Beleaguered Republican U.S. Senate hopeful Jack Ryan ended his campaign Friday, leaving his party scrambling to find a replacement with enough money and magnetism to mount a serious challenge against Democratic candidate Barack Obama.
Ryan had been under attack by a wide range of party leaders for a lack of candor following the release this week of previously sealed records from his divorce from TV actress Jeri Ryan, giving rise to what one prominent Republican called "buyer's remorse."
Jack Ryan had fought the release, insisting he was trying only to protect his son and not to hide embarrassing information. But the files showed Jeri Ryan had accused her ex-husband of taking her to sex clubs and trying to pressure her into having sex in front of others.
Ryan met with staff Friday morning to inform them of his decision to quit the race. Later, he issued a statement explaining he was stepping down because a fixation on the divorce charges meant that a "debate between competing visions and philosophies" could not take place in the Senate race.
"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," Ryan said.
Republican pressure on Ryan to step aside began Monday with the release of the files, including one document in which Ryan vigorously denied the allegations of his ex-wife.
Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Robert Schnider released the information as the result of motions filed by the Chicago Tribune and WLS-Ch. 7.
Calls for Ryan's withdrawal intensified throughout the week as party officials--saying Ryan misled them about the extent of his ex-wife's allegations--warned of the damage he could do to an already struggling party's chances in November.
On Thursday, U.S. House Speaker Dennis Hastert of Plano and state GOP chairwoman Judy Baar Topinka called U.S. Sen. George Allen, chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee. They asked him to pull the plug on Ryan's campaign, according to a GOP source who spoke frequently with top Ryan campaign staffers.
Ryan held out until Friday, as U.S. Sen. Peter Fitzgerald, whom Ryan was seeking to replace, and some other GOP senators urged him to fight on. Even before the release of the court files, Ryan had trailed Obama by a wide margin in public opinion polls, and his decision to quit came after his campaign commissioned yet another poll to gauge public response to the growing divorce file controversy, the Republican source said.
The results arrived Friday morning and convinced Ryan that he had been too damaged by the revelations to recover, the source said.
On Friday, Topinka said Ryan's "decision was a personal one." She denied that the state Republican Party pressured Ryan to drop out, saying state leaders recently backed off to ensure Ryan felt it was his decision alone.
"He had a lot of great ideas, but they probably would have been overshadowed by this controversy," Topinka said. "We appreciate what he did for the greater good of the party."
Meanwhile, Obama, a Democratic state senator, praised the work Ryan has "done as a teacher and as a civic leader throughout the state."
"What happened to him over the last three days was unfortunate," Obama said. "It's not something I certainly would wish on anybody. And having said that, from this point forward, I think we will be continuing to talk about the issues."
Republicans will move quickly to replace Ryan, Topinka promised. The party's 19 central committee members should "reach out" to constituents and try to have a replacement candidate within three weeks, she said.
But with its top ranks decimated by scandal and widespread electoral losses in 2002 that handed almost total control of state government to Democrats, the party may have difficulty finding a high-profile candidate with as deep pockets as had Ryan, whose personal fortune is estimated at up to $95 million.
Two former governors mentioned as possible candidates, James R. Thompson and Jim Edgar, have both indicated they will not run, said Topinka, who also ruled out her own candidacy. A leading contender who has not said no is Ron Gidwitz, 59, a wealthy businessman and the former chairman of the state Board of Education, according to several Republican sources.
On Friday, U.S. Rep. Don Manzullo also was making an open pitch for state Sen. Steve Rauschenberger (R-Elgin), one of several candidates who lost to Ryan in the primary.
"Steve entered the primary against three millionaires, and two more weeks [of campaigning] and he would have won it," Manzullo said.
U.S. Rep. John Shimkus said Ryan's departure has led to "a sense of relief and a little bit of excitement," at moving past the scandal.
State Sen. Kirk Dillard, chairman of the DuPage County Republican Party, said calls to his party headquarters were almost unanimously against Ryan staying in the race.
"It wasn't really over the substance of what he did or did not do with his wife," Dillard said. "It was, they thought that he deliberately withheld information before the March primary and we had a lot of buyer's remorse."
Ryan's demise came after years of groundwork carefully laid by the Wilmette native, who several years ago began attending Republican party Lincoln Day dinners throughout the state to gauge reaction to his entering the political arena.
Ryan entered the race more than a year ago, weeks after Fitzgerald said he would not seek re-election. A former investment banker who took a job as a teacher at Hales Franciscan High School on the South Side, Ryan had also been courted by the national GOP as a possible opponent for U.S. Sen. Richard Durbin in 2002. Ryan opted not to make that run.
The divorce file issue first surfaced for Ryan during the March primary campaign as an outgrowth of a flap that sank the once front-running campaign in the Democratic Senate primary of millionaire Blair Hull. Under pressure, Hull released sealed divorce files which showed one of his ex-wives had accused him of abusive behavior.
Unlike Hull, Ryan refused to release his files, assuring state party officials that there was nothing embarrassing in them and to do so would only hurt his 9-year-old son.
As he exited the race Friday, Ryan singled out the Tribune for criticism because it went to court to force release of the custody files.
"The media has gotten out of control," Ryan complained. "The fact that the Chicago Tribune sues for access to sealed custody documents and then takes unto itself the right to publish details of a custody dispute over the objections of two parents who agree that the re-airing of their arguments will hurt their ability to co-parent their child and will hurt their child is truly outrageous."
Conservative backers, including Fitzgerald, were dismayed by Ryan's announcement. Fitzgerald lashed out at the state Republican leadership for abandoning Ryan. "The piranhas were circling," he said. "It was not the Democrats; it was the Illinois party brass."
But the state's Republican national committeeman, Robert Kjellander, said Ryan's departure frees the party to try to focus on election issues--and Obama's record.
"Yes, it's certainly a setback," Kjellander said. "But it's not one that's fatal and both the Senate campaign committee and the president's campaign see Illinois as an opportunity and we're going to move ahead."Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun