Surprise Spotlight: 8th District contest quickly evolved into closely watched congressional race
By most political measuring sticks, Illinois' 8th District race between the nation's longest-serving U.S. House Republican, Philip Crane, and Democratic upstart Melissa Bean shouldn't be a close one.
The suburban district, which includes parts of northwest Cook, western Lake and eastern McHenry counties, is the state's most heavily Republican, an assessment supported by returns from the 2000 presidential race. George W. Bush lost Illinois by 12 percentage points, but won Crane's district with 56 percent of the vote. It's hardly an economically struggling swing district, either ?\ it's got the third-highest median income in Illinois. Moreover, Crane, who lives in Wauconda, has been in office 35 years, and the closest he's come to losing was the 56 percent of the vote he collected in 1992.
Yet this contest quickly evolved into Illinois' most closely watched congressional race. Even Crane's fellow Republicans are worried. Rep. Ray LaHood of Peoria told the Washington, D.C.-based newspaper Roll Call over the summer that Crane could well be this year's "November surprise." LaHood, who some political observers see as the man House Speaker Dennis Hastert of Yorkville picks to send messages, since has softened, now saying Crane has turned things around.
Hastert and Cook County GOP Chairman Gary Skoien also have sounded the alarm bell, urging Crane to raise money, get back home and work harder than he has in the past. "He does need to spend more time back in the district, reconnect with the voters," says Skoien, who quickly adds he thinks Crane will be fine.
The Democrats will have to cross their collective fingers and win such seemingly unlikely contests as this one if they're going to pick up the net gain of 12 seats required to wrest away control of the House from Hastert.
For his part, the 73-year-old Crane is taking nothing for granted in his attempt to win a 19th term, warning Republicans in Palatine Township late last spring that the national Democrats were coming for him. He skipped his party's national convention to campaign, and is relying on his conservative credentials as an opponent of tax increases, abortion rights and gun control -- positions he says still match his district's political leanings. "You may not always agree with me," he says, "but you always know where I stand."
The congressman also has been talking up free trade legislation he's pushed through for Chile, Singapore, Australia and Morocco, which he maintains will help expand markets for farmers and businesses. And he's highlighting his push to allow small businesses to join forces to buy health care for their employees.
Bean argues Crane has been standing still far too long. Look no further than the prize she doles out to campaign donors: a limited-edition stadium cushion emblazoned with the catchphrase, "Crane, the original seat warmer."
The 42-year-old self-employed business consultant and former tech sector manager from tony Barrington, came within 25,000 votes of defeating Crane in 2002. A mother of two, Bean is back and running hard, doling out bags of jelly beans to get folks to remember her name and jabbing at Crane's effectiveness every chance she gets. "The reality is that he's been unable to leverage his experience on behalf of our district," Bean says. "I intend to work hard for all of us in Washington."
The state's 10 Republican and 9 Democratic incumbents worked together during redistricting two years ago to make their seats safe. That removed much of the suspense from all but three other Illinois congressional races.
As in past campaigns, Rock Island Democrat Lane Evans is facing a former TV news anchor in seeking a 12th term in the 17th District, which stretches from the Quad Cities down the Mississippi River into central Illinois.
That race quickly turned controversial as Republican Andrea Lane Zinga of Coal Valley questioned whether Evans' Parkinson's disease makes him physically unfit to continue serving. Evans has turned back Republican challengers in each election, but this is his first campaign in which his affliction has become an issue.
In the Chicago suburbs, two other races have generated some smoke, but the Democrats in those contests have yet to catch fire -- or generate much campaign cash.
Fifth-term Republican Rep. Jerry Weller of Morris raised eyebrows in the 11th District when he got engaged to the daughter of a former Guatemalan dictator with a bloody reputation. Weller faces Tari Renner, a McLean County Board member from Bloomington, who has made an issue out of Weller's choice of a partner. But so far Weller has raised far more campaign cash than Renner, collecting nearly $1 million to Renner's $200,000.
