The 2004 United States Senate election in Illinois was held on November 2, 2004. Incumbent Republican U.S. Senator Peter Fitzgerald decided to retire after one term. The Democratic and Republican primary elections were held in March, which included a total of 15 candidates who combined to spend a record total of over $60 million seeking the open seat. State Senator Barack Obama won the Democratic primary and Jack Ryan won the Republican primary. Three months later, Ryan announced his withdrawal from the race four days after the Chicago Tribune persuaded a California court to release child custody records. Six weeks later, the Illinois Republican State Central Committee chose former Diplomat Alan Keyes to replace Ryan as the Republican candidate. The election was the first for the U.S. Senate in which both major party candidates were African American. Obama's 43% margin of victory was the largest in the state history of U.S. Senate elections. The inequality in the candidates spending for the fall elections - $14,244,768 by Obama and $2,545,325 by Keyes - is also among the largest in history in both absolute and relative terms.
On April 15, 2003, with six Democrats already running and three Republicans threatening to run against him, incumbent Fitzgerald announced he would not seek a second term in 2004, and three weeks later popular Republican former Governor Jim Edgar declined to run, leading to wide open Democratic and Republican primary races with 15 candidates, including 7 millionaires (triggering the first application of the Millionaires' Amendment of the 2002 McCain–Feingold Act), in the most expensive Senate primary in U.S. history.
On March 16, 2004, Obama won the Democratic primary by an unexpected landslide—receiving 53% of the vote, 29% ahead of his nearest Democratic rival, with a vote total that nearly equaled that of all eight Republican candidates combined—which overnight made him a rising star in the national Democratic Party, started speculation about a presidential future, and led to the reissue of his memoir, Dreams from My Father. The Democratic primary election, including seven candidates who combined to spend over $46 million, was the most expensive U.S. Senate primary election in history.
Democratic Primary, United States Senate, March 16, 2004
GOP frontrunner Jack Ryan had divorced actress Jeri Ryan in 1999, and the records of the divorce were sealed at their mutual request. Five years later, when Ryan's Senate campaign began, the Chicago Tribune newspaper and WLS-TV, the local ABC affiliate, sought to have the records released. On March 3, 2004, several of Ryan's GOP primary opponents urged Ryan to release the records. Both Ryan and his wife agreed to make their divorce records public, but not make the child custody records public, claiming that the custody records could be harmful to their son if released. Ryan went on to win the GOP primary on March 16, 2004 defeating his nearest competitor, Jim Oberweis, by twelve percentage points.
Oberweis's 2004 campaign was notable for a television commercial where he flew in a helicopter over Chicago's Soldier Field, and claimed enough illegal immigrants came into America in a week (10,000 a day) to fill the stadium's 61,500 seats. Oberweis was also fined $21,000 by the Federal Election Commission for a commercial for his dairy that ran during his 2004 Senate campaign. The FEC ruled that the commercial wrongly benefited his campaign and constituted a corporate contribution, thus violating campaign law.
Republican Primary, United States Senate, March 16, 2004
As a result of the GOP and Democratic primaries, Democrat Barack Obama was pitted against Republican Jack Ryan.
Ryan trailed Obama in early polls, after the media reported that Ryan had assigned Justin Warfel, a Ryan campaign worker, to track Obama's appearances. The tactic backfired when many people, including Ryan's supporters, criticized this activity. Ryan's spokesman apologized, and promised that Warfel would give Obama more space. Obama acknowledged that it is standard practice to film an opponent in public, and Obama said he was satisfied with Ryan's decision to have Warfel back off.
As the campaign progressed, the lawsuit brought by the Chicago Tribune to open child custody files from Ryan's divorce was still continuing. Barack Obama's backers emailed reporters about the divorce controversy, but refrained from on-the-record commentary. On March 29, 2004, Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Robert Schnider ruled that several of the Ryans' divorce records should be opened to the public, and ruled that a court-appointed referee would later decide which custody files should remain sealed to protect the interests of Ryan's young child. A few days later, on April 2, 2004, Barack Obama changed his position about the Ryans' soon-to-be-released divorce records, and called on Democrats to not inject them into the campaign.
