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How Dick Durbin Became Invincible

His performance in the Supreme Court confirmation hearings will sway all sorts of races in November, but least of all his own.

Durbin speaks to reporters on Capitol Hill in February.   Photo: AP/Susan Walsh

In 2018, when Christine Blasey Ford testified that she’d been sexually assaulted by Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, Sen. Dick Durbin asked her the money question: “Dr. Ford, with what degree of certainty do you believe Brett Kavanaugh assaulted you?”

“One hundred percent,” Ford replied.

Durbin, who sits on the Senate Judiciary Committee, is now playing a major role in an even more contentious Supreme Court confirmation: the replacement of recently deceased Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Our senior senator seems resigned to the fact that the Republicans will confirm a nominee.

“You can slow things down, but you can’t stop them,” Durbin told POLITICO. “And there comes a point — we use whatever tools we have available, but ultimately there will be a vote.”

However, Supreme Court confirmations are never just about the Supreme Court anymore — especially this one. Occuring in the final weeks of an election, it will help determine who wins the presidency, and control of the Senate. Democrats are trying to paint the Republicans as hypocrites, because in the election year of 2016, they refused to confirm Barack Obama’s Supreme Court nominee.

As Minority Whip, the second-ranking Democrat in the Senate, Durbin is one of the Democrats’ most dedicated partisan mouthpieces. According to a New York Times analysis, between 2009 and 2014, Durbin was the third most-televised senator, appearing on the Sunday talk shows 78 times, behind only John McCain and Lindsey Graham, who were and are far more vain than the colorless Durbin.

Durbin isn’t wasting any time attacking the Republicans for double dealing. On Tuesday evening, he took to the Senate floor to accuse the Trump Administration of planning to nominate a justice who will overturn the Affordable Care Act.

“Let’s be clear: the Affordable Care Act is hanging in the balance,” Durbin said. "[Senate Republicans are] trying to accomplish on the Supreme Court what they cannot accomplish in Congress. If President Trump and Senator McConnell go through with their plan to jam through a Supreme Court nominee this year, the Affordable Care Act is doomed.”

Durbin can afford to play a front-and-center role in the Supreme Court battle because he doesn’t have to campaign for re-election. Durbin is on the ballot for a fifth term this November, but he isn’t barnstorming the state, attending union barbecues and holding rallies in small-town high school gymnasiums. He’s a shoo-in. Most voters aren’t even aware that Durbin has a Republican opponent. (That would be former Lake County Sheriff Mark Curran.)

Durbin’s nemesis, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, had raised $36 million and spent $20 million on his re-election campaign in Kentucky, as of June 30. Durbin had raised $8.4 million and spent $3.6 million in Illinois. (On what, I’m not sure. I still haven’t encountered a Dick Durbin TV, radio, or Internet ad. I did see his name on the bottom of a Joe Biden yard sign, but those are pretty scarce.)

Durbin doesn’t have to campaign because he has transcended his origins as an ambitious, small-time politician, establishing himself as an Illinois institution. If he serves out his next term, he will tie Shelby Moore Cullom, who served from 1883 to 1913, as Illinois’s longest-running senator.

While Durbin doesn’t quite belong on the Mount Rushmore of Illinois senators, he can claim the unique distinction of having served alongside six seatmates in just 24 years. When Barack Obama made a pit stop in the Senate on his way to the presidency, Durbin joked that he was “Illinois’s other senator.” Actually, everyone who has occupied that revolving door seat is Illinois’s other senator.

Ever since he held papers for Sen. Paul Douglas when he was a student at Georgetown, Durbin has never aspired to be anything but the gentleman from Illinois. (Durbin so idolized Douglas that he named his firstborn son Paul Douglas Durbin.) Back in 2002, when he still had to campaign for his seat, I heard him tell a group of students at a school in Little Village that his mother was an immigrant (from Lithuania), “and now I stand before you today, a United States senator.” Durbin is never going to give up his dream job to run for president, or serve in the cabinet.

Durbin is invincible because he reflects his state’s political culture as few other senators do. Ironically, he accomplished that by switching his position on an issue that’s at the heart of every Supreme Court confirmation: abortion. As a newbie congressman, representing a district in the Central Illinois Bible Belt, Durbin was so staunchly anti-abortion that he served as master of ceremonies at the annual Respect for Life Observances at the state capitol, and in 1989 wrote to a constituent that “I am opposed to the use of federal funds to pay for elective abortions and…I continue to believe the Supreme Court’s decision in Roe v. Wade should be reversed.”

He changed his mind after visiting a home for abused children in Quincy, where he met 18-year-olds who had aborted pregnancies caused by rape and incest. Becoming pro-choice was the right move, career-wise. Durbin moved up to the Senate in 1996, as Illinois was becoming the bluest state in the Midwest, and Downstate was becoming more Republican. There’s no longer a place for a pro-life Democrat in Illinois. More than any other statewide official, Durbin bridges the gap between upstate and down, dividing his time between a Lake View condo and his Springfield home.

Durbin has already clashed once with Amy Coney Barrett, who is considered to be Trump’s most likely nominee to replace Ginsburg. In 2017, when Barrett was nominated for a federal judgeship, Durbin, himself a Catholic, asked whether her identity as “an orthodox Catholic” would influence her judicial decisions. Durbin voted against Barrett. If Trump nominates her for the Supreme Court, he’ll vote against her again — while making sure to remind the voters that the president is using her as a tool to take away their health care, and a woman’s right to choose.

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