Thursday, May 20, 2010

Is It Time for Democrats to Shove Giannoulias Out?

By Stuart Rothenberg

The clock is starting to run out on Democrats who would like Illinois state Treasurer Alexi Giannoulias out of his state’s Senate race in favor of a more electable candidate.

Given the sensitivity of such a scenario, it’s no wonder that Democrats don’t want to be anywhere near a discussion of a switch.

But these kinds of pragmatic and heavily orchestrated decisions aren’t unknown — just think back to Democratic Sen. Robert Torricelli’s very late exit from the 2002 New Jersey Senate race, and the subsequent nomination and election of his archrival, Democrat Frank Lautenberg.

Indeed, Illinois Democrats succeeded earlier this year in forcing the party’s nominee for lieutenant governor, pawnbroker Scott Lee Cohen, off the ballot. (He is now back on the ballot, running for governor as an Independent.)

Of course, last-minute exits to avoid defeat are still the exception. Sens. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) and John Sununu (R-N.H.) fought hard down to the wire even though they looked to be in sad shape for many months, and however weak Sens. Harry Reid (Nev.) and Blanche Lincoln (Ark.) are, it isn’t clear that other Democrats in their states would have an easier time hanging on to their seats in November.

While Giannoulias still runs competitively against Republican Rep. Mark Kirk in hypothetical general election ballot tests — he’s even in his own recent poll but trailing by 3 to 8 points in other polls conducted over the past six weeks — the Democrat’s personal ratings are terrible, and even Democrats will acknowledge privately that their nominee carries enough baggage to sink a battleship.

A May 3-5 survey of likely voters by Research 2000 for the liberal website Daily Kos found the treasurer’s name ID at 38 percent favorable/45 percent unfavorable, while Rasmussen Reports showed his ID at 42 percent favorable/48 percent unfavorable.

The recent coverage of the collapse of the Giannoulias family’s Broadway Bank earned the Senate hopeful a rash of negative publicity, and he can count on the bank’s practices (including loans to a number of people you wouldn’t want to associate with) being raised daily by his opponent or the media until November.

The 34-year-old state treasurer has an explanation for everything, of course, but even Democrats complain about the stink emanating from the bank.

Democrats who worry about Giannoulias’ viability in the fall have a problem, though. Since the nominee isn’t running far behind Kirk in trial heats, it won’t be easy to persuade him to leave quietly. And if there is something Democratic insiders don’t need, it’s a messy food fight with a nominee they are trying to dump (especially after Democratic Rep. Joe Sestak of Pennsylvania went public that White House insiders had offered him a job to get him to pass up a primary challenge to party-switching Sen. Arlen Specter).

Political observers note that the White House didn’t get heavily involved in the primary even though Giannoulias was known to be burdened with plenty of political baggage, so there certainly is some reason to wonder whether the Illinois-heavy White House will continue to keep its distance from the general election, even if Giannoulias’ defeat starts to look inevitable.

Still, with the White House crawling with Illinois political folks, it’s hard to believe that party leaders and strategists at the highest level are going to sit back quietly and allow the president’s former Senate seat to fall in Kirk’s lap.

For years, political operatives at the National Republican Congressional Committee used to say that then-Chairman Tom Reynolds (N.Y.) “handled” all New York races, just as folks at the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee last cycle joked that Chairman Chris Van Hollen (Md.) and House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) were in charge of Maryland races.

By that logic, Illinois is very much in the White House’s lap, though Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) also has some responsibility.

Unlike some states, the Democratic bench in Illinois is so deep that it shouldn’t be hard to find a more formidable replacement for Giannoulias. Senate primary runner-up David Hoffman, a former prosecutor and Chicago inspector general, would be an obvious choice, but other Illinois famous names come to mind as well.

Politically astute Democrats now think that the chances that Giannoulias will “step aside” have increased with the federal takeover of Broadway Bank. And if Democratic control of the Senate starts to look at all at risk, behind-the-scenes efforts to come up with a stronger Senate nominee in Illinois might increase.

Even in a bad year for Democrats nationally, it seems odd that Republican prospects in the Illinois Senate race look so good.

Yes, the GOP got the candidate it wanted in Kirk, and the president’s numbers in the state have slipped from where they were. But Democrats would be in better shape if they didn’t have a nominee who was such damaged goods.

Illinois folks in and around the White House surely know that, and that’s why pressure is building for them to do something soon. If they don’t and Democrats lose the seat, it will be hard not to place a chunk of the blame at the front door of the White House.

This column first appeared in Roll Call and on on May 18, 2010. 2010 © Roll Call Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.