Saturday, August 16, 2014

Race of the Day- Illinois U.S. Senate

80 Days Until Election Day

Status: Democrat Incumbent
2012 Presidential Result: Blue State (Midwest)

Outlook: Safe Democrat

Recent polls from here in Illinois have shown a surprisingly closer contest for U.S. Senate that might have been expected. Some have even shown the veteran incumbent Democrat Dick Durbin leading his GOP opponent by just single digits. I wish I could say that an upset could be brewing in the Prairie State. Honesty compels me to say that it is just not going to happen. That is not to say that this does not still have the potential to be an interesting race and that I will not enthusiastically vote for and do whatever I can in terms of encouraging others in Illinois to vote for the Republican nominee, despite the fact that the nominee is someone I have not been quite fond politically of over the past decade.

Durbin, first elected to the Senate in 1996, is the number two person in what is now a majority caucus for the Democrats. Extremely glib and with a penchant for cutting partisan soundbites, usually delivered in a low-key sorrowful fashion, he is one of the ultimate Capitol Hill players. Durbin has also become pretty much entrenched in Democrat friendly Illinois, but his reputation at home has never been one of extreme popularity. However, with all the dysfunction in state government and Governors being sent to prison, the longer Durbin has endured, the more respected he has looked in comparison. Still though, his initial election and subsequent two reelection efforts occurred against opponents who were either considered too ideologically conservative for the state, or against those who simply had no money or name recognition to seriously challenge him.

Leading up to 2014, many wondered if Durbin would step aside after so many decades in both the House and Senate. He choose to hang around though, as politics has pretty much been his only occupation and he still envisions himself as Senate Majority Leader one day. With Durbin seeking reelection, this ended any realistic hopes of Republicans competing for the seat. Some of the more promising names in the Illinois GOP decided to seek reelection or comeback attempts to Congressional seats, when they might have otherwise been inclined to run for an open Senate opportunity. Republicans were somewhat relieved when recently defeated freshman Congressman Joe Walsh, a bombastic Tea Party favorite, decided to work in talk radio rather than mount a statewide effort for Governor or Senate. There was a feeling that he is such a lighting rod, he could make headlines that would harm other candidates on the ballot.

For months, it looked like Durbin would be facing off against a political rookie in businessman Doug Truax. The young Republican did not have much name recognition and was not raising much money but he seemed to be the kind of promising first time candidate who could do well for himself and maybe set himself up for future political endeavors. Then, in what came as a surprise State Senator Jim Oberweis announced he was thinking about running. Establishment Republican types were very concerned, since Oberweis had the kind of name recognition that could win a low profile Senate primary and because like Walsh, he also had the potential to be used as an albatross around the necks of other Republicans in the state.

A financial executive and part of a very well-known family dairy operation and ice cream store chain, Oberweis first ran for office for the right to oppose Durbin in 2002. In that race, he positioned himself as a reasonably moderate Republican who would be the most electable candidate in the field. That was the last time I voted for him. In 2004, he tried for the Senate again, having moved very much to the right, and ran a controversial anti illegal immigration television ad that greatly angered Hispanics in the state. After having lost two consecutive Senate primaries, Oberweis ran for Governor in 2006 as a staunch conservative and lost another statewide primary.

Next, he set his sights lower and began running for Congress in what had been a reliably Republican district. Emerging from a brutal GOP primary as the victor, he then lost a special election to a Democrat in a race a Republican should have won, and in the November 2008 rematch, lost overwhelmingly. The name Oberweis had become synonymous with political defeat in Illinois, but he refused to give up. Continuing to spend large sums of his personal money, he moved a step down once again and in 2012, won a strongly Republican district for State Senate.

One might think that after having finally won elective office in so many tries, Oberweis would be content to take a victory lap and enjoy the title of being a freshman State Senator. The lure of another statewide campaign just proved to be too much though and Oberweis entered the contest to face Durbin for this cycle. By running this year, he is not risking his current State Senate position.

Oberweis refused to debate Truax and stayed mostly under the radar during the primary campaign as most Republicans in the state were focused instead on the crowded race for Governor. Nonetheless, his financial advantage and overwhelming edge in name recognition (though not all of it positive) from both the popular Obeweis ice cream stores and his previous runs made him a strong favorite to win the nomination. The weekend before the campaign, Oberweis was in Florida, instead of campaigning in Illinois. He said it was to spend time with his wife for her birthday, as his wife mostly resides and votes in Florida, and that he was not going to make the same mistakes in regards to spending time with a spouse that had cost him a first marriage during his previous campaigns. He received some bad publicity for that and while he would win the March Republican primary, the 56 percent total he received was likely a good deal less than many expected. Truax would go on to graciously endorse his former opponent and offer to do whatever he could to help him in the general election, and at least one prominent staffer went over to the Oberweis campaign to work. Perhaps, Truax will be someone to be heard from again.

There was also an instance in which Illinois's moderate Republican U.S. Senator Mark Kirk said that he would vote for Oberweis, but would not campaign for him, out of some personal loyalty to Durbin, who had generously assisted Kirk's staff when the Republican was absent for close to a year after suffering a massive stroke. There might have also been an implicit deal involved in which Durbin pledged not to get too involved in trying to beat Kirk in the next election. For his part, Oberweis issued a statement that seemed quite magnanimous and Kirk has since somewhat gone back and forth as to how much he might be willing to do for Oberweis. Many speculate that it might be a good thing Oberweis is running this year, as he will be less willing to try to challenge Kirk on the right in a 2016 GOP primary.

While Oberweis has his fans among Illinois conservatives, many others continued to worry that his demonstrated lack of political skills would hurt him and other candidates running in Illinois. The fact that he a millionaire running on the ticket with Bruce Rauner, the multi-millionaire Gubernatorial nominee gave Durbin and other Democrats in the state a talking point as they continue to try to press the buttons of economic populism and raising the minimum wage.

For the most part, Oberweis is not getting a lot of attention in the general election and is not getting too much media attention. Since the primary though, many have remarked that Oberweis seems like a much improved politician and that he has been running a better campaign than expected. Nobody really expects him to win at this point, but there is far less grumbling that he is going to hurt Rauner or other Republicans on the ballot. From time to time, Oberweis will still say things on the campaign trail that come across as corny or politically tone deaf, such as his speech this past week at the Illinois State Fair, but it is definitely fair to say that he is overall far improved as a candidate. He has scored some points against Durbin and even managed to snag the endorsement of a somewhat well known minister in the Chicago African-American community. The longer the campaign goes on though, I will continue to hope that Oberweis is careful in what he says. In some ways, flying under the radar may be best for all involved.

Durbin is quite disliked by activist Republicans in the state who would like nothing better than to defeat him and the anti-incumbent mood this year in Illinois, including the immense unpopularity of reelection seeking Governor Pat Quinn is likely having the effect of hurting Dubin's overall political standing. If Oberweis comes reasonably close, consistent with what current polling data is showing, it is a moral victory for him and Illinois Republicans. Some around the country may look at those polls and think that a really massive wave could leave Durbin as a shock loser. I wish I could see that happening, but I do not. Durbin will probably still win by at least 15 points, but I will certainly vote for Jim Oberweis as the person others in my party decided to put forth in the noble effort to end Dick Durbin's political career.

Oberweis campaign link:

Senate races predicted thus far: 4 D (3 Safe, 1 Tossup), 5 R (2 Safe, 2 Leans, 1 Tossup)
Overall predicted thus far: 38 D, 35 R (net Republican gain of 2)


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