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Illinois Race Presents Peril for Durbin

Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D) has his hands full back home as he attempts to steer Illinois Treasurer Alexi Giannoulias (D) to victory in the unexpectedly competitive race for President Barack Obama’s old Senate seat. The outcome of that election could determine Durbin’s fate in any contest for Majority Leader.

The issue becomes moot if Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) rebounds to win re-election. But a Reid loss combined with a bad November overall for the Democratic Party could leave Senate Democrats looking for a tough political operator to fill the Majority Leader post. This atmosphere could favor Durbin’s main rival, Conference Vice Chairman Charles Schumer (N.Y.), particularly if the flawed Giannoulias loses.

In reality, Durbin might be powerless to save Giannoulias, a banker by trade who was tarred with the hint of scandal even before his family’s Broadway Bank went under last month. Durbin recently appealed to the White House to do more to help Giannoulias, and on Capitol Hill, where perception can trump the facts, a Giannoulias loss could push Democrats to Schumer.

Schumer is credited with engineering 14 Senate pickups in 2006 and 2008 as chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and clearing this year’s New York Democratic primary for appointed Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand.

Interviews with Democratic strategists, former Democratic Senate staffers and one former Senator who served as DSCC chairman yielded mixed opinions regarding the fallout that a Giannoulias loss to Rep. Mark Kirk (R) would create for Durbin’s leadership aspirations. But several said it could be a negative.

“I do buy into the notion that if Schumer saves the New York seat with Gillibrand and Durbin loses the Illinois seat that Schumer will have a leg up. Schumer, between the DSCC stints and saving New York, can say that he knows how to produce and protect his colleagues,” said one K Street Democrat and former Senate aide. “But I still think there is an overarching problem for Schumer: If you’re a Senator up for re-election in 2012 or 2014, who do you want to see representing you on ‘Meet The Press’ every week? I can’t help but think that falls to Durbin.”

“Who sells better to independent or swing voters?” this Democratic operative continued. “A brash New Yorker or a reserved Midwesterner? I think Durbin presents a better image.”

But one Democratic strategist countered that Schumer has more chits to call in, having had a direct hand in electing about one-quarter of the Democratic Conference. This strategist said Schumer is likely to be perceived as the best choice in the wake of an electoral catastrophe this fall, particularly given that the 2012 Senate election map heavily favors Republicans.

“You’ve got a lot of Members of the Senate that feel they owe their election and majority to Schumer. At the same time, if they feel like they took a drubbing in 2010, do they want a wartime Majority Leader?” the Democratic strategist said. “Schumer is considered more of a political battler.”

Former Sen. Bob Kerrey (Neb.), the DSCC chairman during the cycle immediately following the GOP wave of 1994, said electoral politics, including the looming 2012 presidential contest, could influence intra-Conference politics and leadership races. But Kerrey said predicting how the 2010 midterm elections might color Senate Democratic leadership contests is difficult.

He indicated that a tough Election Day could play well for Schumer but conversely suggested that Democratic Senators would be hard-pressed to blame Durbin for Giannoulias’ failings, considering the problems that the Illinois Democratic Party has endured over the past year, beginning with the impeachment and removal from office of former Gov. Rod Blagojevich.

Kerrey said that both Durbin and Schumer are considered capable by their colleagues and that each comes from a reliably Democratic state. This could be an issue given Reid’s predicament and the 2004 ouster of former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.). Above all, Kerrey said Democrats are concerned about Reid and are even pondering whether their majority will hold.

“It’s going to be very tough. All kinds of things could affect who is elected Majority Leader or Minority Leader,” Kerrey said.

Illinois over the past decade has solidified as a Democratic state. The Democrats control both Senate seats, the governor’s mansion and all other state constitutional offices, as well as the Legislature. But Blagojevich’s ignominious exit from office, the controversy surrounding the appointment and seating of Sen. Roland Burris (D-Ill.), and Giannoulias’ own problems appear to have put Kirk in the pole position. Last year, Durbin, like White House operatives from Illinois, urged state Attorney General Lisa Madigan (D) to enter the Senate race.

Kirk was leading Giannoulias by 1.7 points in the average of all public opinion polls taken Feb. 22–April 28.

Durbin, 64 and in the middle of his third Senate term, is trying to help Giannoulias turn things around, aiding him with fundraising, grass-roots organizing and even lending the 34-year-old state treasurer some of his most experienced Illinois campaign advisers. Durbin and Giannoulias meet privately every couple of weeks to discuss the campaign; the Majority Whip’s political team members meet with their counterparts in the Giannoulias operation almost daily.

DSCC Chairman Bob Menendez (N.J.) credited Durbin with being “as helpful as he humanly can be.” Durbin, a Giannoulias campaign chairman, called the Illinois Senate race a top priority, although he conceded the state treasurer has problems that could be difficult to overcome.

“I want to see him elected,” Durbin told reporters last week. “But he’s gone through a rocky patch here, with the family bank. And the question now is, will that continue to be a major issue? We still find, in the polling, that he is within a handful of points of Mark Kirk despite all of this publicity and all of these developments.”

Democratic strategist James Williams, who served as Durbin’s senior policy adviser from 1997 to 2002, argued that Giannoulias would ultimately beat Kirk. Williams, a senior managing director at Sonnenschein Nath & Rosenthal in Washington, D.C., wouldn’t comment directly on Durbin’s Majority Leader prospects, saying only that the Senator has more important priorities on his agenda.

“Whip Durbin is focused on representing his constituents, his caucus, and doing whatever he can to move forward the president’s agenda on job creation,” Williams said.

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