Ill. candidate looks to upend Giannoulias

An up-and-coming politician is looking to make a splash in Illinois’s Democratic primary, and it’s not Alexi Giannoulias this time. In fact, he’s the anti-Giannoulias.

Three years after Giannoulias stunned political observers by winning the state treasurer’s race as a 30-year-old, former Chicago Inspector General David Hoffman is seeking to become the go-to alternative to Giannoulias in February’s Senate primary.

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Giannoulias has been in the race for most of the year and secured much of the establishment support in Illinois, but he is still seen by some as a risky general election candidate.

That’s where Hoffman comes in. The 42-year-old first-time candidate has been making the case to top Democratic officials that he is a better candidate for them against Rep. Mark Kirk, the likely Republican nominee.

Hoffman met with President Barack Obama’s senior political adviser, David Axelrod, last week and has caught the attention of Giannoulias’s campaign.

Giannoulias released a poll this week showing him leading Kirk 46-43 in the general election, while the little-known Hoffman trailed Kirk by nine.

The poll was seen as an acknowledgement of the traction Hoffman has gained in the local media. More and more, he’s looking like he will take the mantle of Giannoulias’s top primary opponent, over Chicago Urban League President Cheryle Robinson Jackson and self-funding attorney Jacob Meister.

At the heart of Hoffman’s argument is the impending corruption trial of former Gov. Rod Blagojevich (D), with convicted political fixer Tony Rezko, a client of the Giannoulias family bank, front and center.

“Given everything else that’s going on, Democrats are going to have a real tough time retaining this seat,” Hoffman said, adding, “People are very cognizant of what a Republican $10-15 million general-election campaign is going to look like.”

The task before him is difficult, but Hoffman is not lacking for confidence.

In an interview with The Hill last week, he set a goal of raising $2 million in the fourth quarter. That money would be in addition to the $387,000 he raised and $500,000 he self-funded in the third quarter. He aims to raise another $1 million in January.

Those are almost foolhardy goals. It would also be the best quarter for any non-incumbent Senate candidate this cycle, outside of Florida Gov. Charlie Crist (R). And on top of that, it would come without political action committee or lobbyist money, which Hoffman has sworn off.

His opponents are dubious.

“That would be very impressive,” Giannoulias said. “If somebody can raise $2 million during the holiday season, that would be incredibly impressive.”

Hoffman says he will need between $3 million and $5 million to run the primary the way he wants, and he has signed on some top help, including pollster Geoff Garin and AKPD, a political consulting firm founded by Axelrod.

But Hoffman is also dealing with an abbreviated primary season that can give candidates fits.

The primary is the first in the nation, Feb. 2, which leaves candidates about one month of real campaigning time after the holidays.

Also complicating matters for Hoffman is the presence of Jackson. She didn’t raise much money in the third quarter, but she could dilute the primary field and take Chicago voters — particularly African-Americans — from Hoffman.

Southern Illinois University political science Professor John Jackson said Hoffman has emerged as the real Giannoulias alternative, and the front-runner’s campaign should be concerned.

“They should, because they surely have not closed the deal — by no means have they closed the deal,” Jackson said. “Whoever runs the best and best-funded campaign between now and February can win.”

Sheila Simon, a law professor and daughter of former Sen. Paul Simon (D-Ill.), is staying officially neutral in the primary, though she knows Hoffman through their work on the Illinois Reform Commission.

She said people just aren’t ready to commit to Giannoulias.

“People are holding off on a seat where we don’t have an incumbent,” Simon said, adding that people are familiar with Giannoulias but have been burned by politicians before.

While the White House has been willing to throw its weight around for incumbents and top recruits, Giannoulias hasn’t gotten the same treatment.

Despite Giannoulias being a former basketball buddy of Obama’s, the White House moved to recruit state Attorney General Lisa Madigan into the race while Giannoulias was already an established candidate. (She declined.) The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC) has done little to play up Giannoulias’s candidacy and has remained neutral in the primary.

Giannoulias has also suffered from reports about his stewardship of a college savings program, Bright Start, that lost $85 million in a bond fund.

Still, Giannoulias has the backing of Reps. Phil Hare, Bill Foster and Mike Quigley, and many influential state and local politicians and unions.

He said 2010 will be a tough year for Democrats regardless of who is on the ballot, and he’s taking nothing for granted.

“Obviously, the tone in D.C. and people’s perceptions are important, but I’m much more concerned about how people in Illinois feel,” Giannoulias said.

Two African-American members of Congress — Reps. Danny Davis and Bobby Rush — are backing Jackson, but most other members of Congress are keeping their powder dry. Another holdout is state House Speaker Mike Madigan — Lisa’s father — who opposed Giannoulias in his state treasurer run three years ago and has no plans to get involved in the Senate race.

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Hoffman points to his support from Abner Mikva, a former federal judge, congressman and Clinton administration counsel who has antagonized Chicago’s powerful.

“I think Giannoulias spent four years in office and didn’t do very much,” Mikva said. “There were several things that could have been done on a reform level that he didn’t do. He’s never had full scrutiny as a candidate.”

But even Mikva said Hoffman needs to run “a hell of a campaign” in order to win.

“I’ve told him that and he knows that,” Mikva said. “Running the first time is never easy.”