It’s one of the hottest congressional races in Illinois — a contest that may help shape, or reshape, the House as Democrats fight to pad their nascent majority and Republicans attempt to recapture their lost ground. Thanks to their 2006 sweep, Democrats have 236 seats in the House, compared with the GOP’s 199 seats. In Illinois, Democrats hold 11 of the state’s 19 seats, while Republicans occupy the other eight.
A hot race also is under way in the south suburban 11th District, where Republican Jerry Weller is retiring. The district stretches from Chicago’s far southwestern suburbs to Bloomington. Democrat Debbie Halvorson, the state Senate majority leader, was an early favorite to win. But Republican concrete mogul Martin Ozinga, a formidable fundraiser, has turned the race into a nail-biter — keeping alive GOP aspirations of retaining the seat.
Republicans also are trying to keep a congressional seat in the central Illinois 18th District, where Republican Ray LaHood is retiring. State Rep. Aaron Schock, who rose rapidly through GOP ranks, is facing Democrat Colleen Callahan, a career broadcaster.
Including the far west suburban 14th District seat vacated in late 2007 by J. Dennis Hastert, the former U.S. House speaker, the Republicans are leaving open three seats in this election. Fermilab scientist and Democrat Bill Foster won the 14th District seat last March in a special election. Dairy magnate Jim Oberweis, a Republican and perennial candidate, is challenging Foster.
“It’s unusual for Illinois to have so many competitive congressional races,” says John McGovern, a GOP consultant. “That’s the result of several retirements which have created open seats. Clearly, that makes us ground zero in the battle for both parties to gain control of Congress.”
With this state’s own U.S. Sen. Barack Obama of Chicago at the top of the Democratic ticket, the congressional races in Illinois are especially dynamic. Democrats are trying to tie themselves to Obama as they work to link Republican candidates to John McCain, the GOP candidate for president, and ultimately, to President George W. Bush, the unpopular Republican. The Democrats are reaching for Obama’s coattails as they attempt to build on the 30-seat gain they made nationally in the House two years ago.
“This November, Illinois has moved front and center in Democratic efforts to expand our majority where voters will have a clear choice: Illinois’ own Barack Obama and Democratic House candidates offering a new direction in Washington versus John McCain and Republicans running to continue President Bush’s failed policies,” says Ryan Rudominer, spokesman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s Midwest operation.
The race in the 10th District typifies the challenge some Republicans face in this state during an election featuring Obama’s race for president. Though Republicans have long held the seat, the district — at least in other contests — has in recent years leaned Democratic. In a recent interview, Kirk twice cited instances in which he voted with Obama in Congress — a peculiar point for an incumbent Republican, even one in Illinois, to make at election time.
But even as they maneuver around Obama’s popularity, Republicans wish to juxtapose themselves from other powerful Democrats in Illinois. With Gov. Rod Blagojevich and state legislative leaders at loggerheads for the past two years, all-Democrat control of Springfield has become synonymous with gridlock and chaos. Republicans hope to spotlight that dysfunction to rally voters away from Democrats on Election Day.
“Rod Blagojevich would kill for Bush’s approval rating” in the 10th District, Kirk says. “And [Cook County Board President Todd] Stroger would kill for Rod Blagojevich’s approval rating.”
Seals, a 37-year-old business consultant and former GE Capital executive from Wilmette, is trying to cast his bid as a chance for change from the status quo. He tried unsuccessfully to oust Kirk in 2006.
“This is really a race about more of the same from Mark Kirk and Bush and McCain versus change,” Seals says. “And we see that on issues from the war in Iraq to deficits we’ve had from our energy policy. Those are the sorts of things, where people say, ‘Look, we need a new direction,’ and that’s what I’m fighting for.”
The 10th District stretches along the lake shore from Waukegan through Lake Forest and Highland Park to Winnetka, Kenilworth and Wilmette, and west into Libertyville, Vernon Hills, Buffalo Grove, Arlington Heights, Northbrook and Glenview. Kirk, 49, has held the seat since 2001, when he succeeded Republican John Porter. He won a comfortable 53.38 percent of the vote in 2006, while Seals won 46.62 percent.
Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry took 51 percent of the district’s vote in 2004, to Bush’s 48 percent.
Among other matters, Kirk and Seals are battling over energy policy. Kirk says the district’s voters support “all of the above” — meaning they want new and renewable forms of energy as well as expanded drilling for oil, even off American shores.
Seals responds: “Of course we’re going to keep drilling. But the real issue is how do we get off this dead-end street and find a new source of energy? How do we diversify?”
