What's at Stake in the Senate 

Not only could a Democrat help push Obama's agenda - he or she could make the chamber a little more black, female, gay, or righteous.

[Plus: Ben Joravsky on the Cook County Board President race.]

The three most important figures in the Democratic primary for U.S. Senate aren't actually in the race.

The first, of course, is Barack Obama, whose trajectory to the White House began when he won the Senate seat in a huge upset over better-connected, better-funded foes in 2004.

Then there's Roland Burris, whom Rod Blagojevich tapped to replace Obama last winter after he was caught on tape venting about how the president-elect's aides thought he was dumb enough to fill the office without getting a cabinet appointment, high-paying job, or campaign contribution in return. Picking Burris, who'd served in several state offices without scandal or distinction, was Blago's way of demonstrating that he wasn't selling the seat to the highest bidder—though it was later revealed that Burris had spoken with the governor's aides about the Senate seat and promised he'd try to raise him some money.

The third critical player is Illinois attorney general Lisa Madigan, widely viewed as the most popular, least beatable politician in Illinois. The White House courted her to succeed Burris, but Madigan said she'd stick with AG.

With Burris stepping aside, Madigan sitting tight, and the Republicans licking their chops, the Democrats began to fear they'd lose the president's old seat, which is critical to any chance they have of regaining a filibuster-proof Senate majority. The party needed somebody to step up and run. Somebody well known. Dynamic, smart, and moneyed wouldn't hurt; public policy experience, political acumen, and scandal-free past preferred but not essential.

That somebody didn't show up—at least not in the form top party leaders had hoped. A couple big names—the mayor's brother Bill, Bobby Kennedy's son Chris—flirted with the idea and then moved on. Congressmen Jesse Jackson Jr. and Danny Davis had talked to Blagojevich too much to be politically viable and wisely took a pass. Sheriff Tom Dart and Congresswoman Jan Schakowsky both pulled a Madigan. And in the meantime Mark Kirk, a veteran congressman from the North Shore, announced that he would vie for the Republican nomination. Even with a record of flip-flopping on issues like cap-and-trade legislation, Kirk could be a serious obstacle to Democratic hopes of holding the seat.

By last fall seven Democratic candidates had filed the paperwork to get on the ballot. One long shot dropped out and another was kicked off after his petitions were successfully challenged for not complying with election rules. The five who remain have launched a wave of TV ads, but riveting as most of them are, voters appear to be preoccupied with other things, like the economy, the weather, and the Jay-Conan battle.

Four of the five have never run for office before and are largely unknown to voters. The fifth, Alexi Giannoulias, is still in his first term as state treasurer, a job whose responsibilities aren't well understood by most of the public.

While Giannoulias is winning the primary race in both the polls and in fund-raising, he's had to spend much of his time dealing with questions about his office's Bright Start college savings program, which lost millions of dollars over the last couple years, and his family's business, Broadway Bank. Giannoulias's only jobs before he was elected treasurer were playing professional basketball in Greece and overseeing loans at the bank, which during his tenure lent money to alleged mobsters, notorious Blagojevich fund-raiser Tony Rezko, and high-risk borrowers who've since been unable to make payments.

Giannoulias's chief rivals, Chicago Urban League president Cheryle Jackson and former Chicago inspector general David Hoffman, have their own problems: Jackson worked as a spokeswoman for Blagojevich and has to keep explaining why, and Hoffman's law-and-order, good-government resumé, which he'll detail for you if you ask him about the price of copper on the black market or anything else, just hasn't stirred voters.

The remaining two contenders have an even harder row to hoe. Attorney Jacob Meister has pumped a million bucks into his own campaign but still struggles with low name recognition and focus; in recent weeks he's detoured from talking about job creation to accusing other candidates of making an issue of his homosexuality. Physician Robert Marshall, who became a Democrat just three years ago after running for various other offices as a Republican, won the state election board's lottery for the top spot on the ballot, but he's trailing in every other respect.

This race could determine whether the Obama administration can push environmental protection, financial reform, and economic stimulus through Congress—or whether the Republicans can derail its whole agenda. But Illinois voters appear to be snoozing through it. Campaign insiders are expecting a turnout up to 50 percent lower than in 2004, and "undecided" or "uncommitted" has led in most polls. As the leader of a public policy advocacy group recently lamented to me, "I can't believe I'm going to have to vote for one of these guys."

My sophisticated analysis of voting trends tells me that someone's got to win. Here's a closer look at each of the contenders:

click to enlarge Alexi Giannoulias
  • Alexi Giannoulias

Alexi Giannoulias

Alexi Giannoulias, whom I profiled at length in December, likes to point out that he was the first candidate to get into the race. He officially announced he was running in July. But he started campaigning much earlier: he courted potential supporters by hosting a party at the Democratic Convention in Denver in August 2008, and critics say that he's run the treasurer's office with an eye toward good press and political advancement.

During his 2006 campaign for treasurer, as concerns grew about Blagojevich's fund-raising methods, Giannoulias vowed not to take political contributions from banks since the treasurer's office does business with them. Then, on January 9, 2007, his first day as treasurer, he prohibited both his employees and firms doing work with the office from donating to his campaign fund. He's stuck to these rules ever since, though he's more or less wiggled around the first one—his state and federal campaign funds have collected more than $90,000 from bank employees and banking-industry political action committees.

Running for treasurer, Giannoulias touted his banking experience. But running for Senate, he's tried to keep as far away from Broadway Bank as possible, and when he mentions the financial industry at all it's to proclaim that he's "stood up to big banks" such as Wells Fargo—a reference to his threat last year to pull state money from the bank if it moved to liquidate the bankrupt local suit-maker Hartmarx.

Instead, Giannoulias has portrayed himself as an advocate for working people, intent on finding ways to create jobs. And it's true that his campaign has generated the most detailed, liberal economic proposals of any in the race, including tax credits for home buyers, federal assistance for community banks that lend to small businesses, and the cancellation of NAFTA.

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