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Illinois Senate Primary Conjures Up Memories of 1992

Senate Democrats could have a troublesome case of déjà vu on their hands in Illinois, where three Democrats are running for President Barack Obama’s (D-Ill.) former Senate seat.

Although state Treasurer Alexi Giannoulias is still considered the frontrunner in the February primary, the official entrance of Chicago Urban League President Cheryle Jackson and former Chicago Inspector General David Hoffman last week ensures a competitive primary for Democrats.

The race also has striking similarities to the 1992 Democratic primary for the same Senate seat. In that race, Carol Moseley Braun came from behind to defeat then-Sen. Alan Dixon with 38 percent of the vote. A third Democrat, Al Hofeld, ran millions of dollars in negative advertisements against Dixon that backfired and helped to grease the way for Braun’s victory.

Like Braun, Jackson starts out with a base in the black community and as an underdog in the race. But a recent endorsement from EMILY’s List and Hoffman’s entrance into the race could make her campaign even more competitive.

The two elections are not completely similar: Braun was well-known in Chicago as a Cook County elected official before she ran for Senate, whereas Jackson has never held elected office. And also unlike the 1992 scenario, incumbent Sen. Roland Burris (D) is not running for re-election.

Nonetheless, the three-way primary changes the numbers game for all of the candidates because a Democrat does not need 50 percent of the vote to win in February.

And as the only black candidate in the race, Jackson starts out with a solid base in Chicago because black voters make up about a quarter of the Democratic primary electorate in Illinois. What’s more, a hotly contested race for Cook County Board president could bring out a larger-than-expected turnout among black voters.

“The African-American community is where she starts out,— Chicago Democratic consultant Kitty Kurth said. “That’s her natural base. She’s been very visible as head of the Urban League, but most other people know her from her role in the Blagojevich administration.—

Jackson served as now-disgraced former Gov. Rod Blagojevich’s (D) senior spokeswoman during his first term. While she said she left the job because she had ethical concerns about the administration, her opponents said her tenure could become the defining characteristic of her campaign.

“I turned the page on that over three years ago,— Jackson said in an interview. “I left before the end of the first term. And there’s a reason why I left in the first term. I was increasingly uncomfortable with the direction that the administration was moving in and the decisions that were being made that put politics over people.—

Jackson will also have to prove her mettle by Sept. 30, when candidates must close the books on their third-quarter fundraising. Jackson would not say how much she estimates that her campaign will cost or disclose how much she has raised so far.

“We’re going to raise the amount that we need to get the message out. I’m not independently wealthy. I don’t own a bank. I don’t come from privilege,— Jackson said, referring indirectly to her two primary opponents.

The EMILY’s List endorsement, however, is a sign that she is on the path to fundraising success. The group sets standards to endorse a campaign, and candidates must prove their ability to fundraise and run a political operation before they get EMILY’s List backing.

“Cheryle Jackson is a dynamic candidate who we think has what it takes to win this race,— EMILY’s List Political Director Jonathan Parker said. “Just like before we make an endorsement of any candidate, we looked at a lot of different factors and we feel like she’s a strong candidate.—

But even with the backing of national groups, most Illinois and national political observers still see Giannoulias as the frontrunner for the nomination.

“Not only is Alexi the default frontrunner, but he’s actually earned it,— one Democratic consultant said.

The consultant noted that Giannoulias has run a strong campaign despite the distractions of the past year. The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee has not announced its support for any of the candidates in the primary but actively talked to other candidates about running for the seat after Giannoulias announced his campaign.

“He has not blinked during the entire process,— the consultant said. “He’s continued to do a good job, too, as the DSCC and others were continuing to look for a so-called perfect candidate.—

Giannoulias picked up several important endorsements over the summer, and the Service Employees International Union is expected to formally back him later this week. The 33-year-old Democrat also attended the AFL-CIO convention in Pittsburgh last week, and he boasts endorsements from three Democrats in the Illinois delegation.

“I don’t think we ever expected to have a free pass, and I think it remains to be seen whether they’re going to be able to mount serious campaigns,— said Giannoulias media consultant Eric Adelstein, referring to the primary opponents.

Adelstein added that given the “very short primary,— it’s difficult for candidates who “don’t start out with much institutional support or name recognition.—

A third candidate, Hoffman, entered the race last week, but it’s unclear whether he will have the resources or campaign infrastructure to be competitive. Hoffman has personal wealth that he can put into his own bid, but his campaign manager, Michael Powell, would not disclose what amount he might be willing to spend.

Powell said his candidate, as a former city official, can run on his record of fighting corruption in the general election, where the Democratic nominee is likely to face Rep. Mark Kirk (R).

“If either Alexi or Cheryle are the nominee, [Kirk will] be able to run the kind of race he wants to. If David is elected in the primary, the corruption issue will be off the table and … Kirk will not fare well in that campaign.—

Meanwhile, Kirk has his own set of primary problems. Several little-known Republicans have announced their candidacies, plus the Congressman has caught flak back home for his moderate voting record in Congress, including his vote in favor of recent climate legislation that passed the House this summer.

But for the most part, national Republicans appear to be salivating over the prospect of watching Democrats duke it out in what could be a nasty and expensive fight for the president’s former Senate seat.

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