Illinois set for long, bleak Senate race

Democrats might well win, but it's not going to be fun

Published February 3, 2010 2:25PM (EST)

It’s never a great idea to try to uncover the emotional state of an electorate from election returns in a single state. Still, you can't help but notice, now that Democrats have their nominee for Senate in Illinois: If party elites weren’t universally thrilled with the idea of running state Treasurer Alexi Giannoulias for President Obama’s old seat -- and Roland Burris’ current one -- then primary voters seem to have been only slightly less unenthusiastic.

Giannoulias won yesterday’s primary with 39 percent of the vote in what was essentially a three-candidate field. The vastly outspent no-name runner-up, former Chicago Inspector General David Hoffman, only started airing ads in Chicago last week. He took 35 percent of the vote.

(Want to feel a little wistful? Six years ago, Barack Obama whomped four or five other serious candidates for this seat, including a free-spending millionaire and the state comptroller, by walking off with 53 percent.)

The ambivalence about Giannoulias, a one-time Obama favorite whom the White House ended up trying to maneuver out of the nomination, springs from his association with his family’s bank. As often seems to be the case in Illinois, it’s not that Giannoulias has obviously done anything that’s clearly unethical, or even wrong. Rather, voters -- understandably wary -- are sort of sniffing at him and wondering if he’s spoiled or still good.

Broadway Bank, owned by the Giannoulias family, is under a recent consent order from federal regulators to replenish its cash reserves, and to clear any further dividend pay-outs with federal regulators; in 2007 and 2008, the bank paid $70 million to Giannoulias family members, including $2.5 million to Alexi.

Other than its generosity to its owners, Broadway Bank’s main problem, unsurprisingly, is its large holdings in bad real estate loans. Giannoulias, who was chief loan officer from 2002 to 2006, literally refused during primary season to disclose his role in approving these loans, which doesn’t really bode that well. The bank has foreclosed on properties owned by bookies and pimps; it also gave major loans to a money-laundering Russian mobster and to crooked developer Tony Rezko, an unfriendly ghost from Obama’s past.

This may seem more damning of Giannoulias than it really is. Although the Broadway Bank issue worried Democratic leaders and furrowed the brows of the state’s editorial boards, mainly Giannoulias looks more like a schmuck than a crook. It’s a good bet that he wouldn’t have knowingly approved bad loans from his family’s bank, particularly at the same time that he and the rest of the clan were trying to squeeze dividends out of the company. Most likely, the then-20-something loan officer was just in over his head. That’s not a great line to run on, but Illinois has probably heard worse.

In match-ups with the Republican nominee, centrist Chicago-area Rep. Mark Kirk, Giannoulias mainly holds on to the modest lead you’d expect in Illinois for a Democrat the public is unenthusiastic about over a Republican they don’t really know or much care for yet. (See Rod Blagojevich, gubernatorial race, 2006.) Now that he’s the nominee, Giannoulias can count on the support of a White House looking to avoid an acute embarrassment. And Kirk himself, although probably his party’s strongest possible candidate, has his weaknesses. He barely held his suburban North Shore seat in the last two elections, and has tacked right some this year because he was worried about a Tea Party challenge in the primary that never really solidified.

But the bad year shaping up for Democrats nationwide is likely to take its toll on Giannoulias. Tom Jensen of Public Policy Polling notes that in yesterday’s Senate primary, 885,268 votes were cast for Democrats, and 736,137 for Republicans. Those numbers are awfully close under any circumstances for Illinois, a strongly Democratic state. They’re downright damning for Democrats today, since the GOP didn’t even have a genuinely contested Senate primary. Even if Giannoulias ends up winning this thing in November -- and that’s about an even bet -- the nine months in between are likely to be somewhat grim for his party.

By Gabriel Winant

Gabriel Winant is a graduate student in American history at Yale.

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