Durbin a big money-raiser with no big-time GOP challenger

By Dennis Conrad

WASHINGTON – With $6 million already banked for a re-election bid, Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin is still waiting to see if he’ll face a well-financed Republican challenger in 2008.

“I never take any election for granted and there are several individuals talking about running who are independently wealthy, and I have to be prepared if they do,” the Senate’s second-highest ranking Democrat said Thursday.

Durbin is expected to announce plans for a third term in late August.

No major GOP officeholder in Illinois has expressed an interest in trying to unseat Durbin, but that hasn’t kept him from raking in the campaign cash – including $2.45 million received in three months through June.

“You need $10 million to become a player in Illinois,” Durbin said.

Texas trial lawyer Mikal Watts, a Democrat who has largely self-financed his campaign, is the only announced Senate candidate to have a bigger second quarter – raising $4.99 million.

Durbin had $6.05 million in cash on hand as of July 1, surpassed by only Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., and by only $5,000.

Durbin last won re-election in 2002 with 60 percent of the vote, a 3-2 margin over Republican Jim Durkin, a state lawmaker so poorly funded he never ran a radio or TV ad.

Durbin will know after February’s primary if he’ll be facing a financially formidable opponent this time around.

Having a little-known, inadequately financed challenger would give Durbin more time to raise money for Democratic candidates nationwide – something Republicans would like to avoid.

“He is by far the most articulate of the Democrats when it comes to attacking Republicans and the president,” said former Republican Illinois Gov. Jim Edgar. “In a political campaign, he is very effective. I can see him spending a lot of time helping incumbents or challengers.”

Among Durbin’s possible opponents is Steve Sauerberg, a family physician from Chicago’s suburbs, and Kevin O’Hara, who recently left his position as an executive with the Chicago Board of Trade.

Rebecca Fisher, spokeswoman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee, said her fundraising group has “confidence” in both Sauerberg and O’Hara.

State GOP spokesman Lance Trover said Durbin has shown more interest in raising money and playing national politics than working for Illinois.

“Illinoisans, all-around, have a healthy appetite for change,” he added.

Durbin said he is raising money by the rules but recognizes the need for change in the campaign finance system.

Durbin has introduced bipartisan legislation with Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., that would impose a tax on television stations’ advertising revenue to enable public financing of Senate campaigns.

“We are out begging, raising money to pay for television advertising on airwaves owned by the American people and that – to me – is indefensible,” he said.

Under the plan, Durbin said a U.S. Senate candidate would need 11,000 individual $5 donations to be eligible for public financing.