President Obama weighs in on a political battle especially close to home today as he campaigns for a basketball buddy running for his old Senate seat. In a measure of just how tough a year it is for Democrats, it's a race they are in danger of losing.
This should be an easy one for Democrats. After all, Illinois is reliably Democratic and a place where the President is still quite popular. But the race between Democrat Alexi Giannoulias and Republican Congressman Mark Kirk is shaping up into one of this year's closest – and nastiest – Senate races.
Today the President tries to lend a political lifeline to Giannoulias, who is 34 years old and currently the Illinois State Treasurer. Most importantly, the President has the ability to double the size of Giannoulias's campaign war chest with a single fundraiser this afternoon.
"Unlike perhaps a lot of places in the country, Barack Obama still remains a very popular figure here in Illinois," said Rick Pearson of the Chicago Tribune. "This is an opportunity to put about a million dollars right into the bank."
Giannoulias, who used to play basketball with Obama when he was in the Illinois State Senate, was not the Democrats' first choice for the seat. He won a bruising primary in February after several candidates the White House attempted to recruit, decided not to run.
Since then, the race between Giannoulias and Kirk has turned into a dog fight.
Republicans have slammed Giannoulias as a "failed mob banker" because of his ties to Broadway Bank, where he used to work and which was owned by his family. The bank failed in April, costing the FDIC $400 million. Kirk has made a campaign issue of the risky real estate loans made by Broadway Bank to convicted felons. Giannoulias argues that he stopped working for the bank long before it failed and that he had no knowledge of the questionable loans.
One TV ad aired by the Kirk campaign argued that the bank made loans to "convicted mobsters."
But Kirk has problems of his own. He has been caught overstating his military record – suggesting he served in the Gulf War and had a leadership role in the Pentagon when he did not.
Giannoulias' camp has an ad calling Kirk a liar.
"Heading into this contest, Mark Kirk, the Republican was actually the favorite," said the Chicago Tribune's Pearson. "Kirk had the money advantage, still has a 4-to-1 advantage in fundraising, and you know had a great story to tell. The trouble is that in telling his story, his background in the military, he got caught embellishing that. And that's kind of made this a competitive race again."
It's been called a race between the crook and the liar and Pearson said people in Chicago are wondering if the candidates are on a path of, as Pearson put it, "mutually assured destruction."
Add into the mix the trial of former Gov. Rod Blagojevich, who was thrown out of office after federal prosecutors accused him of trying to sell an appointment to the Senate after Barack Obama became President.
The Blagojevich saga, which led to Sen. Roland Burris, D-Ill, holding the seat for the past year and a half, is set to finally conclude as the jury continues its deliberations at U.S. District Court in Chicago.