Republican Jack Ryan’s exit from the Illinois Senate race amid embarrassing sex club allegations leaves his party scrambling to find that golden candidate who could enter the contest as an underdog and in just four months raise the cash and recognition needed to win.
Ryan dropped out of the race Friday, four days after the records from his divorce from actress Jeri Ryan were unsealed.
Her allegations that he had taken her to sex clubs and tried to pressure her to perform sex acts in front of people drew jeers from late-night comedians, who joked that it gave new meaning to the family values party, and sharp criticism from party leaders, some saying Ryan had misled them about how damaging the records might be.
“It’s clear to me that a vigorous debate on the issues most likely could not take place if I remain in the race,” Ryan, 44, said in the written statement announcing his departure. “What would take place, rather, is a brutal, scorched-earth campaign — the kind of campaign that has turned off so many voters, the kind of politics I refuse to play.”
Growing pressure from GOP leaders
Ryan’s announcement came amid increasing pressure from party leaders. House Speaker Dennis Hastert said Friday there was “very little support” for Ryan among the state’s Republican members of Congress.
At a news conference Friday, state Republican leaders said Ryan wasn’t forced out. But Peter Fitzgerald, the retiring Republican senator whose seat is up in November and who supported Ryan to the end, said Ryan was given little choice.
“It was like piranhas,” Fitzgerald said. “They smelled blood in the water and they just devoured him.”
Fitzgerald said Ryan, a millionaire investment banker-turned-teacher, would likely stay in the private sector.
Illinois Republican Party chairwoman Judy Baar Topinka said the party hoped to have a new candidate within three weeks.
“I respect the decision that Jack Ryan made today,” Topinka said. “Now I think it’s time for our party to move forward.”
With the right candidate, the party can help raise money and build the needed name recognition, Topinka said. The key, she said, is that the person has a “good record in whatever it is that they do.”
The party was already devastated by the 2002 election, in which Illinois Republicans lost control of the governor’s office and nearly every statewide office, and a public corruption scandal that led to the indictment of former Gov. George Ryan. The former governor is not related to Jack Ryan.
Three Republicans with the greatest statewide name recognition — Topinka, former Gov. Jim Edgar and former Gov. James Thompson — already have declined to run.
Among others mentioned are three challengers Ryan defeated in the March primary: state Sen. Steve Rauschenberger, dairy owner Jim Oberweis and businessman Andy McKenna.
Rauschenberger would have a record to run on, but he lacks statewide name recognition and funding.
Oberweis, who made millions in the dairy and ice cream business, would have money but would be hampered by ads he ran during the primary that many viewed as anti-immigration. One showed Oberweis in a helicopter talking about aliens coming to take American jobs.
McKenna, a millionaire businessman in the paper industry, also would have cash, but his campaign didn’t catch fire with voters during the primary — even though he spent $31.22 per vote, the most among the GOP candidates.
Republican National Committee member Robert Kjellander remained hopeful the party would find a solid candidate. “We need to touch the grass roots of the party,” he said. “We need to talk to everybody and get everybody’s opinion.”
Peter Giangreco, campaign strategist and consultant to Democratic candidate Barack Obama, said a replacement GOP candidate could be viable even with Obama showing so strongly in the polls when he was running against Ryan.
“Despite the fact that Democrats have been doing very well in Illinois of late, this is still a state where neither party blows out elections,” he said.