The gang was all there to greet President Obama when he arrived home in Chicago Thursday evening to raise cash for Illinois's struggling Democratic establishment.
Mayor Richard Daley, Gov. Pat Quinn and Rep. Mike Quigley made the trip out to O'Hare Airport to welcome the president in person and accompany him on a helicopter ride over his city's famous skyline. Crowds gathered in front of the tony downtown hotel where Obama was raising $750,000 for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and the man who wants to win his old senate seat.
"This is Chicago," Obama told the hometown donors. "Politics is sport here. By the way, have you seen my chief of staff?"
The crowd roared, though Rahm Emanuel -- who returned to the city earlier this week to start his campaign to become Chicago's next mayor -- was nowhere in sight. The president might be losing fans throughout the country, but he's still playing to a home crowd in Illinois.
Yet, the president's sheer presence in Illinois less than four weeks before the mid-term election also verifies a disconcerting development for Democrats: Obama's once solidly blue backyard is in danger of turning purple.
"It shows you how much trouble the president and the Democrats in general are in that Obama is back here raising money for Democrats," said Kent Redfield, a political scientist at the University of Illinois, Springfield.
Quinn is in a tight gubernatorial race. Four congressional Democratic incumbents -- all from urban districts -- are facing tough fights to keep their seats. And Alexi Giannoulias, the former state treasurer vying for the senate seat, is knotted in a close race with Rep. Mark Kirk, a moderate Republican from suburban Chicago.
By many measures, Illinois should continue to lean Democratic. The Hispanic population has nearly doubled over the last two decades. The African-American population remains significant, labor groups remain robust, and Obama was the first Democratic presidential candidate to win the state's Republican-leaning rural vote since President Clinton.
But the polls show that Democratic candidates in Illinois are similarly suffering from the same sort of voter discontent that the president's party is facing throughout the country.
Obama still remains popular in his home state, with 52 percent of likely voters in Illinois saying they have a favorable view of him, according to a poll released this week by Suffolk University. His home state is one of few states where polls say he can be an asset for Democrats. Giannoulias embraced the president's presence, introducing him as "my friend, my mentor, one of the greatest fighters I've ever encountered."
Brian Gaines, a political scientist at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, said he's surprised that Giannoulias has managed to remain competitive. Two months after Giannoulias won the Democratic primary, his family-owned bank was seized by federal regulators. He was also dogged by allegations of mob ties after the Chicago Tribune revealed the bank, where Giannoulias served as a senior loan officer, loaned $20 million to two felons. [It hasn't hurt Giannoulias that his Republican opponent has acknowledged that he has embellished details of his military service]
Giannoulias has said on the campaign trail that the woes of his family's business are reflective of the pain that many working people and small businesses are going through in the country's financial downturn. Obama referred to the bank collapse in his speech Thursday night.
"In some very tough circumstances, in a very tough election environment, he has not wavered, and that's the kind of person you want," Obama said.
But if Republicans make significant gains in Illinois, GOP leaders will certainly use it as ammunition to make their case that Obama is out of touch with a wide swath of Americans, Gaines said. And winning Obama's old seat would be the ultimate political trophy as the GOP begins looking towards 2012.
"It's a little embarrassing," Gaines said about the prospect of Democratic losses in Illinois. "If on November 3, Illinois looks more like a purple state than a blue state, it's going to be like Chicago losing the Olympics. The president is going to have to answer: 'Where's his clout? Where's his ability to deliver?'"
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