Alexi Giannoulias

When Alexi Giannoulias was running for state treasurer in 2006, Barack Obama called him “one of the most outstanding young men that I could ever hope to meet” in a TV ad. But now that Giannoulias is aiming for Obama’s old U.S. Senate seat, the president’s political team is trying to tie his old hoops buddy’s shoelaces together.

Obama’s inner circle and top Beltway Dems spent the summer searching for someone to run against Giannoulias in February’s Democratic primary. First, Obama invited the Illinois attorney general, Lisa Madigan, to the White House to discuss a Senate run. When Madigan said no, Obama’s chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, tried his persuasive tactics on the Cook County sheriff, Tom Dart, who opted instead to run for another term as sheriff. Emanuel and other prominent Dems reportedly also made overtures to the Merchandise Mart’s president, Chris Kennedy, who passed.

Finally, David Hoffman, Chicago’s inspector general, quit his job to enter the race, signing on as a client of AKPD Message and Media, the firm founded by David Axelrod.

Why do top Democrats seem so queasy about Giannoulias? It’s not personal, say party insiders. Just politics. Democrats are facing a tougher-than-expected electoral landscape, with even the Senate majority leader, Harry Reid of Nevada, and Connecticut’s Chris Dodd, a 2008 presidential contender, in serious political jeopardy. Losing Obama’s seat in a state where Republicans have won only one Senate election in the past 32 years would be a huge embarrassment to the White House.

If Lisa Madigan had thrown her hat in the ring, the race might have been a noncontest—several polls showed her cruising to victory over any GOP challenger, including Mark Kirk, the leading Republican contender. (A source close to Giannoulias says Kirk might not even have run had Madigan entered). Giannoulias, by contrast, trailed Kirk by three points in a Rasmussen poll—hardly proof he couldn’t win, but no confidence-builder either.

Because the election will take place at the same time as the former governor Rod Blagojevich’s corruption trial, some Dems in D.C. are also concerned that Giannoulias may not fare well against a Republican attack on ethics. Giannoulias’s family fortune comes from Broadway Bank, where he was chief loan officer; he is still dogged by the bank’s questionable loans to convicted felons, including bookmakers and unsavory characters with alleged prostitution and mob ties.

The lack of enthusiasm for Giannoulias by Washington Democrats is being viewed by some as a vote of no confidence. But Pete Giangreco, a consultant to Giannoulias’s campaign, suggests that one key reason Madigan and Dart passed on the race is because Giannoulias has raised $1.8 million in the first two quarters of 2009. “This is a guy who Democratic primary voters are lining up behind,” says Giangreco.

So is the local political establishment. Giannoulias has been endorsed by more than 100 elected officials across the state, as well as by the influential Cook County Democratic ward and township committeemen.


Photograph: Chicago Tribune photo by Kuni Takahashi