The No. 2 Senate Democrat, long thought to have an easy ride to a fourth term, could be in for a fight as recent polls show the race narrowing in the final weeks of the 2014 midterms.
Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin, the Democratic whip, had been consistently leading by double digits over Republican challenger Jim Oberweis for months.
But a poll, commissioned by the Chicago Sun-Times, released earlier this week showed the gap narrowing to 7 points.
The latest poll, released Friday morning by Reboot Illinois, shows the long-time Democratic senator with a 10-point lead over Oberweis – that’s still closer than a survey released by the same outfit in late July showing a 15-point divide.
Some pollsters say it’s still too early to call the race competitive.
But with higher poll numbers in sight, Oberweis is trying to build momentum – siphoning off endorsements and touting the movement in the polls.
“We knew this race was getting very tight,” Oberweis told Fox News.
He added: “No one has ever held Dick Durbin accountable for his failed policies in the past. But I intend to do exactly that with the voters of Illinois.”
Oberweis, a successful businessman in the dairy industry, has run several times for Senate, governor and House. He currently is a member of the Illinois state Senate.
Democrats already are on defense in Senate races across the country, as they try to prevent Republicans from bagging the six seats necessary to take control of the chamber. A fight in Illinois, thought to be safe Democratic territory, is the last thing they need.
But Durbin’s camp questioned the validity of the recent polls, saying the methodology – the recent ones were conducted based on automated phone calls -- is unreliable. “The methodology behind both of the polls which is automated polls, robocalls, probably aren’t the best way to do tracking,” Durbin spokesman Ron Holmes said.
Matt Dietrich, executive director at Reboot Illinois, stands by his outfit’s poll, saying the company they use has a good track record and is very “reliable and reputable”.
But he told Fox News it’s hard to tell if there’s a trend yet in Oberweis’ favor.
“If you look at it from the perspective of the Sun-Times poll that happened a week ago, well now he is back down to 10, so I’m not sure you have a trend here yet,” he said.
He added: “Durbin hasn’t really done a lot of advertising yet … which makes me think when he starts doing more, then yes, it could open it up again.”
In a positive sign for the Republican, Oberweis has received key endorsements from prominent black ministers in Chicago. Among them is Bishop Larry Trotter, a former Durbin supporter, who serves as pastor to 8,000 Chicago churchgoers.
“We are certainly competing with support from the African-American community. Bishop Trotter was wonderfully supportive,” Oberweis said.
Durbin’s supporters framed the endorsement as a publicity stunt.
“As you know, some religious leaders like a lot of media attention … and they want to do something to disturb the pot a little bit,” said Steve Brown, spokesman for the Illinois Democratic Party.
“I think a lot of his parishioners, if they were to ask Senator Oberweis what his stance on guns was, or his stance on minimum wage was, I think they would strong-heartedly disagree with the bishop’s endorsement,” Holmes said.
The minority vote in Chicago has historically helped carry elections for Democratic candidates in Illinois, but some say their loyalty to the party is faltering.
“They’ve been taken for granted and they’re saying wait a minute, we don’t want to be taken for granted anymore,” said Tim Schneider, chairman of the Illinois Republican Party.
Despite the controversy, the move could be critical to Oberweis’ campaign. “We haven’t had a Republican senator who goes and stands on the corner of [the] South Side of Chicago talking to people and handing out literature … he has a chance to hit some dominoes and get something going on that,” Dietrich said.