Every two years, with a few weeks left in the election, it seems that at least one Senate race emerges as surprisingly competitive. An incumbent whom nobody saw as vulnerable winds up fighting for his or her job.
Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.) in 2008. Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.) in 2010. Sen. Bob Casey (D-Pa.) in 2012.
The 2014 version, according to two recent polls, would be Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.). A July CBS/New York Times/YouGov poll showed him leading Republican Jim Oberweis by just eight points, while a We Ask America poll for the Chicago Sun-Times over the weekend showed him up just seven — and under 50 percent support.
This from a guy who has won his Senate races by 15 points (1996), 22 points (2002) and 39 points (2008).
But don't add Durbin to your 2014 maps just yet. Indeed, there's plenty of reason to believe he should be just fine.
First, it should be noted that both YouGov and We Ask America polls do not meet The Washington Post's standards for a high-quality poll. YouGov conducts its surveys online, while We Ask America uses automated polling technology.
When CBS and the Times partnered with YouGov a couple months back, there was something of an uprising in the polling community. The same poll also showed quite curious results in some other Senate races, including Republicans trailing by 12 points in what is largely seen as a toss-up race in Alaska and trailing by just seven against Sen. Cory Booker (D) in New Jersey.
As for We Ask America, it has routinely painted a better picture for Illinois GOP gubernatorial candidate Bruce Rauner than have other pollsters — including recently showing him up by double digits on Gov. Pat Quinn (D). That's not to say We Ask America is wrong; just that it's getting significantly more pro-GOP results than several other pollsters. (Update 3:08 p.m.: It's also worth noting that We Ask America is a one-day poll -- another big red flag.)
At the same time, the single-digit leads aren't that far-fetched, either. The limited polling we have seen in recent years doesn't show Durbin is overwhelmingly popular back home — still in positive territory, but with an approval rating hovering around 50 percent. That's generally where you have to at least be a little concerned about your campaign.
And then there's the early spending by conservative outside groups, which has to be a little disconcerting for the seldom-targeted incumbent.
So before declaring Durbin in trouble, we should probably wait for a high-quality poll to back these up. And given the state's top-tier governor's race, that should hopefully arrive soon.
But even if Durbin's single-digit edge is confirmed by other pollsters, keep one thing in mind: His opponent is Jim Oberweis.
The dairy magnate is a perennial candidate if there ever was one. He lost five high-profile races between 2002 and 2008 before winning a state Senate seat in a GOP-leaning district in 2012. Among his losses were three statewide primaries and two key congressional races in a span of eight months in 2008. (You'll probably recognize his name from his 2008 special election loss to now-Rep. Bill Foster in the GOP-leaning district left by former House speaker Dennis Hastert.)
Here's a brief rundown of Oberweis's electoral history:
Sure, Oberweis might have finally found the secret political sauce that he was missing for the first decade of the 21st Century. And the self-funder has money to burn if the race does get close.
But the idea that this perennial Republican candidate is going to knock off the sitting majority whip of the U.S. Senate in blue-leaning state is pretty hard to stomach right now. And if Durbin loses, it probably means Republicans just pulled an absolute sweep of the 2014 election.