The Illinois Republican surprised many Tuesday when he said he would not run for re-election next year. Others saw his decision as confirmation of the political adage "you've got to have friends."
The 42-year-old millionaire heir to a Bank of Montreal fortune was a maverick who went his own way, much to the consternation of the GOP establishment. He angered party leaders, including House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert and former Illinois Gov. George Ryan.
His icy relationship with Hastert was apparent in the speaker's statement regarding Fitzgerald's announcement. "I respect Sen. Fitzgerald's decision not to seek another term in office, and thank him for providing time for other Republicans to consider their options," Hastert said.
A source told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch the White House had already contacted former two-term governor Jim Edgar about running to succeed Fitzgerald.
With a slim 51- to 48-seat majority in the Senate hanging in the balance, President George W. Bush will want an establishment Republican as the state's GOP Senate nominee. Edgar declined to run for a third term as governor but indicated he would consider a Senate bid.
Edgar, who has a history of heart disease, said it was not true his wife, Brenda, was against it. He is currently an instructor and lecturer at the University of Illinois.
Other names mentioned for the primary include former Illinois Attorney General Jim Ryan, 57, who lost to Democratic Gov. Rod Blagojevich in November; former Lt. Gov. Corinne Wood 48; former state Sen. Patrick O'Malley, 52, and Illinois Treasurer Judy Baar Topinka, the only Republican holding statewide office.
The ebullient Topinka, 59, a former newspaper reporter popular with statehouse Democrats, is the state GOP chairwoman. A spokesman said she was busy trying to hold the party together but hasn't ruled out a Senate run.
"We are fortunate in Illinois to have so many qualified individuals who would make a strong Republican candidate," said Topinka. "I am dedicated, as party chairman, to ensuring Republicans hold on to this seat."
Topinka has talked to White House senior political adviser Karl Rove -- who ran Fitzgerald's direct mail drive in the 1998 campaign -- about finding the best and strongest candidate available.
Bush badly lost the swing state to Al Gore in the 2000 presidential election and Republicans lost more ground in the mid-term elections.
Fitzgerald spent a state record $13 million of his own money in his first Senate race, defeating Sen. Carol Moseley Braun, the first black woman to be a U.S. senator. He said he debated a second term back and forth before concluding "the cost of this race would come at too high a price, and I don't mean money.
"I would have to forfeit the last two years of my Senate term and forfeit being the kind of dad my 10-year-old boy Jake needs," he said.
Fund-raising was not the problem, although Fitzgerald had alienated the Chicago business community by opposing expansion of O'Hare International Airport. He said he was prepared to spend $10 million of his own money on the campaign and even the White House expected him to be re-elected despite soft poll numbers.
The problem for Fitzgerald was that while voters might love an independent incumbent crusading against corruption and cronyism, his fellow Republicans value loyalty even more.
Fitzgerald had publicly called for former Gov. Ryan not to seek re-election last year because of a licenses-for-bribes scandal when Ryan was Illinois secretary of state. He also bumped heads with Ryan and Hastert by demanding that funding for the new Lincoln Library in Springfield be subject to federal contracting rules.
Fitzgerald was conservative on abortion but supported tougher gun control laws and voted against Bush administration efforts to clear the way for oil drilling in Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. He had few friends among his Senate colleagues.
The incumbent's decision to sit the next election out boosts the prospects of Democrat Barack Obama, a black state senator who has raised more than a half million in campaign funds in two months.
Obama hopes to energize his strong African-American base and appeal to progressive whites and Hispanics to re-create the coalition that elected Moseley Braun to the Senate in 1992.
Obama told the Chicago Defender his main goal is to meet voters.
You've got to have friends.