Chicago (CNSNews.com) - A conservative Republican lawyer from Chicago's upscale downtown area, equipped with a rags to riches story, this week launched a campaign to unseat one-term incumbent Sen. Richard Durbin, one of the most reliably partisan Democrats on Capitol Hill.
Durbin, as a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, was one of the most vocal critics of Attorney General John Ashcroft during Ashcroft's nomination battle, voting against confirmation both in committee and on the Senate floor.
John Cox, 45, who converted to Roman Catholicism as an adult, is running for Durbin's seat on a pro-life platform. He's also stressing the need for President Bush's missile defense shield, Social Security reform, educational choice, and a laissez-faire, supply-side economic policy.
All of these issues position Cox in complete contrast to Durbin, whom conservatives consider a tax-and-spend liberal and gun control extremist.
Cox is already trying to brand Durbin, who's been in Congress since 1983, a career politician, who is out of touch with mainstream voters in this swing state of Illinois.
"Durbin is further to the left than Barbara Boxer or Teddy Kennedy," says Cox, quoting ratings produced by Citizens Against Government Waste and the National Taxpayers Union. "He talks like a moderate. Maybe he was a moderate when he first ran for Congress years ago. But today he's not like most Illinoisans."
But Durbin's office is assuming the Congressional equivalent of a Rose Garden strategy, ignoring the political combat. "We don't have any comment," says Melissa Merz, a spokeswoman for Durbin in his Washington office. "The Senator's very busy here."
Cox, however, argues that he is like many Illinoisans. His life is something of a modern-day Horatio Alger story. He was raised by a single mother and attended public schools on the South Side of Chicago, a less-than-affluent area.
But he says he pulled himself up by his own boot straps, attending community college, then a state college, then law school at night. Today, the father of three girls has an array of businesses in the financial services and legal fields and employs about 30
Cox has been involved in politics on the local level for many years, and has held an appointed position on a local zoning board and an elected post on a suburban school board. Last year, his PAC, Empower USA, ran television spots in Illinois touting the Bush for President campaign. He also ran in the primary campaign against moderate Republican Mark Kirk, who was eventually elected to Congress.
Cox's role models are heroes of the conservative movement. "My idols are Ronald Reagan and Jack Kemp," says Cox. "I've tried to emulate them."
What motivated him to run against Durbin? To be sure, "Durbin's record as senator got to me," says Cox, who quotes National Taxpayer Union ratings, which give Durbin a rating of three on a scale of 100. By contrast, Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) has a rating of 10 from NTU.
"We need more growth-oriented policies, not the populist business bashing that we're getting from Durbin," says Cox.
A leading taxpayers advocacy group in suburban Chicago agrees with that assessment of Durbin. "He is a terrible senator," says Joe Wiegand, executive director of the Family Taxpayers Network in Carpentersville, Ill., a grassroots group with 20,000 members. "His record is among the worst for taxpayers, small businesses and families."
An event last fall motivated Cox to challenge Durbin -- the senator's call to eliminate the Electoral College, just as Al Gore was mounting his unprecedented election challenge in Florida. "That was a move designed just for publicity," says Cox. "There's no rational basis to it, whatsoever. In fact, I can imagine what would happen if we did eliminate the Electoral College. There would be even more ballot box stuffing in Chicago, and other urban areas, than there already is now."
Cox began his campaign in Chicago Tuesday, then traveled to upstate Rockford and downstate Springfield, among other cities, by private plane, with an entourage of campaign aides and local reporters, hoping to pre-empt other challengers from entering the Republican primary, which is scheduled for just over a year from now.
Cox's campaign is already getting high marks for beginning the process of "increasing awareness of Durbin's record," says Wiegand.
The early entry might have other advantages as well. There is speculation that Sen. Durbin may choose to give up his senate seat and run for governor against troubled Republican incumbent George Ryan. But Durbin's office won't talk about that either.
"The senator's very busy in the Senate," says spokeswoman Merz. "That's what we're focusing on here."
Cox made the rounds in Washington during the Bush inaugural, and says his visit with one pro-business group yielded an interesting anecdote about his rival, Durbin. "Some people in the business community say that Durbin is so bad," says Cox, "that it makes them long for the days of Sen. Carol Mosely-Braun," the former one-term Democratic senator whose term was plagued by charges of campaign spending abuses and other missteps.