As he seeks a fifth term, Democratic U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin finds his top two opponents mounting challenges that are deeply rooted in their religious faith.
Republican Mark Curran, a former Democrat-turned-Republican ex-Lake County sheriff, points to his Catholic faith in opposing abortion and supporting immigration rights, as well as in his outspoken disapproval of state restrictions aimed at curbing the spread of COVID-19.
“The devil is about fear and isolation. Does he own you? How much more of his childhood are we going to steal? Death will eventually come for everyone. Your soul will have an eternal destination,” he wrote on his official campaign Facebook page after learning that his son’s fall high school football season had been postponed.
Running as a third-party candidate is Willie Wilson, who twice ran unsuccessfully for Chicago mayor and made a brief quixotic bid for the 2016 Democratic presidential nomination before casting his vote for Republican Donald Trump.
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A wealthy food and medical glove distributor who also distributes his own gospel recordings, Wilson paid the fines for a few churches that violated pandemic gathering orders.
“I stood up to the governor and mayor of the city of Chicago when they were closing doors. And I said, ‘Wait a minute. If you’re closing doors at the church, how can you not close all marijuana houses and liquor stores?’ I paid a price. I offered a million dollars to anybody who gets a ticket from any church. And I paid for a few,” Wilson said at a September church service.
On Oct. 8, Wilson said he had begun a quarantine after announcing that he had tested positive for COVID-19, along with five people who traveled with him five days earlier to a Danville church. Prior to the Danville trip, Wilson visited senior housing sites throughout Chicago to hand out what he said was $250,000 worth of $25 Walmart gift cards.
“We’re passing some of these out in Danville, Illinois. It’s the first time I’ve been down here. I didn’t know Black people lived down here but I’m down here now to look at them and I see it with my own eyes,” Wilson told supporters, wearing a mask but no gloves, as he handed the gift cards to drivers outside the Greater Shiloh Missionary Baptist Church in Danville.
Officials from the Vermilion County Public Health Department did not respond when asked if they had been informed of Wilson’s illness or if any contact tracing had taken place among those who had been in contact with him. On Oct. 22, Wilson said he had tested negative.
Also on the Nov. 3 ballot are Green Party candidate David Black and Libertarian Danny Malouf.
Durbin, 75, is Illinois' senior senator the No. 2 ranking Democrat in the Senate, where he has served since 1996 after 14 years in the U.S. House.
Six years ago, he won reelection with his smallest percentage victory in any of his statewide races, 53.5%, against Republican state Sen. Jim Oberweis of Sugar Grove who is now making a bid for the U.S. House. In 2002 and 2008, Durbin topped 60% of the vote after winning his initial bid for Senate with 54.3% of the vote.
Durbin is still viewed as the favorite in this election, with a large campaign bankroll of $4.5 million as of Oct. 1. He’s also received free exposure over the last four years on national TV outlets in taking on Trump and, more recently, in his role attacking the president’s handling of the pandemic and on the Senate Judiciary Committee in opposing the confirmation of Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett.
Durbin has most recently used Trump to try to motivate support in a TV spot that calls the president “a big bully,” and says Durbin has “brought him down to size.” It shows Trump shrinking to fit into the size of the senator’s palm, where he disposes of the president with a wrist flip.
The spots tagline, “Dick Durbin, a senator for times like these,” ties into what Durbin said was one motivation for seeking reelection — the prospect of a Trump defeat to former Vice President Joe Biden, as well as the potential of a Democratic takeover of the Senate.
“Politically it motivated me more than anything because I’ve seen so much damage done to this country in the last four years and I have great faith in Joe Biden to turn this around and I want to be part of it,” Durbin said in an interview.
“I also think, putting ego aside for a moment here, that I’m in a position to be helpful in the Senate for our state. I talk to Gov. (J.B.) Pritzker more often than any governor since I’ve been elected. I know we face real challenges and I hope to be able to help here in Washington,” said Durbin who also is a member of the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee.
Durbin has called his vote in support of the Affordable Care Act, known as Obamacare, one of the most important he has cast during his time in the Senate. He said preserving and improving the law, particularly continuing coverage of preexisting medical conditions, is also motivating his bid for reelection.
“Let’s be very blunt about this — this president and many Republicans hate anything with Obama’s name on it and they labeled this Obamacare from the start,” he said. The GOP’s opposition to the program “is a definition of who they are as Republicans,” he said.
Durbin backs a new large-scale round of COVID-19 economic relief, including direct cash benefits for families and supplemental unemployment assistance as well as aid to state and local governments. But given the partisan impasse between a Senate controlled by Republicans and Democrats who run the House, Durbin lamented, “I think realistically it will take a new president before we pass a stimulus package.”
Durbin also has been a longtime supporter of tougher gun control laws and efforts to halt the flow of illegal guns from out of state into Chicago.
Curran, 57, the former three-term sheriff of Lake County, won a six-way contest for the Republican nomination in March, getting 41.5% of the vote. In contests for county sheriff, he won in 2006 as a Democrat, then switched parties for wins in 2010 and 2014 before losing by 137 votes in 2018.
