CHICAGO – Illinois Republicans on Tuesday chose state senator and dairy magnate Jim Oberweis to challenge powerful, three-term Democratic U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin in November, as the party fights to remain relevant in a state in which Democrats hold almost all statewide offices and a substantial majority of congressional and legislative seats.
Oberweis, 67, of Sugar Grove, had greater name recognition than his primary opponent, Downers Grove businessman and political newcomer Doug Truax, because of the chain of ice cream stores his family owns and his previous campaigns for U.S. Senate. But he also heavily outspent Truax.
The decision also was crucial because the Senate candidate tops the GOP ticket, just above a governor's race that the party believes it can win after more than a decade of Democratic control.
Oberweis said he hopes to help the GOP retake control of the U.S. Senate to "change the direction of this country."
The 43-year-old Truax, who owns a health insurance consulting firm, had the support of former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich and U.S. Rep. Aaron Schock, a Peoria Republican, but it wasn't enough.
Nathan Piper, 21, a political science major at the University of Illinois at Springfield, said Oberweis got his vote on name recognition alone.
"I was at Republican Day at the (state) fair and I probably saw (Truax) there, but otherwise, I didn't know who he was," Piper said.
Veronique Escalante, a 40-year-old consultant from Glen Ellyn, said she voted for Oberweis because he "runs a successful business."
The GOP hopes to at least give Durbin a scare, but after 32 years in Washington, he has a big war chest. Even so, some political observers consider Durbin vulnerable because he helped pass President Barack Obama's health care program.
Republicans also hope to undo a near-Democratic sweep of contested congressional seats two years ago – and hold onto those they won. Democrats now control 12 of the state's 18 seats.
First-term U.S. Rep. Rodney Davis, who kept the 13th District in Republican hands by only a slim margin two years ago, beat two challengers on Tuesday, including Harvard law school graduate and former Miss America Erika Harold. He will face Democrat Ann Callis, the former chief circuit judge in Madison County, in what could be one of the most-watched races in the country.
Harold, a conservative who is biracial, was praised as someone who could help the GOP broaden its support after losses in 2012. But the party rallied around Davis, believing the incumbent has a better shot at retaining the seat that stretches from Urbana to Decatur to the outskirts of St. Louis' eastern suburbs.
In another closely watched race, Darlene Senger won a four-way primary race for the Republican nomination in northern Illinois' 11th Congressional District, and will face incumbent U.S. Rep. Bill Foster of Naperville in November. Foster, a former scientist at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory, is serving his second one-term stint in Congress.
Senger spent six years on the Naperville City Council before being elected to the Illinois House in 2008. She was a member of a 10-member bipartisan committee that helped push a pension deal through the state Legislature last fall.
The GOP also is trying to hold onto the Illinois treasurer's office after incumbent Dan Rutherford gave up the seat to run for the Republican gubernatorial nomination.
Former House Republican leader Tom Cross won the primary over DuPage County Auditor Bob Grogan, and will face state Sen. Mike Frerichs of Champaign in November.
"I think what tonight says about our win is that people ... focused on the financial conditions of the state. They want a balanced budget, they want less taxes," Cross said.
Unions targeted Democratic incumbent House members from Chicago who voted to cut state worker retirement benefits, defeating six-term state Rep. Toni Berrios. State Rep. Jaime Andrade Jr. survived a four-way primary, while Rep. Christian Mitchell was leading in early returns.
House Republican state Rep. Ed Sullivan of Mundelein won despite being targeted by conservative family groups for his vote to legalize gay marriage. Rep. Ron Sandack of Downers Grove also was targeted, but awaiting the primary outcome.
• Associated Press writers John O'Connor in Springfield, Ill., and Don Babwin in Hinsdale, Ill., contributed.