Obama may seek US Senate seat in ’04 race

By Jennifer Bussell

Democratic State Senator and University Law School Senior Lecturer Barack Obama has begun assessing his chances in the 2004 US senate race. Obama has commissioned a statewide poll by the Colorado firm Harstad Strategic Research, and he has filed for federal permission to begin fundraising. Obama will have to win the democratic primary in order to face incumbent Republican Senator Peter Fitzgerald in ’04.

“Supporters of mine had suggested that I look at this as a possible race,” said Obama, who represents Hyde Park in the state Senate. “Obviously, I care deeply about the direction of the country, and the fact [is] that the Senate is only divided by one vote. I think that it’s important that the Senate remain in Democratic control, and Peter Fitzgerald is probably one of the more vulnerable Republican senators.”

Obama, 40, cannot begin raising federal funds until he receives approval, which is expected within the next week. “We’ve started the process,” he said. “We’ll be filing sometime in the next week or so.”

The first step for Obama is to find out if he can raise enough money even to run in the Democratic primary. “If this is a race that I do decide to mount, then unfortunately it costs a significant amount of money. Although I prefer not having to start fundraising this early, it may cost as much as $3 or $4 million to run in a primary,” Obama said. “That’s not the kind of money that can be raised in such a short time.”

He will not decide whether or not to run until December, after he is up for re-election in November to his four-year Illinois Senate term.

Until then, Obama is focusing on the re-election campaigns of his fellow Democratic state senators as well as moving forward with legislation. He is known for legislation reducing middle-class income taxes and reforming welfare and Illinois campaign finance as well as pushing for affordable health care.

If he decides to run, Obama will face a large hurdle in the Democratic primary, especially if former Senator Carol Moseley-Braun (D-Illinois) seeks to challenge Fitzgerald, to whom she lost in 1998. Obama’s poll predicted Moseley-Braun would be easily ahead in the primary if she chooses to run.

Obama sees his lack of visibility across the state as the primary difference between himself and candidates like Moseley-Braun. The poll found him known to only 18 percent of statewide voters, while 92 percent of voters recognized Moseley-Braun.

“If I go forward with the race, then my main liability is my lack of name recognition across the state, which is particularly important given that I have an unusual name,” Obama said. “I’m not the kind of person that people will vote for just because they like the sound of my name.”

He seeks to overcome the recognition problem through relationships developed with people across the state during his six years in the Illinois Senate. “That gives me a nice head start in terms of creating a statewide network and statewide base,” he said. “I would still have to devote a significant amount of time to meeting with Democratic leaders across state [to see if they] think my candidacy would be viable.”

The poll showed that without Moseley-Braun’s competition and with a little bit of information, 31 percent of primary voters would choose Obama. In addition, with background information, 50 percent of general election voters would choose Obama, while 30 percent would stick with Fitzgerald.

“Peter Fitzgerald and I served together in the Illinois State Senate for two years,” Obama said. “I’m familiar with him, and I’m familiar with his record. I will have served in the state senate for more years than he did at the time he ran…What will be a factor will be whose message resonates with the voters of Illinois.”

Although Obama thinks it’s too early to predict precise issues for 2004, his strategy for his first statewide race will incorporate issues on which Chicago southsiders and downstate Illinois voters can agree, such as better education, affordable healthcare, safe streets, and the ability to support one’s family.

“I think to be successful a Democrat has to emphasize those common values, common concerns that people throughout the state share,” he said. “Ultimately I think the issues…are going to be the bread and butter issues that working families care about.”