It looked for a time as if the business with Blair Hull and his second wife would play right into Jack Ryan’s hands. At least that was the view of conservative Republican political junkies, a pack of voters who spend as much time talking to themselves as liberal Democratic political junkies do. Consider this late-February conversation spotted on

First post: “I can’t see downstate Ill. Dems voting in a big way for a Mr. Barak [sic] Obama. Blair Hull, unwounded, would have been a significant favorite….If Obama wins the primary, this seat goes from likely Dem pickup to retainable.”

Second post: “Imagine Jack Ryan asking State Senator Barak [sic] Obama (D-Chicago Machine Radical Wing) what his fellow Harvard Law alumnus Obama has personally done to see to actual education of black kids on the South Side of Chicago, why Obama and the Machine want and NEED to keep the South Side black kids ignorant and on the Demonrat plantation, why gay rights legislation is sooooo much more important to Barack Obama in his capacity as a full service supermarket for special interests like the pathetic teachers’ unions and the exotically lifestyled…

“Ryan can actually tie Obama down in the ghetto while people in less than affluent southern and central and northwest Illinois ask themselves if they can really see themselves being represented in the US Senate by Barack Obama, Ivy League radical lunatic fringe candidate of the no longer socially conservative but ever financially ravenous Chicago Machine. Richie Daley endorsing gay marriage won’t help Obama much either.

“God is being good to Illinois and America so long as 34-year-old Hynes a statewide officeholder and competent candidate is deeply buried under the Demonrat slag heap for lack of adequate funding. Blair Hull is and always was easy road kill. Obama even more so.”

Face it, Barack Obama is an exotic name to find on a ballot in the southern third of Illinois. (“People get over it,” Obama spokesperson Pam Smith says hopefully. “This is a state that elected a governor with the name of Blagojevich.”) Blair Hull sounds like the name of some 1930s antitrust act, but he’s been running downstate so long that half the voters probably think they went to high school with him. But Dan Hynes underfunded? Deeply buried? Don’t think so. Hynes hasn’t matched Hull, the $40 million man, in downstate media visibility in the closing weeks of the Senate primary, but he’s been miles ahead of everyone else.

When a wide-open statewide race like the current one for the Democratic nomination for senator is strictly between Chicagoans, the winner will often be the candidate most adept at slipping out of town to cop votes in the boonies. Hull understood from the get-go that the way to win a seven-candidate race was to roll up the parts of Illinois that money could buy because nobody’d heard of anybody.

“He took a page out of Blagojevich’s game book,” says Hull’s press secretary, Jim O’Connor. (A north-side congressman and the son-in-law of a Chicago ward boss, Blagojevich ran third in Chicago and Cook County in the 2002 Democratic gubernatorial primary and won thanks to voters south of Springfield.) The 18-city, seven-day tour that launched Hull’s Senate campaign last June began in Carbondale with an appearance alongside Paul Simon. Hull’s ads started running on local TV there the same week, and Carbondale was the site of his first regional campaign office. Obama doesn’t have an office south of Springfield, and the Springfield one didn’t open until February.

In mid-February political scientist John Jackson, a member of the Public Policy Institute of Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, told me this about Hull: “He’s been out early and most often and is now by far the best-known candidate in this end of the state, even including Dan Hynes, who’s run and won twice statewide. I think Blair Hull has not only the most advertising but the most effective advertising. The one with the senior citizens going to Canada–which touches a nerve on the drug-pricing issue–is out there all the time. He comes through in that ad very well.”

At the time polls showed Hull leading Obama by about ten percentage points. But then the media started carrying those stories about Hull and second wife Brenda Sexton–stories sprinkled with phrases such as “order of protection,” “sealed files,” and “mutual combat.” Soon new polls put Obama in front.

I called Jackson again March 3 and asked if the revelations about Hull’s divorce in the Chicago papers had made their way down to the Kentucky border. Yes indeed, he said. “It’s been unremitting bad news. Interestingly enough, there’s a full-page ad in today’s Southern Illinoisan by his children saying he’s been a good father and you can’t believe those bad things they’ve said about him. It’s an effective, well-done ad. And his first wife, as I understand it, has come out saying he has never been violent against her. But those are the only good news items in what has been a week of bad news.”

Hull has done everything first in Carbondale, and sure enough the “open letter from Kristen, Jeff, Megan and Courtney Hull” ran in the Southern Illinoisan a day before it appeared in the Tribune and Sun-Times. “Perhaps we should not be surprised at how strongly the insiders have struck back against his independence,” wrote Hull’s four grown children, all by his first wife. “As soon as he began leading the polls, the response was not an attack on his position on issues but an attack on his character.”

