Barack Obama’s easy win in the 2004 Illinois Senate race catapulted him to national fame and set him on his current path toward the White House. It was a convincing victory that is now but a footnote in the career of the Democratic presidential nominee. But that victory wasn’t as assured as it appears in retrospect. For a few days in the summer of ’04 there was the very real possibility that the Republican opponent in Obama’s first major election battle race would be Chicago Bears coaching legend Mike Ditka.
Jack Ryan had won the Republican primary that year, but dropped out of the race after the release of embarrassing papers from his high-profile divorce with actress Jeri Ryan. The vacancy left GOP leaders in the state scrambling to find a replacement. With fears that the election was all but lost, Republicans wanted a major name to turn the tide. Ditka was that name.
For days the press played up the “will he or won’t he” stories about Ditka’s possible candidacy. The Drudge Report even said that Ditka would declare his entry into the race. But, in the end, Ditka rebuffed the offer, saying he didn’t want to go through the rigors of a campaign or give up his lucrative jobs as an NFL analyst at ESPN or as an endorser of a casino and car dealership.
There’s no way to know whether Ditka would have won but, remember, Obama was still a virtual unknown in Illinois in June of ’04. Had Ditka run and won, Obama most-assuredly wouldn’t be running for president today. Either way, the Hall of Famer almost certainly would have received more than the 27% of votes that eventual nominee Alan Keyes garnered in November. And you know he’d have locked up the endorsements of many potential voters.