August 20, 2008


Unless U.S. Senator Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) is in jail or in a morgue on Nov. 4, he will overwhelmingly win a third term.

Durbin, age 63, has proven himself to be a shrewd, durable and opportunistic politician. He is the Senate's Democratic majority whip, and he has demonstrated a capacity to generate media headlines and secure TV face time. To Democrats, Durbin is seen as involved and indefatigable; to Republicans, he is viewed as insipid and irritating. His success is based on a combination of visibility, geography and ideology.

Durbin was a congressman from the Springfield area for 14 years, and he was deemed too obscure to win statewide office, but in 1996, when Democratic incumbent Paul Simon retired, he entered the Democratic primary, switched to a pro-abortion stance, championed himself as the "Downstate" candidate, and ripped opponent Pat Quinn as a "loser," locked up support from Mayor Rich Daley and black politicians in Chicago, and won 512,520-233,138, with 64.9 percent of the vote.

The Republican nominee was expected to be Lieutenant Governor Bob Kustra, but Kustra was upset in the primary (377,141-342,935) by conservative state Representative Al Salvi. Durbin went on the attack, making the contest a referendum on Salvi's "extremism" and spending $4.9 million. The result was a solid 655,204-vote victory, with Durbin getting 56 percent of the vote.

In Washington Durbin focused on state matters, becoming the "go to guy" that Illinois had lacked since Alan Dixon was defeated in the Democratic primary by Carol Moseley Braun in 1992. Braun was elected, but she was defeated by Republican Peter Fitzgerald in 1998, and Fitzgerald retired in 2004, to be replaced by Barack Obama. Durbin has been the epitome of continuity. Politicians, businesses and lobbyists have turned to him, knowing that he could handle their federal problem and that he would be around for a while.

Durbin was briefly considered by Al Gore as his running mate in 2000. He flirted with a bid for governor -- and his candidacy would have cleared the field. Had he run, Illinois would not now be suffering through the Blagojevich Administration.

But Durbin opted for re-election in 2002, and he trounced Republican Jim Durkin by 2,103,766-1,325,703, with 60.3 percent of the vote and by a margin of 778,063 votes. In the same election, Rod Blagojevich won by 252,080 votes. Durbin's recipe for victory is elemental: He gets the habitual Democratic vote in Chicago and Cook County, winning the county by 587,898 votes in 2002; he carried his Downstate base, winning the area by 197,690 votes in 2002; and he breaks even in the traditionally Republican Collar Counties, losing them by just 7,525 votes in 2002. Durbin won 77 of Illinois' 102 counties in 2002. He appeals ideologically to liberals and minorities in Chicago and geographically to Downstaters.

In November Durbin is facing Republican Steve Sauerberg, a wealthy physician who is self-funding his campaign. Durbin has $8.1 million in his campaign account, to Sauerberg's $1.1 million. It's not a contest.

In a year when Democrats are on an anti-Bush rampage, when Obama will carry Illinois by more than 900,000 votes, when black turnout will be huge and almost monolithically Democratic, and when every politician and lobbyist with a brain realizes that the best route into a potential Obama White House runs right through fellow Illinoisan Durbin, the state's senior senator faces a coronation, not an election, in November.

In 2004 Obama crushed the hapless Republican candidate, Alan Keyes, by a record-breaking margin of 2,206,766 votes, with 69.9 percent of the vote. John McCain is not Alan Keyes, and McCain and will get at least 40 to 42 percent of the vote, with a sizable number of white Democrats voting against Obama but for every other Democrat on the ballot. Sauerberg is not McCain, and he won't come close to getting 40 percent of the vote, but he could be another Keyes and barely crack 30 percent.

Durbin is no Obama. He utterly lacks the charisma of the 2008 Democratic presidential nominee. He aspires to another pinnacle of Washington power, namely, Senate majority leader. The current leader is Harry Reid, age 68, of Nevada. Reid was the Senate whip, and he became the majority leader after the 2004 defeat of Tom Daschle of South Dakota. Reid's current term expires in 2010.

Ironically, Durbin's hope of succeeding Reid would be enhanced by having McCain in the White House. Then the Democrats, with solid congressional majorities, could do their utmost to obstruct the Republican president, safe in the knowledge that they won't lose many, if any, seats in 2010. Then Reid can retire in 2010 and pass his seat to his son, and Durbin, at age 65, can replace Reid as majority leader.

However, if Obama is president, the congressional Democrats will have to perform, enact liberal programs, take the blame for the economy -- and take a hit in the 2010 elections. Reid wouldn't retire, as that would jeopardize his Nevada seat, and he would serve until 2016. By then, if Obama has been president for 8 years, the Republicans will be resurgent and ready to retake congressional majorities and the White House, and Durbin, at age 71, would be deemed too old and too much associated with Obama and the past to become the Democratic leader.

To be sure, Durbin's power in the Senate, real or perceived, will be mammoth if Senate colleague Obama is president. But, just as President Bush's unpopularity crippled the Republicans in 2006, in the middle of his second term, Obama, if elected and re-elected, may be a huge Democratic liability in 2014, when Durbin faces re-election. If Obama or the Democrats are unpopular, Durbin could lose.

It will be recalled that, back in 1950, Scott Lucas of Illinois, the Democratic majority leader, was defeated by Republican Everett Dirksen due to local scandals and Harry Truman's unpopularity. Dirksen went on to become the Republican minority leader from 1959 until his death in 1969.

Durbin is poised to be Illinois' next powerhouse Senate leader, but he needs to do it in 2010. He can't afford to wait 8 years.

The adjoining vote chart details the Senate votes (and absences) of Durbin and Obama over the past year. Despite their Senate majority, the Reid-Durbin Democrats have no tangible record of accomplishment. Durbin is cautiously opposed to the Iraq War, but he supports funding it; he opposed spending cuts, an immigration crackdown and immunity of phone companies for sharing information on terrorist surveillance.

Obama, due to the priorities of his presidential campaign, has largely been an absentee senator, but he rarely deviates from Durbin on key votes.