Both candidates express support for an end to the war in Iraq. Kirk says he wants to “wrap it up and bring one combat brigade home a month.”
“Ninety-five percent of what’s left to do in Iraq is political in nature and can only be done by Iraqis,” he says.
Seals calls for “a phased withdrawal, a responsible exit from Iraq.”
Kirk had $2.86 million in his campaign fund June 30 after raising $3.76 million and spending $1.08 million during this election cycle, according to the Federal Election Commission. Seals had $1.18 million on hand after raising $1.99 million and spending $985,622.48.
In the 11th District, which encompasses an area that includes Joliet, Kankakee, LaSalle-Peru and Bloomington, Ozinga and Halvorson also are focused on energy policy.
“My business is real sensitive to energy. We operate lots of trucks and the price of diesel fuel has gone up significantly, so we’re really affected by it,” Ozinga says. “I would hope that in this country, we develop an effective energy policy that pursues all forms of energy and options, which starts with drilling for oil everywhere we can find it.”
Halvorson says in a statement on her Web site: “We must commit our nation to higher environmental standards and clean and renewable sources of energy. These goals are not only good for our environment but will improve our economy, generate jobs and make us more secure.”
Despite repeated requests by Illinois Issues, Halvorson’s campaign did not make her available for an interview.
Ozinga and Halvorson also diverge on social issues. Ozinga calls himself an anti-abortion “social conservative.” Halvorson is supported by Emily’s List, a group that backs pro-choice women in races for public office.
On the war in the Middle East, Ozinga is hawkish while Halvorson appeals to skepticism about the Bush administration’s motives for initiating the military operation in Iraq and concern about the conflict’s open-ended nature.
“We need to accomplish our goals before we pull out, which we’re well on our way of doing,” Ozinga says. “Overall, the approach to dealing with terrorism is best when it takes an offensive posture. I’d rather be fighting those issues in a place like Iraq or Afghanistan than here on our own soil.”
On her campaign Web site, Halvorson says: “At the outset of the Iraq war, too many questions about whether invading Iraq was the right decision went unanswered. We were misled by those we trusted to keep us safe. Now we are involved in an intractable war that has done little to make our country safer. We must bring our troops home safely and securely, making it clear to Iraqis that our commitment is not open-ended and that political progress must be made immediately.”
Ozinga, 58, has tried to make much of Halvorson’s ties to powerful Democrats, including state Senate President Emil Jones Jr. of Chicago and Blagojevich, in an attempt to cast her as a key player in “the mess that we have in Springfield.”
“It’s a chain-of-command arrangement,” Ozinga says. “I would describe my opponent as a soldier in the machine Democrat organization.”
Brian Doory, Halvorson’s campaign manager, responds by alleging a connection between Ozinga’s political donations and government contracts awarded to his firm. “When it comes to Illinois politics, Marty Ozinga is the perfect example of a pay-to-play political insider,” Doory says. “He’s given $23,000 to the governor and thousands more to Chicago politicians, which has earned him millions in contracts from state and local governments.”
Halvorson had $916,636.92 on hand June 30 after raising $1.23 million and spending $354,000 over the election cycle. Ozinga had $669,590.46 on hand after raising $810,307.61 and spending $210,912.19.
The 18th District blends urban and rural communities, stretching from Knox, Stark and Putnam counties south through Peoria to Springfield, east over the northern edge of Decatur, and west through Jacksonville to Adams County, just shy of Quincy. LaHood won a whopping 67.28 percent of the vote in 2006, while Democrat Steve Waterworth captured just 32.72. Bush won 57 percent of the district’s vote in 2004, stomping Kerry’s 42 percent.
Schock, a second-term state representative, is the front-runner because of his name recognition and the district’s GOP slant. He was first elected to the Peoria School Board at 19 and later defeated an incumbent Democrat in his first run for the Illinois House. He is just 27, the state’s youngest legislator.
Callahan, 57, spent her career as a broadcaster with a focus on agriculture. Local Democratic Party bosses picked her to run after basketball coach Dick Versace stepped aside.
“Do I feel like the sacrificial lamb? No I do not,” Callahan says, casting aside the notion that she faces little chance of winning the race. “Rather, I feel like the chosen one.”
Both candidates are working aggressively to appeal to rural, more conservative voters. Callahan says her decades of informing and educating folks about agricultural news and trends endeared her to farmers and helped her cultivate support from traditionally Republican voters.
“I was and continue to be a representative of agriculture, a spokesperson on and for agriculture,” she says.
