An unusually diverse group of supporters crowded around Jack Ryan as he declared victory in the Republican primary election for U.S. Senate. (Photo by Matt Ferguson)

Early in the afternoon of March 16, Illinois’ primary election day, voters trickled into the polling station in the basement of the Community Church of Wilmette. Though it was chilly outside, the weather wasn’t nasty enough to keep everyone at home; election judges said 125 of the precinct’s 600 registered voters had cast ballots by about 1 p.m., with the big rush expected after work hours in the evening.

Signs for U.S. Senate candidates Barack Obama, a Democrat, and Andy McKenna and Steve Rauschenberger, both Republicans, had been posted in the lawn. But Obama was the only one people were talking about as they emerged from the church.

“I like the fact that he’s been involved in the civil rights movement and has excellent credentials. He’s more likely to be invested in all people, as opposed to a certain segment of people,” said Ginger Ridings, a Wilmette social worker who is white.

In campaign speeches, Obama had made a point of stressing that he was driven by more than politics: He was trying to carry out his belief that people everywhere, from the North Shore and the southern tip of the state, “are all connected. –¦ If a child on the South Side can’t read, it affects me. If John Ashcroft rounds up an immigrant, it affects my civil liberties.”

Voters were also captivated by Obama’s personal narrative and his professional background. Born to a black father and white mother, he had grown up in Hawaii and Indonesia before attending Columbia University and Harvard Law School, where he served as the first black editor of the Harvard Law Review. He had worked as a community organizer, served a multiracial district in the Illinois Senate, and taught constitutional law at the University of Chicago.

And people were intrigued by Obama’s multicultural background. “It does make a difference to me that he’s an African American,” said Ridings. “It’s a population that’s been underrepresented and not had a fair focus. And I think that he’s really going to be there for everybody.”

As it turned out, just about everyone in the Democratic Party was there for Obama that day: He captured 53 percent of the party’s votes statewide, 19 points better than his nearest opponent. He won with high turnout and overwhelming support in mostly black areas of Chicago and the south suburbs. And, in taking Cook County, all five collar counties and several downstate counties, he relied on strong support from mostly white areas, like Ridings’ New Trier Township, where he won 82 percent of the vote.

Later that night, a couple of hours after the polls had closed, Jack Ryan declared victory in the Republican Senate primary, hugging supporters as he worked his way across a stage packed with black and white children in a hotel ballroom downtown. He had captured 83 of the state’s 102 counties, winning nearly 36 percent of the vote statewide, 12 percent more than runner-up Jim Oberweis. Ryan’s margins of victory were even larger in predominantly black areas of Chicago and Cook County.

Kyle and Dorn Simpson, an African American couple from south suburban Olympia Fields, stood amid hundreds of others pressed up against the stage. Leaning into the podium just above them, Ryan called for public policy that helps “the poorest of the poor, those who have been left behind,” and the cheering grew louder, with both the black Baptists and the Irish Catholics in the room offering up regular amens. “I need the votes of Republicans and Democrats and independents, Asian Americans, African Americans, Latino Americans, and white Americans.”

As with the Obama supporters earlier, the Simpsons were drawn as much to their candidate’s personal biography as to his political positions. They knew, and liked, the fact that Ryan, who is white, had grown up on the affluent North Shore, attended Harvard business and law schools, and made a fortune in investment banking before taking a $20,000-a-year teaching position at Hales Franciscan, an all-black Catholic high school on Chicago’s South Side. Now he was saying he wanted to wield Republican ideas like school choice as weapons against racial and economic injustice.

The Simpsons were fired up about him, saying they would volunteer for his campaign. Neither had ever supported a Republican before. “I don’t think this is about the party. It’s about the issues. [Ryan] brings a fresh perspective on economic issues and education. He’s not traditional. You see the compassion he has for people,” said Dorn Simpson, coordinator of after school and day camp programs at South Loop Elementary School.

“As African Americans, we are interested in civil rights, but we also care about [issues like] national defense,” said Kyle Simpson, who owns an advertising agency. “I think it’s refreshing because this forces us to take a look at the same issues in new and different ways.”

The victories of Ryan and Obama suggest that thousands of other Illinois voters were looking for candidates who could talk about long-time social issues, including racial issues, in new ways.

