CHICAGO — Illinois Republicans face a dilemma in picking a challenger to the second most powerful Democrat in the U.S. Senate.
Does a West Point graduate and business owner with little name recognition give them their best shot at beating three-term Sen. Dick Durbin? Or is it a dairy magnate and state senator who has run twice for the office unsuccessfully, and has had past gaffes about immigrants and abortion?
At stake is not only the Senate race, in which Republicans believe they can at least give Durbin a scare despite his hefty blue-state fundraising advantage. They also worry about which Senate candidate's name will top their ticket, just above a crucial governor's race that Republicans believe they can win after more than a decade of Democratic control.
State Sen. Jim Oberweis of Sugar Grove, whose family owns a chain of ice cream shops across Illinois, says he has the best chance to unseat Durbin because the race requires someone whose name is recognizable to voters. The 67-year-old says he has learned from previous campaigns, when his remarks about "illegal aliens" and other issues got him into trouble.
"Ten years ago I was politically inexperienced and I made some mistakes," he said. "I think my primary opponent is a nice young man, but this is a serious race and it needs a serious, experienced candidate."
His opponent in the March 18 primary, Doug Truax of Downers Grove, argues he's the kind of new face the GOP has been looking for as it works to attract younger and more independent voters. The 43-year-old has the support of former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich and U.S. Rep. Aaron Schock, a Peoria Republican who held a fundraiser for him last month.
"The reality is the Democrats in some form are going to wrap this gaffe-prone caricature of (Oberweis) around all of the Illinois Republican candidates, and Republicans nationally. It concerns a lot of people," Truax said. "He's not the greatest face for the Republican party."
Illinois GOP officials see the primary as an opportunity in their battle to remain relevant in a state in which Democrats hold almost all statewide offices and majorities of the Legislature and congressional delegation. Of all the races on the November ballot, they see the governor's office as their best shot at victory.
Trying to defeat Durbin, or any sitting senator, is a formidable task. After 32 years in Washington, he has no primary opposition and a big war chest. He finished 2013 with $5.5 million in his campaign fund. Oberweis had about $590,000, while Truax had about $45,000.
If Oberweis wins the primary, GOP strategist Chris Robling said, there's no doubt that Durbin will use some of that money "to say (Oberweis) is a right-wing radical and not right for Illinois." Robling also said if millionaire businessman Bruce Rauner wins the GOP nomination for governor, Democrats could paint Republicans as "the white male millionaire party."
Rauner, a Winnetka venture capitalist considered the front-runner, is the only candidate in the four-way gubernatorial primary who hasn't held public office. He has poured about $6 million into his own campaign.
But Robling considers Oberweis to have the best chance of defeating Durbin, whom he says is vulnerable because he helped get President Barack Obama's troubled health care program signed into law. He said Oberweis knows the importance of the race and is less likely to say whatever may cross his mind.
"I believe that Jim Oberweis is 15 or 20 times the campaigner he was (in his earlier races)," Robling said.
In a 2004 campaign commercial, Oberweis flew over Chicago's Soldier Field to warn that enough "illegal aliens" were entering the country each day to fill its seats. Last year, he led an effort to fire the state party chairman in part because he publicly supported gay marriage. Some Republicans said the dust-up only reinforced an Image of the party as too hard line — a view that could turn off independent voters vital to winning a statewide election.
Truax is doing his best to improve his name recognition, putting out radio ads this and touting endorsements from Republicans like Schock, who called him "the type of young and energetic leader Republicans want to embrace." Gingrich noted that Truax's expertise in health care — he owns a health insurance consulting company — would be a big help as lawmakers try to work through problems with Obama's signature health care law.
Both candidates describe themselves as strong fiscal conservatives concerned about the country's debt. They also say their experience as business owners — Oberweis also started an investment company — gives them an understanding Durbin doesn't have about what's needed to improve the economy.
Both oppose immigration legislation championed by Durbin that would give people in the country illegally a path to citizenship and say the country's first priority must be securing the border.
Oberweis said he now supports a path to citizenship for children who were brought to the country illegally and grew up here. Truax says he doesn't believe those children should be punished, but he wants to see a piecemeal approach to legislation, not the comprehensive package that Durbin backs.