Curran has previously been a critic of Trump and once called him “horrible for our brand." But Curran has since gone all-in for the president’s reelection. A critic of pandemic restrictions, he’s echoed Trump in criticizing Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.
“Fauci’s pitching is about as accurate as his advice on combating #COVID19,” Curran tweeted, after Fauci’s wayward first pitch at a Washington Nationals game.
But the GOP isn’t returning the favor. “I have no support from the NRSC, RNC & hardly any from the ILGOP,” he said on Twitter, referring to the National Republican Senatorial Committee, the Republican National Committee and the Illinois GOP.
Federal campaign spending reports showed Curran started October with $35,198 in cash. Tim Schneider, the state GOP chairman, urged Republicans to “send him a few dollars if you can for the final stretch.”
With no TV advertising budget, Curran has largely employed social media to promote his campaign. Concerned that people didn’t seem to know he was running against Durbin, he added the words “Dick Durbin’s opponent” to his Twitter account.
Curran has sought to use the recent issues of civil unrest and rioting as a reason to send someone with his law enforcement background to Washington. In a right-wing YouTube interview, he indicated that divine intervention played a role in his candidacy.
“At Republican events, we ask, ‘Does God make mistakes? Do you think there’s accidents in the world? Does providence play a part in our lives?’ So why is it that in the most unlawful time in American history, somebody who has given his whole career to law enforcement as a county, state and federal prosecutor and a longtime sheriff of the third largest county in Illinois out of 102 counties is drawn into this race?” he said.
At a “Back the Blue” Grant Park rally in July in support of law enforcement, Curran said a number of Republican candidates have police or military backgrounds and said that should be compared to the state’s Democratic political leaders.
“It’s really a battle of good versus evil. We’re going to storm the gates of hell. You know where hell is? Hell is the mayor’s office. Hell is in the governor’s office. Hell is in Springfield. Hell is in Dick Durbin’s chamber in Washington,” Curran said.
Curran also has been an outspoken opponent of abortion — to the point that just two days after the death of U.S. Rep. John Lewis, he contended the Black congressman, widely regarded as an icon of the civil rights movement, was “not much of a civil rights leader” given his support of abortion rights.
“If you want to know why there’s violence in the streets of Chicago, why it’s the most violent city in America, it’s because there’s no respect for the sanctity of human life,” he said.
Curran has at times objected to those who say his Senate candidacy is steeped in his religion. But in an Oct. 18, 2011, interview with PBS' Frontline, he described his approach: “In terms of Republican/Democrat politics, I will always prioritize my faith over my political affiliation on every issue, and to me it’s an easy choice. I don’t fit neatly into the Republican agenda. I don’t fit into the Democratic agenda on many issues. That’s my core on which I am going to decide issues.”
Wilson is the unknown factor in the race. The son of sharecroppers who rose from janitor at a McDonald’s to own several franchises before entering the food- and medical-supply business, Wilson, his gospel orchestra, his singing and his cash giveaways are most well known in the Black community.
He received about 50,000 votes in each of his mayoral bids, good for almost 11% of the ballots cast, in finishing in third place in 2015 and in fourth place in 2019.
Though he ran briefly as a Democratic presidential candidate, Wilson’s interests have shifted more Republican. He voted for Trump in 2016, but now says he’s unsure who he will vote for. Wilson also aligned himself with one-term Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner. He recently hailed his endorsement from disgraced former Democratic Gov. Rod Blagojevich, who has labeled himself a “Trumpocrat.”
Wilson has long been known for his controversial cash handouts, sometimes in churches, sometimes outside Cook County Jail for bond money. The State Board of Elections ruled the giveaways did not violate election law, noting Wilson’s history of charitable giving. A federal campaign finance expert said that also would likely be the case with Wilson’s $25 Walmart card handouts.
His distribution of face masks to Chicago police also helped earn him the endorsement of the Chicago Federation of Police. He’s also got the backing of three city aldermen: Anthony Napolitano (41st), Nick Sposato (38th),and Chris Taliaferro (29th).
Wilson has given his self-funded campaign more than $3 million. He has done some limited advertising and like Curran contends Durbin has served in Washington for too long.
Wilson has proposed equity in the distribution of government resources across the city. He also has reached into some of Durbin’s voting history, including support as a congressman of the 1994 crime bill that was enacted by Democrats under President Bill Clinton but which is now widely criticized for unfairly penalizing African Americans.
Durbin said the law was an attempt to curb a spiraling crack cocaine problem but “that experiment failed.” He pointed to criminal justice and sentencing reforms he sponsored that were signed into law by both Obama and Trump.
Durbin said internal early polling suggested Wilson would receive about 15% of the state’s Black vote. The senator has begun running ads touting the endorsement of former President Barack Obama and Democratic vice presidential candidate Kamala Harris.
“His votes are my votes,” Durbin said of Wilson. “These are people who traditionally would support me, I believe. Most them, not all of them, but most of them, so I take him seriously.”