Observers say the success of this approach could signal the emergence of a new kind of racial politics. “We’re a country right now that doesn’t know quite what to do with issues of race. We don’t have a very good language for talking about race. And so somebody who’s a kind of Tiger Woods-figure who can straddle different racial communities” will have a wide appeal to voters, said University of Chicago political scientist Melissa Harris-Lacewell.

While the two nominees offer starkly different images of what the country needs and how to get there—Obama is a proud progressive who thinks government should be used to help nurture communities; Ryan is an unabashed conservative who’d like to see the government encourage private citizens to do more—both have made racial justice a focus of their campaigns, and both have touted their own stories of interracial experience and appeal.

This isn’t standard campaign rhetoric. Unless breaking events force them to, few candidates talk openly about racial disparities. And this has been especially true for Republicans fighting for their party’s conservative wing—circumstances when it’s been more common for them to levy attacks on affirmative action and welfare. Ryan’s outspokenness on race, though, allows him to present himself as a fresh candidate with fresh ideas. “He wants to be a Republican, but not turn out the anti-Bush vote,” Harris-Lacewell said. “He’s running on an ‘outsider’ platform, but in a more complicated way than [many candidates did] in the ’90s. Now he has to be seen as more compassionate.”

Black candidates, meanwhile, have always been expected to acknowledge their racial backgrounds in a way that will not scare off whites. It can seem like an impossible task; during three unsuccessful campaigns for governor, former Illinois Attorney General Roland Burris, who is black, was sometimes prickly when asked questions about race. But Obama appears comfortable, telling white and black audiences alike that, while he’s rooted in the black community, his ideas can help everyone else out. Harris-Lacewell noted that Obama can slip into a “black vernacular” for interviews on the African American radio station WVON and then give a speech to others as a Harvard graduate and law professor. “He’s kind of what a new set of racialized candidates will look like,” Harris-Lacewell said.

Political leaders say they expect the strategies to spur an interesting debate over the summer, and they’re not sure how voters are going to respond. “Many people are attracted to someone who’s talking about racial and social justice issues but is very conservative,” said Gregg Goslin, a Cook County commissioner and the Republican committeeman of suburban Northfield Township. “And then there’s an African American on the ballot who has as good a set of academic credentials as anyone –¦ and who has a voting record. He’s an attractive candidate.”

* * *

At his victory celebration, Ryan made a grand entrance to the booming tune of “Doctor Who,” known to many as the theme song of the Chicago Bulls. He waved to the crowd, shook hands, hugged babies and embraced a former Hales student who had introduced him to the crowd as “the next senator from Illinois.” Wearing a wide smile that seemed at once passionate and practiced, Ryan preached a victory sermon based on his message of cross-racial conservatism.

After calling for lower taxes and an end to inner-city violence, Ryan said he would push bold new ideas to confront “the greatest social justice issue of our generation”—the fact that millions of children nationwide, particularly blacks and Latinos, are attending low-performing schools. “We have to stop this right now. We have the responsibility to give everyone a chance,” he said.

Ryan built to his conclusion: “For those of you who are Democrats because you care about those in the inner city, I want your vote,” he said. “If you’re African American and want more opportunity for your community, I want your vote. If you’re Latino and want your children raised in a community that fosters your children, provides health for your children, provides hope for your children, I want your vote.”

“Come on!” someone shouted.

Erica Schulz was impressed. An African American who volunteers for the 43rd Ward Republican organization, she said it was the most diverse audience she’d ever seen at a party event. “I think [Ryan] represents a new breed of Republican,” said Schulz, a building engineer. She noted that he had “a good base on the South Side” and “credibility with the old school” business community. “I think that this guy bridges a couple of very different worlds.”

Throughout his primary campaign, Ryan made deliberate attempts to portray himself as what he calls “a very unique Republican.” He told his story to anyone who would listen, at suburban Cook County schools, at downstate breakfast meetings, and at Sunday morning church services on Chicago’s South and West sides.

“We spent a lot of time visiting communities that don’t usually vote Republican,” Ryan said in an interview after the primary. “And I think what happened is that, in a crowded field, people said, ‘This guy’s different.’ Even if voters don’t agree with everything I said, they said, ‘I give this guy high marks for being sincere.'”

But most voters—from all parts of the state—were eager to listen to him discuss race, he said. “I wish people could see the people in Princeton”—a small town about two hours west of Chicago—“who were nodding their heads when I was talking about this.”

