Durbin builds campaign as top Democrats map strategy for November

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Over coffee, juice, sweet rolls and a big serving of rare cooperation, the top Illinois Democrats — Sen. Dick Durbin, Gov. Pat Quinn, Senate President John Cullerton and House Speaker/Democratic state party chair Mike Madigan — huddled Monday to map November strategy.

“We are going to coordinate our efforts with the other candidates. I think working together we will present a strong message to the voters,” Durbin told me Tuesday at the primary election party he hosted at Hub 51, a River North restaurant.

He was alluding to the unusual — for Illinois — coordinated effort that I was told by other sources was discussed at the meeting in Madigan’s Loop law office.

Unlike Quinn, who faces a bruising re-election battle, Durbin has an enormous running start in his contest, no matter who won the GOP Senate primary, businessman Doug Truax or state Sen. Jim Oberweis.

With Oberweis clinching the nomination, Durbin is pitted against a potential self-funder — but one with a long record of positions that can be exploited by Durbin and his allies — especially on immigration. Oberweis enraged immigrant rights group in his 2004 Senate bid; Durbin has been a leader in the fight for immigration reform.

Oberweis also has a tin ear for politics. The latest example of an Oberweis fumble is his fondness for spending time in Florida, where his wife established residency so she can save on state income taxes.

Durbin kicks off his November bid with an overwhelming lead in money — more than $5.6 million in his war chest. He has name recognition, a byproduct of his constant statewide travel from Chicago to Cairo and national prominence as the number two leader in the Senate as well as a champion of a string of causes besides immigrant rights, food safety and consumer finance.

But it’s been six years since Durbin has run a campaign. Unopposed in the primary, he is building his political team.

“Campaigns change every cycle. Its been more than six years since we had to gear up and we are preparing now to be ready to use the best techniques and the best things that were learned from the Obama presidential campaign,” Durbin told me.

Durbin reached into Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s City Hall for his campaign manager, tapping veteran Illinois political operative Anna Valencia. Valencia, raised in the Downstate Metro East area, ran Emanuel’s field operation for his mayoral campaign. She worked on campaigns for Illinois Democrats Reps. Bill Foster and Mike Quigley. She was the field director for the Illinois state Senate Democrats’ campaigns.

He dipped into Cullerton’s operation for his campaign press secretary, Ron Holmes.

Compared to other 2014 Senate contenders, Durbin’s seat is considered safe in blue state Illinois. Nationally, the Senate Democrats are defending 20 seats; 13 Senate Republicans up for re-election.

The habit of the Springfield Democrat is to run worried.

Said Durbin: “We live in a world of SuperPacs where in any moment some multimillionaire can decide to spend five, ten, twenty million dollars in this state. Those of us who are mere mortals and not millionaires ourselves are vunerable to that.”

FOOTNOTE: President Barack Obama returns home for an April 2 fundraiser to benefit the Democratic National Committee with invites already out for a small dinner at the Lincoln Park home of Craig Freedman and Grace Tsao-Wu, a major Obama fundraiser.

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