Democrats plow fertile political ground in secretary of state race, but still face ‘long row to hoe’
Former state Treasurer Alexi Giannoulias has important early leads in endorsements and fundraising in the secretary of state’s race. Chicago City Clerk Anna Valencia has also won crucial endorsements. But observers agree the race remains anyone’s game.
Though it shares a title with one of the top posts in the U.S. president’s cabinet, the Illinois secretary of state’s office shares none of the prestigious responsibilities of its federal namesake.
Instead of international diplomacy or foreign policy intrigue, the state office deals largely with driver’s licenses and license plates.
Nevertheless, presiding over that state office is one of the most coveted prizes in Illinois politics.
“Next to being governor, that’s the biggest political office statewide,” said former Republican Gov. Jim Edgar.
And harvesting that political plum typically involves plenty of Illinois domestic intrigue and campaign intelligence — if lesser amounts of diplomacy.
Right now, five Democrats are already waging a pitched battle to succeed retiring Illinois Secretary of State Jesse White — who, despite the rather mundane tasks involved, was regularly one of the Democrats’ top vote getters.
Political insiders say former state Treasurer Alexi Giannoulias is leading the pack, racking up crucial endorsements and building the most fully stocked political war chest. He is closely followed by Chicago City Clerk Anna Valencia, who has won her own share of endorsements, but in the money contest has so far been outraised by Giannoulias more than five-to-one.
“Alexi has kind of set the curve and changed the standard for this race,” said Dave Mellet, a political consultant who helped Mayor Lori Lightfoot win office and is not aligned with any candidate in the secretary of state’s race.
“I think Anna Valencia — with the cash on hand she has and the money that she’s raised — she’s doing all the things that you would expect somebody running for a down ballot, statewide office to do, and she’s doing it well. It’s just really hard to be in the field against somebody who has that much money and is able to raise that well.”
But while the race is off at a “very fast pace,” Mellet said it’s still anyone’s to win.
Rounding out the field are Aldermen Pat Dowell (3rd) and David Moore (17th) and state Sen. Michael Hastings, D-Tinley Park.
So far, no Republicans have entered the race.
One of the allures of the office is its potential to serve as a political stepping stone.
Edgar, a former Illinois secretary of state who parlayed his tenure into a successful gubernatorial bid, said the current crop of candidates may be looking to do the same, since the office offers plenty of the tools to do so, from jobs to fill to publicity to take advantage of.
“You also have respect throughout the state. Your name — next to the governor’s — is the most visible name in state government, because you’re on everybody’s driver’s license,” Edgar said. “There’s a lot of political advantages.”
Giannoulias already likely has the best statewide name recognition in the field, having served one term as state treasurer and waging an unsuccessful, but high profile, run for U.S. Senate ten years ago.
He’s got the money advantage — roughly $2.4 million, state board of election records show. And he’s bagged early support from the SEIU Illinois State Council, which will mean more money and boots on the ground.
The council includes SEIU Locals 1 and SEIU Healthcare Illinois & Indiana, which have an ownership stake in the Chicago Sun-Times.
Just as important, Giannoulias won the support of U.S. Rep. Jesus “Chuy” Garcia.
The Southwest Side Democratic congressman’s endorsement over Valencia, the only Latina in the field so far, could give Giannoulias a boost among Hispanic voters and progressives.
Edgar said getting those larger endorsements is especially important in a Democratic primary, where turnout is likely to be lower and “name recognition is the name of the game here.”
But Giannoulias’ early advantages don’t “guarantee he’s going to win it,” Edgar said, pointing all the “unknowns” that will determine how the race pans out.
“How they campaign and how the turnout is,” the former governor said. “Turnout is so important in a primary, because it’s somewhat sparse.”
In fundraising, Hastings is a distant second to Giannoulias. The state senator had $604,001.46 in the bank at the end of March. Valencia had $428,236.18.
Neither Hastings nor Valencia have reported any new contributions since then.
Dowell had just $67,880.79 on hand on March 31, and has raised $218,500 since then, meaning she likely has nearly $286,380.79 at her disposal. Moore had $73,986.58 on hand on March 31 and has added $2,500 since then.
Giannoulias had $2,104,762 in the bank at the end of March and has raised $303,500 since then.
Cook County Clerk Karen Yarbrough, who weighed a run for the office herself but opted to support Dowell instead, said the race is “very fluid,” and while Democrats have a “good crop of candidates,” there’s also “a long row to hoe” from now until the primary.
“I think it’s early, and I’ve seen lots of things happen over the course of an election cycle, but this one will be a long, drawn out process now,” said Yarbrough, who also represents Proviso Township in the party’s ranks and is a member of its statewide selection committee.
Mellet also stressed it’s too early to tell how the race will shake out. The Democratic consultant said Giannoulias’ strong war chest means he “doesn’t have to pinch pennies” and will be able to “sprint and force everyone to run as fast as they can behind him.”
That could mean early TV ads from Giannoulias in an effort to cement the lead.
But Valencia’s profile — a Latina from downstate who has City Hall experience, and name recognition, in Chicago — could help her overcome the early money imbalance, Mellet said.
Valencia was endorsed Wednesday by the national group Latino Victory Fund and has also received some union support and the early backing of Democratic U.S. Rep. Lauren Underwood.
Dowell has shown an ability to raise money and a willingness to get around the state and meet local elected officials, a strategy that could see her rise as the race continues, Mellet said.
“Women, especially diverse women, have done really well in recent years, and this is a primary, and women are breaking through,” Mellet said.
Dowell has also taken a page out of White’s playbook — promising not to use the office as a stepping stone.
And she’s shown a willingness to mix it up on the campaign trail. The South Side alderman took a shot at Giannoulias for his 2014 endorsement of Republican Tom Cross for state treasurer.
Giannoulias brushed that off in a Cook County Democratic Party forum Saturday, saying he was just saying “good things” about the Oswego Republican, and “no one should question my commitment to the Democratic party.”
The Cook County Democratic Party is likely to endorse in the race in December, said executive director Jacob Kaplan.
And White, who won all 102 counties in 2002, said in a statement he doesn’t yet have a preferred candidate in the already “strong field.”
But the Near North Side Democrat plans to “keep the option open to making an endorsement at some point.”