GOP runner-up Jim Oberweis chose a different campaign theme. In controversial television advertisements, Oberweis claimed that enough undocumented immigrants enter the country each week to fill Soldier Field. After the primary, he refuted the suggestion that the immigration issue had alienated voters, saying that, among the hundreds of phone calls he received about the ads, supporters outnumbered critics 20 to 1. Instead, he credited Ryan’s early and effective use of advertising.

Asked if he thought Ryan’s message on race had made a difference, Oberweis said, “That was his approach and it worked very well. I think it’s a good approach. I think it is what we need to do. We have to bring the swing or marginal voters in.”

The lone minority among the Republican field, Chirinjeev Kathuria, who immigrated to the United States from India when he was a child, said minority groups now represent too big a chunk of voters to write off. “Unless the Republican Party outreaches to those groups, they’re going to have a hard time winning a [statewide] seat,” said Kathuria. “The Republican Party realizes what’s happened, and they know they have to change.”

Walter Burnett, a Democrat and alderman of the mostly black 27th Ward on Chicago’s North Side, said Ryan’s focus on social justice issues “sends a good message.” But Burnett, who is black, said Ryan has little chance of winning votes in the city. “I must tell you, in the regular community, people know. They just know. When he stood up there with that young person [at his victory party], they knew it was set up. It wasn’t natural.”

Some Democrats are less charitable. “No matter how you peel this banana, he’ll just be a Republican right of the center,” said Northwest Side state Rep. William Delgado, who endorsed Hynes in the Democratic primary. “I would wish Mr. Ryan well and that he would continue his effort into education. And [he should remember] that the inner city is still there when he gets home at night.” He predicted that Obama would sweep the state’s Latino areas.

If past election returns are any indication, Ryan has serious work to do in all of the nonwhite areas of the state. Republicans have not won a significant chunk of votes in Chicago in decades. In 2002, GOP candidates for statewide office received, on average, just 8 percent of their votes from the city and 1 percent from its majority black wards. In contrast, Democrats counted on Chicagoans to provide 28 percent of their vote totals, including 14 percent from black wards.

In the primary, Ryan outpolled his competitors by higher margins in the predominantly black areas of Chicago and Cook County than in areas with higher white populations, such as the collar counties. But this might not help him in the general election, because Democratic voters in those areas outnumbered Republicans 14 to 1.

Ryan said he is not worried. “There was nothing historical about those numbers as far as we can tell,” he said. Ryan added that he has to win downstate and “do well” in Cook County. It is a proven Republican formula. In 2002, state Treasurer Judy Baar Topinka was the only member of the party to win statewide. She did it by getting 61 percent of the ballots outside Chicago—but received just 28 percent of the city vote, including 15 percent in black wards.

Still, some Republican activists have a hard time disguising their pessimism, noting that the party’s energy level was shockingly low in the primary. “In my 30 years in this, I’ve never seen such disinterest in a race, especially for a high-profile race like this,” Goslin said.

Yet Obama seemed to benefit from a remarkable shot of energy in the campaign’s final days. In the weeks before the election, several of his opponents stumbled—Dan Hynes had to brush off questions about his campaign funds, while Blair Hull’s candidacy collapsed under the weight of ugly details from his divorce and revelations that he hadn’t voted regularly in the past. Obama became the candidate of choice—across the state.

Obama had argued that he had a strong black base, but also relished presenting his multicultural credentials, often speaking in the most subtle racial terms without ever mentioning race itself. Instead of saying outright that he was biracial, he’d note that his father was from Kenya and his mother was from Kansas. “I got my name from my father and my accent from my mother,” he joked on the stump.

It worked. “I think people felt him,” said Burnett, who remained officially neutral in the primary race. In addition to Obama’s background, voters liked the fact that he was battling against well-funded, well-manned opponents, he said. “And they liked to see the crossover of ethnic groups. That excited people.”

Obama’s surprising final margin of victory—his 650,000 votes were more than double what runner-up Hynes tallied—had two sources. For one, the excitement extended deep into what was assumed to be his rivals’ territory. In the city’s white wards, Obama won 46 percent of the vote compared with Hynes’ 31 percent. He even beat Hynes in the 47th Ward, where the state comptroller now lives, and narrowly lost to him in the 19th Ward, where Hynes’ father, Thomas, is the committeeman.

Rob Kassinger ignored the 47th Ward’s Regular Democratic organization workers, who were outside making late-hour appeals for Dan Hynes, as he entered the polling place in the fieldhouse of Welles Park, 2333 W. Sunnyside Ave.

