In most election seasons, the Illinois Senate race would already rest comfortably in the "safe" column for Democrats. History concurs: The state has sent just one Republican to the Senate in the past 30 years and, even then, for just a single term.
But President Barack Obama’s trip to Chicago Thursday to help raise campaign cash for Alexi Giannoulias, the Democrat seeking to keep the seat in their column, signals the level of concern for the party less than a month before the midterm elections.
Giannoulias, the state treasurer, and Republican Mark Kirk, who represents a House district in the suburbs north of Chicago, will face each other in a debate on NBC’s Meet the Press Sunday.
"I play basketball with him, and I have still some sore ribs to prove it. He’s a competitor," Obama said of Giannoulias at Thursday night's fundraiser in Chicago. "And we've seen that in this campaign. He just keeps on plowing ahead because he knows that he wants to serve. In some very tough circumstances, in a tough political season, he has not wavered."
Denouncing money being spent by conservative groups such as Crossroads GPS on anti-Giannoulias ads, Obama said, "Are you going to let special interests from Wall Street and Washington and maybe places beyond our shores come to this state and tell us who our senator should be?"
Obama’s two fundraisers in Chicago Thursday were expected to raise more than $750,000, half for Giannoulias, half for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.
'Protect Obama's seat'
Democrats have a proprietary interest in the Illinois seat since Obama had it for four years before winning the White House. “Protect Obama's Seat,” is the message you get when searching for the Giannoulias web site.
The contest has focused largely on the integrity of the two major candidates.
Republicans attack Giannoulias for his work as a loan officer for his family’s Broadway Bank which failed in April.
A Kirk TV ad charged that Giannoulias “made tens of millions in risky loans to convicted mobsters,” including a man named Michael Giorango, who had been convicted of promoting prostitution.
In its analysis of the ad, the nonpartisan FactCheck.org web site said it “goes too far in saying that Giannoulias ‘made’ loans to ‘convicted mobsters.’ There’s no proof that he ‘made’ the loans to Giorango, the only one of the three men pictured (in the TV ad) who had been convicted at the time he borrowed money from Broadway.”
“To be accurate, Kirk should have said only that his opponent worked at a family bank that made loans to criminals and their business ventures, and that he had a role in servicing some of the loans,” FactCheck.org said.
For his part, Kirk, a Navy Reserve officer, has been damaged by embellishing his military record, for example by claiming he had received an “Intelligence Officer of the Year” award. He admitted his error but said, “I will not let my 21 years of service in uniform be denigrated by Alexi Giannoulias, a man who chose not to serve.”
The merciless barrage continued this week between the two men, with Giannoulias airing a new ad that calls Kirk a liar and, flashing a photo of former President Bush with his arm around Kirk, says, “Kirk helped George Bush wreck the economy.”
Polling shows both candidates with high unfavorability ratings — hardly surprising given the unrelenting attack ads. Surveys in recent weeks show a statistical dead heat.
In such a tight race, it may be worth keeping an eye on Green Party candidate LeAlan Jones, who draws support of 8 percent in some surveys. Jones, a radio documentary journalist who has struggled to get news media attention, is the only African-American candidate in the race. And, there is a Libertarian candidate, Mike Labno.
The Illinois Senate seat is also special because it’s the one that, after Obama won the presidency, former Gov. Rod Blagojevich allegedly tried to barter, in return for political favors.
Blagojevich was convicted of lying to federal agents during the investigation of the appointment. A jury couldn’t reach a verdict on other charges in the Blagojevich case; he faces a new trial next year.
Only GOP senator in past 30 years
The scenario of a Democratic candidate plagued by questions about ethics being challenged by a Republican who capitalizes on his strength in the Chicago suburbs is a familiar one.
It was, in fact, the story of the 1998 Illinois Senate race — the only time a Republican has won a Senate seat in the state in the past 30 years — when Peter Fitzgerald beat Democratic Sen. Carol Moseley Braun.
Chicago Mayor Richard Daley assailed Moseley Braun for her trip to Nigeria where she conferred with despot Gen. Sani Abacha. "She has to explain this to the American public and the people of Illinois," Daley said.
As with Obama flying to Chicago to help Giannoulias, President Bill Clinton flew to Chicago in 1998 to raise $500,000 for Moseley Braun’s campaign.
Then First Lady Hillary Clinton went to Illinois three times in the run up to the election to boost Moseley Braun. Likewise First Lady Michelle Obama will host a Giannoulias fundraiser next week in Chicago.
How Fitzgerald won it
How did Fitzgerald win in 1998? And how could Kirk repeat his feat this year?
Moseley Braun had to rely largely on Democrats’ traditional strength in Cook County, where she got 54 percent of all the votes she won in the state.
She beat Fitzgerald by a 394,000-vote margin in Cook County, but it wasn’t enough: she lost statewide by 98,000.
Outside Cook County, Fitzgerald got 62 percent of the Illinois vote. In the suburban “collar” counties flanking Chicago, he demolished Moseley Braun, outperforming the normal Republican vote share by five to ten percentage points.
Fitzgerald also over-performed in Cook County, compared to some other Republican candidates. In the 2004 election, for instance, Bush could manage to get only 29 percent in Cook County, but Fitzgerald won 35 percent there.
Normally for a GOP candidate in an Illinois Senate race, “you walk out of Chicago and you’re down some 600,000 votes. You’ve got to make that up some place else,” said Mike Cys, who managed Fitzgerald’s 1998 campaign. “The Chicago machine under Daley has come back into form like it was in the heyday under his dad. Any Republican has trouble there. We were losing some of those Southside (Chicago) precincts literally 99 to 1.”
So, for a Republican, “you have to rack up 15 to 20 percentage-point margins in the ‘collars’ and the rest of the state.”
Republicans expect their gubernatorial candidate state Sen. Bill Brady to do exceedingly well downstate, partly because he is from Bloomington, a city in central Illinois. “The challenge for Kirk is he’s got to be able to match those numbers downstate,” Cys said.
Illinois will be voting in two elections on Nov. 2, one to choose a senator for a new six-year Senate term, the other to serve the remaining eight weeks of the current term.