Voting is for old people
I set out at 1 p.m. to vote in my last-ever Cook County primary election. Unfortunately, a spam phone call (you know, the ones that kick in with an automated message telling you the best way to refinance) distracted me on the way outside and I forgot my digital camera. But there wasn’t much to see. A gaggle of maybe 20 signs marked the path outside the polling place, compared to the 50-plus that lined the sidewalk for the 2002 general election.

My punch-card ballot was strangely undemocratic. I had one choice for President – Bush – and one choice for every office except U.S. Senate. Luckily, Illinois is the subject of a heated primary campaign to select the replacement for Senator Peter Fitzgerald (R). I voted for the frontrunner, former investment banker Jack Ryan.

Last time, I voted for sure-loser gov candidate Patrick O’Malley. So why choose the sure winner this time? Well, Ryan seems to be the only candidate who knows how to run a 21st century campaign. He’s tacked on to the old Jack Kemp tactic of explaining how his plans will help the lowest of the low – I guess you could construe this as a “compassionate conservative” message, but Ryan is a much more earnest candidate than George W. Bush. His TV media is the best I’ve seen from any campaign this year, apart from John Kerry’s excellent bio ad. Ryan’s 30-second biography ad shows him parking a fancy car, stomping into an office, and opening his door just to get a piece of paper thrown at his head. He quit his cash-soaked job in banking to teach in Chicago – the ad hammers this home in a funny, unconventional way. All of this convinced me that Ryan can run the kind of campaign that will distance him from the Illinois Republican mistakes of the last four years.

I knew a ton of people working for Andy McKenna, but my punch-out pin did not hover over his name for a second. McKenna is one of the dullest candidates I’ve ever personally encountered – slightly built, soft-spoken, very few actual policy ideas. He convinced me that he’d be blown away by any Democratic who could tie his shoes.

The other candidates were either too bland (State Sen. Steve Rauschenberger, former State Rep. Jonathan Wright) or too obviously crackpot (John Borling, Norm Hill) to ever warrant a vote. Multimillionaire Chirinjeev Kathuria was a study in incompetence – the Sikh businessman had interesting policy ideas and a compelling life story, but spent no money on media and talked to voters as if they were participants in one of those money-making seminars. Jim Oberweis was a candidate that only National Review’s resident moron John Derbyshire could love – his sole policy positions were cheap pharmaceuticals and kicking out immigrants.

There are good reasons for my serious consideration of the GOP field. The Democrats fielded seven candidates this year, and it is expected that one of them will win the seat. At first, everyone expected the nominee to be Blair Hull, a multimillionaire (get used to that word in Illinois politics) with the personality of balsa wood. He spent $29 million to blanket the state with ads touting his “independence from special interests” and his mystery-shrouded health care plans, and it paid off – the Atlantic Monthly even gave him a profile, touting Hull as the man who’d perfected the art of buying Senate seats.

Then he beat his wife. Adios, Blair Hull.

In a normal year, Democrats would have gravitated to Chicago machine muppet Dan Hynes. The 34 year old (!) state Comptroller is moderately handsome, espouses the usual party boilerplate, is backed up by the political casa nostra in the Second City, and has been elected statewide. But he ran into competition for the mainstream Chicago vote. Likeable Cook County treasurer Maria Pappas entered the race late and ran to win Chicago whites and women statewide. Former president of the Chicago Board of Education Gery Chico tried to turn himself into a Latino version of Paul Vallas, the popular schools czar who nearly beat Rod Blagojevich in the 2003 gubernatorial primary. Both are more interesting than Hynes. All will probably go down to defeat.

Get ready for the Democratic nominee, because after tonight Barack Obama will be a national political superstar. He’s the smartest, most mainstream black politican to run for statewide office since Doug Wilder became the governor of Virginia. More importantly, he’s from the first generation of black Americans to grow up in the post-Civil Rights era. Obama was born to Kenyan and white parents in 1961, was raised middle class, and went to Columbia. As his campaign never tires of saying, he became the first African-American president of the Harvard Law Review. And, most impressively, Obama returned to Chicago to teach at the University of Chicago Law School and work as a liberal state senator.

Put simply, I think Barack Obama could run for president in 2012 or 2016. He wouldn’t be a Jesse Jackson guts-and-brimstone candidate. He’d be a tested, plain-spoken, mainstream politician elected by a mostly white electorate in the sixth most-populous state. So I voted for the candidate that could beat him. But I didn’t vote optimistically.

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