Sen. Dick Durbin is kicking off a fund-raising blitz for his 2008 re-election campaign on Sunday at a brunch hosted by Democrats Susan and Lew Manilow.
Susan Manilow, a longtime Democratic activist and fund-raiser, is the new chair of Durbin's finance committee, and the Sunday huddle will be the first meeting of his 2008 finance committee.
Durbin, enjoying unprecedented power, popularity and prestige as the majority whip, is seeking a third term.
Now, he has no GOP opponent, but eventually, some Republican will surface. Republican Andy McKenna is on a recruiting drive.
"It's a huge question mark," Durbin political chief Mike Daly told me. He added, "While the Republicans don't have anyone elected statewide at the moment who could run as a candidate, they will find one."
Durbin wants millions of dollars in his war chest as soon as possible to make any GOP multimillionaire think twice about the cost of challenging him. Durbin wants to raise the financial bar so high no one but a rookie, long shot or no-name Republican will bother to run.
He is starting the election cycle with $2.9 million in his war chest. Over the next two years, Durbin will need to raise between $15 million and $30 million, Daly said.
When the Senate goes on break Feb. 19, Durbin will travel to Los Angeles, San Francisco, Dallas and Austin for fund-raisers. He has other fund-raisers planned for March. The idea is to post intimidating numbers for the first- and second-quarter Federal Election Commission financial reports as insurance in driving away a top-tier rival.
In ramping up for his re-election drive, Durbin already has had three Chicago fund-raisers in the past weeks and another, aimed at female supporters, on Friday. His strategy is to go to his fund-raising base first and lock down the money.
McKenna said he has been reaching out to some possible candidates. Nothing firm.
"It's a quiet period at this point," McKenna told me. He is shopping for someone who can bankroll his or her own campaign. Some potential recruits, he said, "could write checks for the whole amount." But even for the mega-rich, facing the prospect of spending $30 million in a risky run is a harder decision to make than if the race were gauged to be just a $15 million contest.
McKenna's recruiting drive is faced with obstacles he cannot control. The national 2008 Senate re-election map plays to Durbin's favor. The Republicans will be playing heavy defense. Of the 33 Senate seats up in 2008, 21 of them are now in GOP hands. The Democrats only have to defend 12 seats in 2008.
That means that the National Republican Senatorial Committee has plenty of work to do just to hold onto what it has and not throw away resources on chasing Durbin, who was named by Time Magazine last April as one of the nation's "10 best senators."
McKenna also has to factor in Sen. Barack Obama's presidential run in convincing people to run against Durbin. Obama is very close to Durbin. Durbin started a petition drive to urge him to run for president. Durbin will be on the stage Saturday in Springfield playing a leading role in Obama's 2008 presidential campaign kickoff. One of Obama's favorite stump speech stories is about how Durbin, during Obama's Senate race, took him to Downstate Cairo, once a city with a terrible racist reputation that evolved to welcome them with open arms in 2004.
Illinois Senate candidates have to file nominating petitions later this year for the 2008 Illinois primary not knowing if Obama will be leading the ticket as the nominee of the Democratic Party. Even if Obama is not, or if he's on the ticket as a vice presidential candidate, he will soon have his own national fund-raising network to tap on Durbin's behalf.
In an e-mail to supporters on Tuesday, Durbin wrote, "My decision to seek another term depends on how effective my fund-raising is. My friend and mentor Paul Simon declined to run for a third term because the fund-raising was such a chore. Paul retired rather than go through all that again. We all know that I will be a top target if I seek re-election -- the Republicans will have a very well-funded candidate. That's why I am turning to you. Paul Simon didn't have an Internet army covering his back. I do, at least I hope I do.''
There's no real doubt, however.