Meanwhile, where was Hynes? Not buried under a slag heap. “Ask what an operative would ask: Who does it help?” the Tribune’s John Kass had advised in a February 29 column that surely helped persuade Hull’s kids that blaming “insiders” was the way to go. Obama, it would seem. And who else? “Hynes, son of former Cook County Assessor Tom Hynes, is the candidate the Daleys of Chicago would like in the U.S. Senate,” Kass explained. “Hynes is running a low-profile campaign by design. The strategy is that he’ll have the ward bosses and organized labor churning out votes in Chicago, Cook County and far southern Illinois.”

It hasn’t been a low-profile campaign in southern Illinois. Hynes was on TV there hammering away about jobs and health care when no one else but Hull was on TV. Hynes has managed his obscure state office visibly and creatively, going after companies that want state contracts but owe back taxes or have expatriated jobs. “The comptroller doesn’t exactly have a high-profile job,” says Bill Recktenwald, who teaches journalism at SIU in Carbondale. “One thing he does has something to do with trust funds for the upkeep of old cemeteries”–as comptroller, Hynes launched an annual Cemetery Clean Up Month. “Our county has dozens of little cemeteries. He’s organized people to go out and maintain them. It sounds silly, maybe, to Chicagoans, where the archdiocese takes care of them, but down here it’s very important. I can recall times he was out there cutting the grass.”

Recktenwald’s a former Chicago Tribune reporter. “My home county, Hardin County, is one one-thousandth the size of Cook County,” he says. “They vote at almost twice the rate of Cook County. If Cook had voted at the same rate in the last presidential race they’d have had another 600,000 votes.”

What about Obama?

“Barack has the name problem,” Recktenwald says. “I was talking to some people last night and they couldn’t pronounce his name. But strangely enough, in a conversation I was having with a couple of black students–one from East Saint Louis and one from the Quad Cities–one of them told me Obama was head of the Harvard Law Review. That kind of surprised me–first of all that college students would know anything at all about Chicago politicians, and that they knew this.”

Hull, Hynes, and Obama aren’t the only candidates. Maria Pappas–whose strategy seems to presume that she can charm anyone she meets and meet enough voters to win–launched a downstate TV campaign in early March. (John Jackson spotted the Pappas ad–the one with the cutout suits–and was totally charmed. “That’s the funniest thing I’ve seen in ages,” he said.) Metro East–the Illinois portion of metropolitan Saint Louis–is the second-costliest TV buy in the state and a huge waste of money, since you’re mainly buying hundreds of thousands of Missourians who couldn’t care less. “But the bottom line is, if you look at the Metro East area, that’s the second-largest concentration of Democratic voters, outside of Chicago,” Pappas’s press secretary, Jim Allen, told me. “Some people haven’t advertised in that area. Most people have lost.” (Two years ago Metro East gave Blagojevich the margin he won the primary by.) Obama rented some billboards in Metro East, but until late this week he was only on cable TV.

I have in-laws in Edwardsville, the county seat of Metro East’s Madison County. “Clearly Hull is the spender,” says my brother-in-law Norman Nordhauser. “You ask around, ‘Who’s running?’ and they say Hull’s running, and they’re not sure who else.” Norman’s a retired SIU history professor; when he asks around he’s talking to other professors. He guesses he sees ten TV spots for Hull to every three or four for Hynes, and if anyone else from either party has been running TV ads they haven’t registered.

Obama had a media breakthrough in Edwardsville when he was endorsed by Evelyn Bowles, a popular retired state senator, and by Sheila Simon, daughter of the late U.S. senator. Recktenwald thinks Obama probably will carry Carbondale, where Simon sits on the city council. “This morning I saw 30 or 35 Obama signs on people’s lawns, individual house lawns,” he said the other day. More than Hull? “In yards, yes. Hull’s are along the highways, where somebody put up 10 or 12 together.”

According to the Chicago Tribune, Hull is paying workers $75 a day to plant those signs. “A good job down here,” says Recktenwald, “is eight bucks an hour.”

Chris Mather, Hynes’s communications director, says she’s heard Hull even pays people to come out and cheer. “We’re up against a $40 million campaign,” she told me last Friday. “We’re never going to be able to compete with the way that looks.” But, she added, “we’ve got 85 of the state’s 102 county chairmen and over 800 elected officials supporting Dan from all levels of government.” She asked if I’d seen the day’s two new polls.

I’d seen the Daily Southtown poll, which had Obama overtaking Hull and leading with 28 percent of the vote, Hull with 23 percent, and Hynes right behind at 22. Jack Ryan led by double digits on the Republican side. Mather told me to check out Bloomington’s Pantagraph. Again, Ryan led by a mile, but in this poll Obama was barely ahead of Hynes, 22 percent to 20, and Hull was back at 15 percent, a point ahead of Pappas. “No question,” pollster Del Ali told the Pantagraph, “the story of Hull’s divorce has played a significant factor.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Nick Steinkamp.