Sending an African American to the Senate “wouldn’t hurt,” said Kassinger, a bassist with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra who is white. “Coming from this state, and representing this city largely, I thought he was a good choice. –¦ But what he says and how he says it is much more important to me.”

At the same time Obama was persuading white voters that he had the best background to serve their interests, he was aggressively taking his case to black voters—visiting churches, linking up with black aldermen and committeemen on plans to get voters to the polls, and launching an advertising blitz trumpeting his leadership on issues such as cracking down on racial profiling.

The result: African American turnout in Chicago was the highest it has been in a primary in 12 years, with 41 percent of registered voters getting to the polls. Black voter turnout exceeded turnout in white areas, a feat not even accomplished during the historic 1983 and 1987 Chicago mayoral victories of the late Harold Washington. In suburban Cook County, turnout was also higher in mostly black areas.

While some notable black leaders helped out other candidates—U.S. Rep. Bobby Rush endorsed Hull, while Cook County Board President John H. Stroger Jr. co-chaired Hynes’ campaign—black voters largely went their own way. Obama won 88 percent of the vote in Chicago’s black wards and 78 percent in black areas in suburban Cook.

“Clearly people were still getting phone calls from their aldermen [telling them to support others],” Harris-Lacewell said. “But ministers made it clear to their parishioners that they should buck the Machine and vote their conscience. And the conscience vote was the Obama vote.”

Working his 19th Ward precinct, Jimmie Lee Cooper had a firsthand view of how black support for Hynes and every other candidate melted away to Obama. Cooper, who is African American, has served as a precinct captain for Tom Hynes for 20 years. “I figured it was my duty to help them,” he explained. But many residents resisted the push for Hynes, and Cooper couldn’t quibble with them.

“Dan Hynes is a nice young man, and he has some brilliant ideas, too, but I think the best candidate won,” Cooper said. “And I think that black and white saw that, all over, even in this ward.”

Both sides will be trying to forge more multiracial coalitions before the fall. Though many observers believe the election is Obama’s to lose, given the state’s recent history of voting Democratic, others predict a tight, contentious race. Obama himself is busy warning supporters not to let up, and they’re responding with enthusiasm and adulation more common to Cubs and Sox fans than political followers.

In mid-April, about 100 people, most of them black, gathered in the basement of a West Side church for 24th Ward Alderman Michael D. Chandler’s monthly community meeting. U.S. Rep. Danny K. Davis was addressing the group when Chandler shot into the room from the back, pumping his fists as he shouted “Obama! Obama! Obama!” Smiling, Davis stopped talking and joined the rest of the room, now standing and clapping and belting out “Obama!”

Entering behind Chandler, Obama began cheering with them, and then he asked everyone to sit. “Goodness gracious,” Obama said. He thanked the group for its votes. “Because sometimes, when good things happen to people, they assume it’s because of them, and they assume it is them that did it,” he said. “But I want you all to understand, I know who did what.”

A year and a half earlier, few people thought he had a chance to win, Obama said. “People make false assumptions about people. People assume white folks won’t vote for black people,” he said. “And so part of the reason we were successful was that we went in with a different assumption—that all people, regardless of race and demographics, share some common beliefs.”

After the meeting ended a few minutes later, a throng of supporters gathered around Obama and asked him for autographs.

But, despite his campaign’s energy and apparent organizational advantages, Republicans are not standing around: The first wave of attacks has already begun. Just as Democrats are accusing Ryan of using his interracial pitch to conceal right-wing beliefs, Republicans have already begun to paint Obama as a classic tax-and-spender.

“I think this election is going to give us a clear choice between a solid, conservative Republican and a way-out left Democrat,” Oberweis said. Obama “might be more liberal than Ted Kennedy. He may even be more liberal than Dick Durbin, and that’s hard to do.”

Richard Iton, a political scientist at Northwestern University, said he’s not surprised that both sides have already started to move away from their conciliatory themes. With core party activists foursquare behind their nominees going into the general election, the debate will turn increasingly partisan. “Now it’ll be about things like school vouchers. It will be much more explicit,” Iton said.

Contributing: Alden K. Loury, Rupa Shenoy and Sarah Karp. Hiroko Abe, Erin Meyer, Paula Wills, Juanita Barajas and Matt Tripodi helped research this article.