Thursday, August 06, 2020

Race of the Day- Illinois U.S. Senate

Illinois U.S. Senate

89 Days Until Election Day

Status: Democrat Incumbent
2016 Presidential Result: Blue State (Midwest)

Outlook: Safe Democrat

The ultimate verdict of the Senate race in Illinois is not really in any doubt. After all, the Land of Lincoln has established itself as one of the top states for Democrats in the nation. There is an unknown and potentially interesting aspect to the race though which may affect the final margin.

Democrat Dick Durbin has served in Congress since 1982 and has held this Senate seat since 1997. The Downstate native has been one of the rare Democrats in recent cycles to win statewide that does not live in the City of Chicago. Tons of ambitious party members have been waiting for him to retire, but like many other political luminaries in the state has not chosen to step aside voluntarily. In the Senate, with his dreams of being party Leader now gone, he seems content to serve as the number two Democrat. He has also served as a booster at home and on the national scene for the careers of junior colleagues such as Barack Obama and Tammy Duckworth. While not exactly a beloved figure in Illinois, Durbin has been respected for his constituent service and has not exactly faced top tier competition for reelection. Even in the strongly GOP year of 2014, he won by more than 10 points, which was his closest call yet.

Gentlemanly in his manner, Durbin is both a fierce partisan on Capitol Hill and a staunch liberal. Republicans in the state have long hoped to knock him off but this seems like it will be much tougher this cycle than it theoretically would have been six years ago. Durbin was unopposed for his party's nomination, after a recently elected liberal freshman State Representative abandoned her challenge. With no top tier Republican stepping up, the GOP primary was held between five candidates with little statewide profile. The race was virtually invisible on the airwaves. For the first time, I do not remember a single primary television ad for any of the candidates. What stood out to me, is that even in this state, where Donald Trump is very unpopular, and even many Republicans have pointed out their opposition, all of the candidates went out of their way to appeal to the Trump base. Clearly, they viewed that as the path to the nomination, even if it would hurt their chances for a general election. They attacked their opponent in press releases and in direct mail pieces for being insufficiently loyal to Trump or even daring to oppose him in the 2016 primaries.

Nobody really knew what to expect when Primary Day came in March, at the outset of the Coronavirus outbreak. As it turned out, the result was not all that close at the end as the winner received about 42 percent of the vote in a six way field. A Downstate based surgeon who tried to appeal to Trump voters came in fourth place with 15 percent of the vote, not far behind another physician and political gadfly from suburban Chicago who had frequently run for office, including Governor in 2018 as a Democrat. The runner up with 23 percent of the vote was a Downstate African-American female conservative activist and former police officer. She had gotten into some controversy when she claimed and then denied bringing a loaded gun into a candidate forum held at a High School.

The GOP nominee also has a history in law enforcement after starting off as a prosecutor. In 2006, Mark Curran was elected Sheriff of Lake County, a traditionally Republican area just north of Cook County. He made news by being elected as a Democrat however, ousting the incumbent. Leaning somewhat to the right and being mindful of local politics, he shifted to the GOP in 2008 and would be reelected as a Republican until 2018, when he was narrowly defeated. By this time, Democrats had gained considerably in Lake County and across formerly Republican suburbs. At the time, Curran expressed his frustration of being put out of office by anti-Trump sentiment and stated that Trump was "horrible" for the Republican brand. Previously as Sheriff, he had taken a pro-immigration position much at odds with Trump, citing his Catholic faith.

Immediately after losing his post as Sheriff, Curran said he would run for the U.S. Senate and many thought he would do so as an establishment moderate Republican type. Instead, as the primary got closer, Curran came to play up his support for Trump and denied ever opposing him. Even after the primary, Curran, while failing to make much news at all, has taken some hard right positions. He seems to understand that those who strongly back Trump are pretty much his only base at this point. He was one of the rare people in politics to offer somewhat negative comments about Congressman John Lewis after his death, and not long after that, Tweeted and then took down a post in which he complained about the loss of his son's High School football season due to the virus (the sport has actually been moved to the Spring instead of Fall for now), saying that "death will eventually come for all of us."

I have never not voted for a Republican Senate nominee in my state, (including some pretty bad ones) but I have decided that I have no reason to vote for Curran. I am not going to vote for Durbin either. To say the least, I have never been a fan.

In a traditional two party contest, I think Durbin would probably beat Curran by about 25 points. However, there is also now the Independent candidacy of Willie Wilson to consider. There are challenges being made to Wilson's petition signatures (similar to those also being made in Illinois against native son and alleged Presidential candidate Kanye West) so it is not a done deal that this candidate will appear on the ballot, but if he does, it might be a major part of the story.

Wilson has lived an interesting and fairly inspiring life. The grandson of a slave, born in abject southern poverty and never going beyond a 7th grade education, he came to Chicago as a teenager, started working at a McDonald's, and now owns many McDonald's franchises as a self-made multi millionaire. He has made additional money in other diverse business interests and insists on being referred to as "Doctor" based on an honorary degree he received. While he is not much of a singer (and can be very difficult to even understand speaking at times) he has sang on and hosted a nationally syndicated gospel music television show.

While a lifelong Democrat, Wilson did not run for office in 2015 when he decided to challenge Mayor Rahm Emanuel in Chicago. While finishing third in the five person field, and not making it to the runoff, he did win many African-American wards. His endorsement was highly sought for the runoff, and he endorsed the Latino opponent of Emanuel, but the Mayor was reelected.

Wilson mounted a quixotic attempt to enter the 2016 Democrat Presidential primary, but failed to make any debates and few even knew he was running. In 2019, with a higher political profile in Chicago, he ran again for the now open post as Mayor. Interestingly enough, some of the city's scant Republican activists endorsed him. Despite being a Democrat, Wilson said he had supported the campaigns of now former Illinois Governor Bruce Rauner and Donald Trump. I guess wealthy businessmen and political outsiders feel a sense of kinship. Wilson also made headlines by literally handing out cash on the street. Some thought this would be illegal for a political candidate to do, but he claimed it had nothing to do with his campaign and that he regularly gives money to people in need. This time, in a much more crowded field, he would again receive about the identical amount of 11 percent, enough to finish fourth. Having done very well once again in many African-American wards, his endorsement was again considered important, even among two black runoff opponents, and this time he backed the winner, although the race was a blowout by that point in favor of Lori Lightfoot.

Now, Wilson has embarked on an Independent campaign for U.S. Senate and has directly targeted Durbin and the notion that African-Americans need to stop being so monolithic in support of Democrats. There is the possibility that Wilson could spend millions of dollars of his own money on this race (perhaps in direct cash payment to voters) and some think he could cost Durbin a significant chunk of African-American support in Chicago, similar to all the discussion about how Kanye West, a one time Trump supporter could hurt Joe Biden with the black vote. Others have speculated that a more high profile Wilson may even surpass Curran for second place statewide, but I do not see that happening. I do think a lot of pro-Trump voters though might very well vote for Wilson over Curran.

Time will tell just how much money Wilson might be prepared to spend on this race and if he will go after Durbin, especially on racial issues. There is perhaps a small chance that Wilson could get double digits if he is on the ballot, but in this cycle, that is not going to do much to hurt Durbin, besides potentially bring his margin down.

U.S. Senate races predicted thus far:

4 D (2 Safe, 2 Lean) 
6 R (2 Safe, 1 Likely, 2 Lean, 1 Tossup)

Total with predictions thus far:

39 Democrats (35 holdovers, 2 Safe, 2 Lean)
36 Republicans (30 holdovers, 2 Safe, 1 Likely, 2 Lean, 1 Tossup)


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