In DuPage County, 15-term Rep. Henry Hyde is facing the hard-working Rolling Meadows computer consultant Christine Cegelis. For all Cegelis' efforts, so far she's been outmatched in fundraising four-to-one by Hyde, who has collected more than $400,000.
Hyde, the chairman of the House International Relations Committee, has been recovering for more than a year from major back surgery, so he hasn't been able to work as hard as he has in the past. DuPage Democrats recently made Hyde's health an issue, suggesting he should step down. Cegelis also hopes Democratic inroads in northwest Cook County and a Democratic tide statewide will sweep her along to a huge upset.
Yet that district's veteran conservative war horse remains mostly beloved in GOP-rich DuPage, whereas Crane is at best tepidly embraced in the northwest suburbs. Skoien and outgoing U.S. Sen. Peter Fitzgerald tried to stage a primary coup by running against Crane in 1994, arguing he was ineffective, but they split the anti-Crane vote and watched Crane win again.
The 8th District is used to having Crane as its man in Washington. He's held the seat since 1969, when he won a special election to fill a vacancy after Donald Rumsfeld, now secretary of defense, resigned to take a post in the Nixon Administration.Crane built enough of a national name as a then-young advocate of smaller government and conservative ideals to run for the Republican presidential nomination in 1980, but he lost to Ronald Reagan. Save for the Fitzgerald challenge, Crane pretty much coasted until 2002, when he went through alcohol rehabilitation, overcoming his penchant for Heineken to focus his efforts on becoming chairman of the tax-writing House Ways and Means Committee. Crane lost out to California U.S. Rep. Bill Thomas, but was given the trade subcommittee chairmanship as consolation, which Crane argues helps Illinois companies looking to export.
Crane also has been taking advantage of his incumbency, bringing in Bush Administration officials to tout federal programs. Crane also benefited from third-party cable TV ads touting his support of prescription drugs for seniors. On the campaign trail, Crane points out the $260 million he's brought back to his district in the past two years, most of it to expand Metra commuter rail service and widen a key road in Lake County. "What does this mean to you?" Crane asked a business group in Schaumburg. "You can spend less time in traffic and more time with your family."
For her part, Bean says she'll bring back more to the district, although she isn't saying how she'll get that done.
Fundraising has been going well for the challenger, with Bean collecting $552,000 through June. That's nearly double what she raised two years ago and she's just $200,000 shy of Crane's $770,000 take through the end of June. Bean also recently landed on the national EMILY's List for women candidates and is hoping some out-of-state donors come through.
Although she's a Democrat, Bean rarely brings that up on the campaign trail. She even quotes conservative economist Milton Friedman when needling Crane on spending, calling for unspecified spending cuts to match the tax cuts he has advocated. And Bean's strategists say they hope new Republican U.S. Senate candidate Alan Keyes' incendiary style, coupled with President Bush's expected lackluster showing in Illinois, will sway voters to continue voting Democrat down their ballots.
Ideology hasn't been a focus of the 8th District race so far, but the differences between Bean and Crane are clear, with both candidates following their respective party positions on gun control, abortion rights, Social Security privatization and medical malpractice lawsuit caps.
Neither candidate is fully polished. At their first debate in August, Crane failed to answer a question on whether students are being tested too much under Bush's No Child Left Behind Act, instead leaving the audience somewhat baffled by talking about his experience teaching 450 students in a political science class at Bradley University. And though the issue of limiting the number of flights at O'Hare International Airport had been in the news the previous week, Bean admitted she didn't know enough to take a stab at a question on whether she supports them.
The surprise spotlight on this race puts more pressure on Crane and Bean to become more polished candidates before November 2. Yet they're each counting on some luck. In the final weeks, Bean waits for a late infusion of cash from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee that may or may not come as the national party decides whether she can win, while Crane continues to rely on the huge Republican base that's come through for him all these years.
Eric Krol is political writer for the Arlington Heights-based Daily Herald.
Illinois Issues, October 2004