Schock touts his own endorsement from the Illinois Farm Bureau. “This is her base,” he says of his opponent.
Callahan is promoting stepped-up production of corn-based ethanol. Schock also favors expanded ethanol production. Additionally, he believes the United States should identify more overseas markets in which to sell agricultural commodities. He also favors abolishing the estate tax.
Schock favors drilling for oil offshore, as well as in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Callahan says she supports expanded drilling for oil but adds, “We can drill if we make absolutely certain that we are environmentally sensitive to where we are drilling and how we are drilling.”
Schock expresses support for continued deployment of troops in the Middle East, at least in the short term.
“The role of Congress is to support our military from a funding side, make sure they get the tools and resources necessary to protect our country and our allies overseas,” he says. “With regards to the war in the Middle East, I think the [troop] surge has worked, and the Iraqi government has given indications that they’re ready to take over more security of their country, which is exciting.”
Callahan emphasizes an end to the war in Iraq. “We’ve got to come home with an orderly timeline of withdrawal,” she says.
Schock had $299,341.95 on hand June 30 after raising $1.5 million and spending $1.21 million. Callahan had $155,412.92 on hand after raising $226,683.43 and spending $121,270.51.
In the 14th District, Oberweis of Sugar Grove is making his fourth run for office in as many election cycles. He lost Republican primaries for U.S. Senate in 2002 and 2004 and for governor in 2006.
Foster had $442,934 on hand after raising $2.04 million and spending $3.47 million (his campaign debt totaled $1 million). Oberweis had $547,191.96 on hand after raising $1.33 million and spending $4.1 million (his campaign debt totaled $1.64 million).
As in Hastert’s former district, Democrats in the 8th District are working to keep another seat they recently took from Republicans. The district reaches from tiny Hebron in northern McHenry County south through Woodstock, McHenry, Wauconda and Lake Zurich to eastern Elgin, east along the state line to Winthrop Harbor and Zion, then southeast into Gurnee, Grayslake and Mundelein. Democrat Melissa Bean won the district seat in 2004 from longtime Republican Rep. Phil Crane.
Bean kept it in 2006, a tremendous year for Democrats nationwide, with just 50.9 percent of the vote. Republican David McSweeney won 44 percent, and “moderate” candidate Bill Scheurer took 5.1 percent. Bush won 55 percent of the district’s vote in 2004, compared with Kerry’s 44 percent.
In this election, Bean is trying to fight off a challenge from Steve Greenberg, a Long Grove businessman and former professional hockey player.
Bean had $1.55 million on hand June 30 after raising $2.68 million and spending $1.27 million (her campaign debt totaled $17,800). Greenberg had $104,691.36 after raising $675,930.70 and spending $649,936.39 (his campaign debt totaled $118,298.51).
In the west suburban 6th District — a seat held for a generation by GOP stalwart Henry Hyde — incumbent Republican Peter Roskam of Wheaton faces Democrat Jill Morgenthaler, an Iraq War veteran. Roskam had $1.21 million on hand June 30 after raising $1.77 million and spending $767,960.58 (his campaign debt totaled $37,151.54). Morgenthaler had $230,898.51 on hand after raising $495.232.60 and spending $264,334.09.
Roskam won the seat in 2006, besting Democrat Tammy Duckworth, another Iraq war veteran.
In the southwest suburban 13th District, incumbent Republican Judy Biggert of Hinsdale faces a stiff challenge from Naperville businessman Scott Harper, a Democrat. Biggert had $680,447.46 on hand June 30 after raising $925,679.11 and spending $485,802.52 (her campaign debt totaled $298,250). Harper had $300,061.51 on hand after raising $374,408.95 and spending $220,632.38 (his campaign debt totaled $156,966.90).
And in the northern Illinois 16th District, incumbent Republican Don Manzullo of Egan faces a challenge from Barrington Hills Mayor Bob Abboud, a Democrat. Manzullo had $577,103.60 on hand June 30 after raising $969,565.97 and spending $553,330.26. Abboud had $13,754.63 after raising $179,764.12 and spending $226,254.36 (his campaign debt totaled $91,569.04).
The 16th District runs from McHenry west through Winnebago, Boone and Ogle counties to the Mississippi River.
In the Illinois battleground for congressional races this year, Democrats hope voters will put them in control of at least two more of the state’s 19 House seats. Republicans hope to avoid slipping even further away from the majority they lost two years ago.
Aaron Chambers is a former Statehouse reporter who has since joined the Serafin & Associates public relations firm.
Illinois Issues, October 2008