On June 22, 2004, after receiving the report from the court-appointed referee, the judge released the files that were deemed consistent with the interests of Ryan's young child. In those files, Jeri Ryan alleged that Jack Ryan had taken her to sex clubs in several cities, intending for them to have sex in public. The decision to release the files generated much controversy because it went against both parents' direct request, and because it reversed the earlier decision to seal the papers in the best interest of the child. Jim Oberweis, Ryan's defeated GOP opponent, commented that "these are allegations made in a divorce hearing, and we all know people tend to say things that aren't necessarily true in divorce proceedings when there is money involved and custody of children involved."
Although their sensational nature made the revelations fodder for tabloid and television programs specializing in such stories, the files were also newsworthy because of questions about whether Ryan had accurately described the documents to GOP party leaders. Prior to release of the documents, Ryan had told leading Republicans that five percent of the divorce file could cause problems for his campaign. But after the documents were released, GOP officials including state GOP Chair Judy Baar Topinka said they felt Ryan had misleadingly indicated the divorce records would not be embarrassing. That charge of dishonesty led to intensifying calls for Ryan's withdrawal, though Topinka, who was considering running herself, said after the June 25 withdrawal that Ryan's "decision was a personal one" and that the state GOP had not pressured Ryan to drop out. Ryan's campaign ended less than a week after the custody records were opened, and Ryan officially filed the documentation to withdraw on July 29, 2004. Obama was left without an opponent.
Obama vs. Keyes
The Illinois Republican State Central Committee chose former diplomat and far right-winger Alan Keyes to replace Ryan as the Republican candidate. Keyes, a conservative Republican from Maryland, faced an uphill battle. First, Keyes had few ties to Illinois political leaders. Second, the lack of an opponent allowed Obama to campaign throughout the more conservative downstate regions to build up name recognition. Third, Keyes was seen as a carpetbagger, only establishing legal residency in Calumet City, Illinois days before running. The Chicago Tribune in an editorial, stated that "Mr. Keyes may have noticed a large body of water as he flew into O'Hare. That is called Lake Michigan." In 2000, Keyes attacked Hillary Clinton for running for US Senator from New York even though she had never lived there, calling her a carpetbagger. Keyes attacked Barack Obama for voting against a bill that would have outlawed a form of late-term abortion.
Obama ran the most successful Senate campaign in 2004, and was so far ahead in polls that he soon began to campaign outside of Illinois in support of other Democratic candidates. He gave large sums of campaign funds to other candidates and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and sent many of his volunteers to work on other races, including that of eventual three-term Congresswoman Melissa Bean who defeated then-Congressman Phil Crane in that year's election. Obama and Keyes differed on many issues including school vouchers and tax cuts, both of which Keyes supported and Obama opposed.
The Obama-Keyes race was one of the first to be called on Election Day, November 2, 2004.
At the start of Keyes' candidacy in August, Keyes had 24% support in the polls. He received 27% of the vote in the November general election to Obama's 70%.
Following the election, Keyes refused to call Obama to congratulate him. Media reports claimed that Keyes also failed to concede the race to Obama. Two days after the election, a radio interviewer asked Keyes whether he had conceded the race. Keyes replied, "Of course I've conceded the race. I mean, I gave my speech to that effect."
On the radio program, Keyes explained that his refusal to congratulate Obama was "not anything personal," but was meant to make a statement against "extend[ing] false congratulations to the triumph of what we have declared to be across the line." He said that Obama's position on moral issues regarding life and the family had crossed that line. "I'm supposed to make a call that represents the congratulations toward the triumph of that which I believe ultimately stands for... a culture evil enough to destroy the very soul and heart of my country? I can't do this. And I will not make a false gesture," Keyes said.