Union ensured his place as a national leader of the young Republican Party and then as a leading contender for the Republican nomination in 1860.

Obama, too, has potential to make a long-term contribution to his party. Though one of 100 senators, and a freshman at that, he has become a successful fundraiser for the Democrats, and his influence has spread far beyond the usual parameters for a first-term senator. He's the first African-American male senator to be elected since Edward Brooke of Massachusetts. He's the second African American elected to the Senate from Illinois following former Sen. Carol Moseley Braun, who was elected in 1992 and then defeated in 1998. With the exception of the post-Civil War Reconstruction era, Brooke, Braun and now Obama are the only three popularly elected African-American senators in American history.

Obama's rise to the national stage has been so meteoric he's exploring a presidential bid and is now a genuine first-tier challenger for the Democratic nomination.

His run up to that decision over the past two years was fueled by the re-release of his biography, which became a best seller. Then he wrote and released a second book titled The Audacity of Hope, a phrase he used in the keynote speech at the Democratic National Convention that introduced him to a national and international audience. 

Over the summer, he took his family to Africa, visiting his father's homeland and his grandmother in Kenya, an event that received more media attention than most overseas trips taken by senators. The rest of the summer and fall, he took turns promoting his new book and stumping for Democratic candidates.

Talk of a presidential run grew with each stop, but particularly when he made key trips to Iowa and New Hampshire. Overflow crowds attended Sen. Tom Harkin's summer steak fry in the countryside near Des Moines and again in New Hampshire at a celebration following Democratic victories in the November general election.

 Stepping back from the hype and hoopla, we can see two lessons in the 2004 Illinois primary, well before Obama became famous. 

First, Obama is remarkably appealing to the core constituents of the Democratic Party, and he unites the party in ways that few candidates can. He ran extremely well among African Americans and other minorities, white urban dwellers, liberals and the young. He also did well among independents and suburbanites, which accounts for the margin of his victory and proved that he can broaden the Democratic base. 

Second, Obama encountered clear and persistent opposition from the Republican Party's core constituencies. That is, there is evidence of a lack of support in the small towns, the rural areas and among those voters who are compelled by religious morality. His Republican opponent, Alan Keyes, who ran about as hapless a campaign as Illinois has witnessed in its recent history, took 10 counties in small-town and rural 

Illinois. Surely Obama and his advisers understand that he must reach out to some part of that constituency in order to win the presidency in a nation where religion is such an important value for so many voters.  

The senator's recent visit to a conference of evangelicals at Rick Warren's Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, Calif., is an excellent example of the kind of outreach Obama recommends in his recent book. Warren is one of the best-known pastors and religious authors in the nation, and Saddleback is the kind of mega-church that now dominates much of Protestantism in the United States. If Obama can find a sympathetic audience at the Saddleback Church, he can probably speak in an idiom that would be appealing to many other deeply religious Americans of both the evangelical and mainstream camps. It should be noted, though, that Obama's visit to Saddleback generated some controversy in the larger evangelical community. 

As has Warren himself. While he's generally conservative, Warren also has raised very public doubts about some of the religious right's agenda. He is an advocate for the social gospel in areas that are very compatible with Obama's policy positions. 

Perhaps all this emphasis on political ecumenicalism grew, in part, out of Obama's experience of running against Keyes and feeling acutely uncomfortable with his own inability to answer some of Keyes' religiously couched charges against him. Indeed, his recent book recommends such a religious and values-based dialogue to his Democratic peers. Such values have a broad appeal, especially to voters in the more rural and sparsely populated states where the Democrats have had a hard time winning recently. But those values also appeal to the congregations of mega-churches in the cities and suburbs.

Numerically, there are far more of the rural and small-town counties in the United States than there are urban counties. Nevertheless, the balance of power is now in the suburban and, increasingly, the "exurban" counties, and it is there that national elections will be won in the future. 

Recent polls indicate that Obama can appeal across these geographical, partisan and ideological boundaries and become a truly national candidate. Obama is now running second in all the horserace polls for the 2008 Democratic nomination for president. He and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York are clearly the leaders for the Democrats, and both would be competitive in the general election. 

To gain such political success and national prominence in just two years is unprecedented in presidential politics — at least since the unlikely rise of that other Illinoisan, Abraham Lincoln. The key to current events, however, lies in the race for the Senate in 2004, the way it played out and the lessons the senator took from it. So, if the voters of the entire United States one day get to consider an Obama candidacy, they will have the voters of Illinois to thank for providing them with that choice. 

 

John Jackson is a visiting professor in the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University Carbondale. This is an edited excerpt from an Occasional Paper he wrote for the institute titled The Making of a Senator: Barack Obama and the 2004 Illinois Senate Race, which can be found at www.siu.edu/~ppi/publications. papers.htm.