But he didn’t leave with any ironclad commitments.
Durbin told Emanuel that Democratic nominee Alexi Giannoulias could use some serious presidential intervention in his uphill race against Republican Rep. Mark Kirk.
At the moment, the White House seems open to the idea of losing Obama’s old seat rather than putting the president’s prestige on the line for Giannoulias, the brash and boyish Illinois state treasurer — and onetime Obama basketball buddy — whose campaign has been rocked by the financial meltdown of his family’s bank.
Durbin said Emanuel was sympathetic to his pleas but ultimately noncommittal, telling him that the White House was “considering the race, weighing their options and weighing a decision on what to do.”
Emanuel, a former congressman from Chicago, tried but failed last year to get Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan into the race. Now, he told Durbin, it’s up to Giannoulias to prove his campaign has enough “viability and strength” to warrant Obama’s involvement.
The White House declined to comment on Durbin’s conversation with Emanuel. But an administration official, speaking on condition of anonymity, acknowledged that the White House harbors deep concerns that Giannoulias’s campaign will implode if the family business, the financially strapped Broadway Bank, collapses as many analysts anticipate.
Getting involved would be an unwelcome Illinois flashback for Obama’s Chicago-bred brain trust of Emanuel and senior adviser David Axelrod, dominant players in many of the state’s campaigns for two decades. Making matters stickier: Emanuel’s recent public musing about running for mayor of Chicago if Richard Daley, Giannoulias’s most important ally, retires.
“This is [Obama’s] state,” said a Democratic operative who is backing Giannoulias.
“If they keep this up, they are going to lose the majority leader’s seat, the vice president’s old seat and the president’s old seat,” the person added, referring to Sen. Harry Reid’s precarious Nevada reelection chances and the tossup race for Joe Biden’s old Senate seat in Delaware.
It’s also making the party’s national leadership a bit dyspeptic.
“I’ll just simply say we need to win in Illinois,” New Jersey Sen. Robert Menendez said when asked whether the White House should get involved. “We have a Republican candidate who should be defeated. And we have a Democratic candidate who has a lot of positive attributes but also has — you know — a set of circumstances that he’s going to be able to have to talk directly to the electorate and not be the obstacle to victory.
“How that gets done is another question, but you know — we’ll see how [the White House’s] strategy unfolds to deal with that,” said Menendez, who chairs the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.
Despite the pressure, the White House still seems to be keeping its distance from the campaign.
Administration officials didn’t even bother to notify Giannoulias of Obama’s trip to Illinois next week — and have yet to say if he will be invited. Moreover, Giannoulias campaign officials often find out about official visits by administration officials the same way reporters do: by scanning The Associated Press’s local Daybook, according to people close to the situation.
It’s an open secret, Democrats say, that White House officials are closely watching to see if Broadway Bank collapses — and if Giannoulias remains in the race if that happens.
A Giannoulias spokeswoman said there’s no chance he would exit the race, adding: “Alexi keeps defying the odds. ... Despite a blistering primary campaign against an opponent who spent $2 million against him and an unparalleled attack from Republicans, he’s raised $1.2 million and kept this race within the margin of error. This is a campaign that will be close to the very end.”
But even Durbin acknowledges that the issues surrounding the bank create problems Giannoulias is going to have to address.
“It is controversial, [Giannoulias] would even admit that,” Durbin said. “The question is whether or not he can resolve this by answering these questions directly and get his campaign on path. I will tell you this: The people of our state want a senator who is going to work to put this economy back on track; they do not want to go back to the Bush economic policies, which Congressman Kirk has supported.”
Durbin has been one of the campaign’s most loyal supporters, talking up Giannoulias’s chances as early as February 2009 — just weeks after then-Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich appointed Roland Burris to the seat.
During that period, Giannoulias, the son of Greek immigrants, traveled on an official Senate trip with Durbin to Greece. Giannoulias, who played professional basketball overseas in Greece for a year, seemed like a shoo-in for a presidential endorsement — especially given the fundraising prowess he showed during his campaign for state treasurer.
But instead, Emanuel, Obama and even Durbin made a full-court press to recruit the popular Madigan. She declined to enter the race last summer — leaving Giannoulias to eke out a win in a three-way primary earlier this year.
To an extent, Durbin’s political stock is tied to Giannoulias’s, Democratic insiders say. As chairman of the campaign, Durbin could take some blame for a Giannoulias loss — just as he gears up for a possible majority leader’s race against New York Sen. Chuck Schumer this fall, and just as Schumer could get credit for helping guide New York Democratic Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand’s path to a likely victory.
But Durbin dismissed such talk, saying he expects Reid to win his reelection in Nevada and continue as majority leader. And he distanced himself from the problems of the candidate.
“There’s certain things I can control, certain things I can’t control,” Durbin said. “I’m not the candidate; someone else is. I can give advice and try to analyze this as best I can. Ultimately, Alexi has to make these decisions personally.”
In the past month, polls have turned against Giannoulias, who has seen a narrow advantage over Kirk turn into a 4-percentage-point deficit as questions surrounding his family-owned bank have increased. And his fundraising, while strong, fell $1 million short of Kirk’s for the first quarter of 2010.
Before he was elected state treasurer four years ago, Giannoulias worked at the bank, which has now seen its finances implode and is at risk of collapsing if it does not raise enough capital by month’s end — and has been hit with allegations that it provided loans to mobsters and felons.
And what’s making the White House especially squeamish is the concern that the criticisms of Obama’s ties to Tony Rezko, a political fundraiser in the state, could be resurrected — since Broadway Bank made loans to Rezko before he was convicted on corruption-related charges.
After initially ducking questions about the bank’s problems, Giannoulias has been under pressure from Durbin and others to address the questions head-on — which he has begun to do in press interviews and speeches.
“The point is he’s been removed from this bank and its operations for four straight years as treasurer of the state — and has not been involved in many of the critical decisions, blown decisions, which have led to this situation,” Durbin said. “It is painful for Alexi personally because this was his father’s dream as an immigrant to this country — and it was something his family was very proud of. It hurts him personally. I’ll tell ya — I think a lot of the media focus on this has gone overboard, and it’s been pushed to an extreme by some of the folks on the other side politically. I have told him it’s his responsibility to answer every question fully and completely about the bank and his involvement.”