- Associated Press - Sunday, April 20, 2014

CHICAGO (AP) - U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin says he’s taking his opponent in the November election more seriously than any challenger since he first was elected to the Senate nearly two decades ago.

Durbin’s rival, dairy magnate and GOP state Sen. Jim Oberweis, is considered a long shot to unseat the Senate’s second-ranking Democrat. Yet Durbin has been staffing up statewide field offices, bringing on social media-savvy campaign veterans and banking more than $6 million.

Durbin says he doesn’t want to underestimate Oberweis, who enters the race with personal wealth, statewide name recognition from a chain of family dairies and ice cream shops and half dozen bids for public office. He’s also facing a mid-term election climate that’s historically tough on the sitting president’s party.

“I’m not going to have anybody at the end of this campaign say, ‘He didn’t take it seriously,’” said Durbin, who’s seeking his fourth U.S. Senate term.

But there may be more to the decision than Durbin playing it safe.

For all that Oberweis may have going for him, he also has a history of gaffes on issues such as abortion and immigration that has turned off voters in such a blue state. Democrats could draw attention to him in an attempt to paint Republicans up and down the ticket as out of touch.

That could be particularly important as Democrats seek to hold on to the governor’s office. Gov. Pat Quinn faces Winnetka businessman Bruce Rauner, a multimillionaire who has said he’s focused on turning around the state’s struggling economy, in a race considered one of the most competitive in the country.

“If (Democrats) can put Rauner and Oberweis in the same basket in any way, it really is to their advantage,” said Nick Kachiroubas, a visiting assistant professor at DePaul University’s School of Public Service.

Democrats also are working to hold on to four seats the party picked up in Congress in 2012, and hoping to win an additional seat in southern Illinois, where Democratic Judge Ann Callis is taking on Republican U.S. Rep. Rodney Davis. Appearing to be in the throes of a serious challenge also can help Durbin raise money - cash he can then use to help candidates in tough races in Illinois and nationwide.

“That’s all part of the game,” Kachiroubas said.

Oberweis told The Associated Press that he, too, used to think Durbin was unbeatable.

“To be honest, I was reluctant to get in the race because of the same concern,” he said.

But he said polling and his conversations with voters have shown that’s not the case. Oberweis now sees Durbin as vulnerable, even if the National Republican Senatorial Committee - the organization leading the GOP’s attempted takeover of the U.S. Senate - does not. The NRSC has labeled Illinois and a half dozen other states “very competitive,” but not among the “vulnerable” or “toss-up” states the group is targeting and spending money in.

“People are fed up with career politicians,” Oberweis said, noting that Durbin has served in Congress and the state Legislature for more than three decades. “I think I have as good a chance as anyone.”

Other Republicans seem to have had doubts. Some GOP leaders cautioned Oberweis not to get in the race, fearing he’d drag down the ticket. His far lesser known opponent in the March primary came within a few points of defeating him. And U.S. Sen. Mark Kirk initially said he wouldn’t campaign with Oberweis because he preferred to maintain his working relationship with Durbin. Kirk, the top elected Republican in Illinois, has since reversed course.

Durbin has scored solid victories in his last two elections with at least 60 percent of the vote, and acknowledges a need for newer campaign methods than when he ran his toughest race 18 years ago. This time he said he’ll focus on his record of creating Illinois jobs, including getting the federal Bureau of Prisons to reopen the shuttered Thomson Correctional Center in northwestern Illinois and securing a $70 million federal grant to create a research center for digital manufacturing in Chicago.

He’ll also stress his work on bipartisan immigration legislation that would provide a path to citizenship for immigrants who came to the country unlawfully. He said Oberweis‘ record on the issue - including a 2004 campaign commercial in which Oberweis flew over Chicago’s Soldier Field to warn that enough “illegal aliens” were entering the country each day to fill its seats - will be fair game.

“Hispanic voters have never had a sharper contrast,” Durbin said. “I can go into that community and tell them they have a clear choice.”

Oberweis says he has learned from his past mistakes and has changed his stance on immigration. He now supports a path to citizenship for children who were brought to the country illegally and grew up here and believes their parents should be allowed to have non-immigrant visas but not amnesty.

And the entrepreneur, who’s started several businesses and hired thousands of people, welcomes a debate about jobs.

“Yes, I want to talk about that all day long,” Oberweis said.

Political analyst Thom Serafin says Durbin is wise not to take anything for granted. He noted there’s added pressure on Durbin to perform well because he is from President Barack Obama’s home state and has such a high position in the Senate.

“He’s been through this before, and he rarely yells ‘fire’ unless there’s a fire,” Serafin said.

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