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posted: 8/29/2014 1:01 AM

Suburbs could be pivotal if Senate race catches fire

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Democrat Richard Durbin is a three-term U.S. senator from Illinois. In all three of his Senate elections, Durbin has been a landslide winner (1996 -- 56 percent; 2002 -- 60 percent; 2008 -- 68 percent). Like his mentor, the late U.S. Senator Paul Simon (Durbin won Simon's seat after he retired) Durbin has put together a powerful downstate/Chicago electoral coalition. Durbin, a Springfield resident who was born in East St. Louis, has combined his huge Chicago margins with margins from downstate (the 96 Illinois counties outside of Cook and the five collar counties) to clobber his Republican opponents.

Opposing Durbin in 2014 is a collar-county state senator, Jim Oberweis, a Sugar Grove Republican, who until his 2012 legislative victory, had been defeated six times for public office (mainly in GOP primaries for governor and U.S. senator).

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Oberweis is best known as a businessman who owns Oberweis Dairy. In his 2014 Senate primary victory over little known Douglas Truax, Oberweis showed strong support downstate but lost Cook and the collar counties -- a potential bad omen!

Though this U.S. Senate contest will be at the top of the ballot, it is the Illinois gubernatorial battle between incumbent Democrat Pat Quinn and his GOP challenger Bruce Rauner that is getting the most attention. The U.S. Senate race has received scant publicity even though Oberweis has advertised on radio highlighting a new softer side of his personality and background.

In previous campaigns, Oberweis appeared strident and mean-spirited as in his famous 2004 U.S. Senate primary TV ad suggesting that enough illegal immigrants entered America every week to fill up Soldier Field.

Issue differences between Durbin and Oberweis fall along the usual Democratic v. Republican divide. Durbin has defended President Barack Obama and the Affordable Care Act, has pushed for immigration reform and was a leader in "stopping" Walgreens from moving its corporate headquarters from Deerfield to Switzerland.

Oberweis has talked about the need to cut spending, tax reforms to boost jobs and has tried to poke holes in Durbin's long political career.

To be blunt -- neither man has lit the campaign trail on fire. The crucial issue on Nov. 4 will be whether Oberweis can win downstate and combine that margin with a strong collar margin (despite his primary showing) to balance or even out Durbin's Chicago strength.

If the above scenario happens, the contest may come down to the voters in suburban Cook County who have trended Democratic in recent years. Key to this possibility is Oberweis' accomplishing a downstate vote flip against downstater Durbin. Imagine the attention that would be given to residents of suburban Cook's 30 townships (especially those in the north and northwest sections of the county). They would become the new key to victory.

On the other hand, if Durbin wins downstate and combines it with his expected strong Chicago showing, Oberweis will lose -- even if he does better than expected in suburban Cook.

Last point: In off-year elections (nonpresidential) the magic political word is "turnout". Usually vote drop-offs are immense in these elections. Thus, both parties and their candidates do all they can to rally their base to outproduce their opponents' strongholds. Both Durbin and Oberweis understand this political reality, but because their contest will probably remain on the back political burner through Election Day, there is little either one can do to "up" the turnout in their U.S. Senate battle.

• Paul Green is director of the Institute for Politics at Roosevelt University in Schaumburg and Chicago.

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