In the spring of 2004, Illinois‘ senatorial race was heating up. According to the New York Times, Republican Jack Ryan beat out his party’s other candidates in the primaries. He was facing tough competition from the Democratic candidate, a state senator and former civil rights lawyer named Barack Obama.
During the primaries, candidates on both sides came under fire for their conduct in personal relationships. Democrat Blair Hull, who challenged Obama in the primary, dropped out of the race after reports surfaced claiming that he had physically abused his wife. Ryan faced scrutiny over the details of his contentious divorce from actress Jeri Ryan, best known for her role as Seven of Nine on Star Trek: Voyager.
In June of 2004, the race for the senate seat imploded when the Chicago Tribune won a lawsuit to have the court records from the Ryans’ divorce unsealed. The contents of those records led Ryan to drop out of the race, clearing the way for Obama’s win, which arguably, paved the way for his presidency.
Here’s everything you need to know.
The Sex Scandal That Ruined Ryan’s Campaign
According to the court documents from their divorce proceedings, Jeri and Jack Ryan were married on June 15, 1991. They stayed together for over seven years before they separated in November of 1998. Their divorce was finalized in August of the next year. The record released as a result of The Chicago Tribune’s lawsuit pertained to the custody battle over their son, Alex.
In those records, Jeri Ryan claimed that on three separate occasions, her husband had brought her to sex clubs and asked her to perform sexual acts in front of an audience. All three times this occurred, Ryan refused. She claimed that when she became upset about being taken to the clubs, her husband derided her and humiliated her.
Ryan alleged in the documents that the first time her husband brought her to one of these clubs, she was horrified and made him promise that he wouldn’t go to them again or take her ever again. She said he agreed. However, during a trip to Paris sometime later, which was supposed to be a “romantic getaway,” her husband lied to her about where they were going and took her to another BDSM-style sex club.
Ryan did not detail the third time that her husband took her to one of these clubs. She simply said that it happened while they were on a trip to New Orleans.
After the Paris incident, Ryan told her husband that their marriage had been damaged, maybe irrevocably, by his actions.
When The Chicago Tribune published the allegations in the court documents, Jack Ryan’s campaign went on the defensive. He denied the allegations and accused his wife of having an affair. Though he tried to stay in the race, he dropped out just a few days later, according to CNN. When he withdrew, he blamed “brutal, scorched-earth campaign” tactics, saying that “a vigorous debate on the issues most likely could not take place if I remain in the race.”
Though Republicans tried to find a suitable replacement for Ryan, according to The Chicago Tribune, they didn’t succeed. Obama easily won the seat. Four years later, he won the presidency.
Did Ryan’s Divorce Have a ‘Star Trek’ Connection?
In the aftermath of the release of their divorce papers, Jack Ryan publicly accused his wife of having an affair and keeping it from him. The alleged affair was also mentioned in the papers filed for their custody lawsuit, in which Jeri Ryan insisted that their marriage did not end because she had been unfaithful to her husband.
However, earlier in the document, Ryan did admit that she’d fallen in love with another man. Although, she clarified that she told her husband about this other man after they’d already separated in 1998. Through the end of 1998, Ryan and her husband continued to discuss reconciliation, but Ryan eventually decided that their relationship was unsalvagable. She claimed that by the spring of 1999, they were no longer talking about getting back together.
Ryan has never named the man she fell in love with while she and her husband were separated. However, shortly after their divorce, Ryan and Voyager producer Brannon Braga went public with their relationship, cozying up together at red carpet events. Ryan started working on Voyager in 1997 and would have worked closely with Braga from the start,
Of course, this is pure speculation. Ryan has not formally clarified when her relationship with Braga began. Heavy has reached out to Ryan’s rep for comment.
If the court records from Ryan’s divorce hadn’t been released, the 2004 Illinois Senate race might have gone very differently. That race was a key turning point for Obama, who gained the attention of the Democratic elite during the campaign, as Chicago Magazine reported. Because the seat was crucial to Democratic control of the Senate, Obama was chosen for the keynote speech at the Democratic National Convention that year. That speech rocketed him from a no-name to a household name, paving the way for his 2008 presidential run.
So, Ryan’s divorce did, in fact, play a part in propelling Obama’s political career to heights it hadn’t reached before.