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Partisan Playbook: Political parties playing offense & defense in three IL congressional districts

Someone with a decent arm could stand in Springfield and throw a ball from one of the city's congressional districts over another district and into a third. That's because the 17th District, flanked by the 18th on the north and the 19th on the south, gets as narrow as the width of a road when it snakes through the more affluent neighborhoods on Springfield's west side. Once on the city's east side, with its poor and working-class neighborhoods, the district flares back out. This is a shape designed to bypass likely Republicans and capture likely Democrats.

The 17th was drawn to re-elect U.S. Rep. Lane Evans, a Democrat. Just like the rest of the state's congressional districts, it was crafted in a bipartisan deal among congressional leaders to favor the incumbent's party.

Both candidates running to succeed Evans say the district continues, on paper, to lean Democratic. But a district's partisan predisposition won't necessarily determine the outcome of a race for Congress in the November 7 general election. Other factors also matter, including the character and positions of the candidates, and national and state political trends.

An open seat is a factor, too. Two of the three hottest congressional races in Illinois are in districts where no incumbent is seeking re-election. In the third race, the incumbent is just completing her first two-year term. The district is, in short, one step removed from open.

"An open seat is a world different than running against an incumbent," says Andrea Zinga, 57, a former television reporter who is the Republican candidate for Congress in the 17th. "What we see is a district that leans Democrat, but there is a large swing and independent vote here."

Evans, a popular former Marine from Rock Island, is retiring from Congress after 12 terms and years of fighting Parkinson's disease. He anointed Phil Hare, an aide for more than 23 years, to succeed him in the western Illinois district. Hare, 57, may be the closest thing to an incumbent, but he's not Lane Evans. 

"I do think it looks Democratic on paper," Hare says of the district. "But I run every single day like I'm behind. And until they count them up, I am behind. I don't take anything for granted."

He says he doesn't mind the travel. He can get just about anywhere in the district in four hours.

The west suburban 6th District has the other open seat. U.S. Rep. Henry Hyde of Wood Dale, a GOP stalwart who represented the district in Congress for more than 30 years, announced his retirement last spring at the age of 81.

The area has long been viewed as solidly Republican and, indeed, the district was shaped to protect the Republican incumbent. It includes such suburbs as Wheaton and Elmhurst. But the candidacy of tenacious Army veteran Tammy Duckworth, coupled with an effort by national Democratic leaders to spotlight her candidacy, makes the race in the 6th anything but predetermined. 

State Sen. Peter Roskam, the 45-year-old Republican candidate, has resorted to criticizing his opponent for failing to publicly debate him — a posture traditionally assumed by the underdog. Roskam's campaign says Duckworth "ducked" at least seven debates.

"I have a high view of this process," Roskam says. "The House of Representatives is the institution of the federal government that is closest to the people. The way this works is you get to interact with your member of Congress. My sense is if she's afraid to debate me in the district, heaven help her when she steps onto the House of Representatives' floor in Washington, D.C."

Duckworth says she did agree to four debates. However, she says Roskam wanted dozens of debates in random places, including one in a hall accessible only by spiral staircase. When pressed, she says she was not implying her opponent tried to preclude her from attending a debate. Duckworth, 38, is an Army helicopter pilot who lost both legs in a grenade attack in Iraq. She continues to serve as a major in the Illinois Army National Guard.

She's focusing on forums she calls coffees. She goes to constituents' homes, where she encourages them to invite their friends for a talk about their priorities. She says she's up to three or four coffees during the week, plus another one or two on the weekends.

"They're curious about who I am," she says. "They come and they listen to me and they ask the tough questions. Most of them go away saying, 'All right, I'm going to vote for you. I want to hold a coffee of my own and invite all my neighbors. And will you come and talk to them?' These coffees perpetuate themselves."

Roskam says he, too, is regularly meeting constituents in their homes. But he suggests his  meet-and-greets are more authentic than those organized by Duckworth because, he says, her campaign inflates turnout by pressuring folks to attend. "They're very much trying to drive people to these things," he says. "That's opposed to us saying, 'Will you host Peter Roskam?' and they invite 40 of their friends in."

While the GOP fights to keep the 6th District seat, it covets the seat in the 8th. The northwest suburban 8th also was drawn for a Republican incumbent, and the GOP wants it back.

Two years ago, Democrat Melissa Bean, 44, of Barrington won the seat from Republican Phil Crane. Republicans later complained that Crane, who spent 35 years in Congress, had lost touch with his district and that he ran a poor campaign. 

"The district has been consistently Republican over a number of years," says David McSweeney, the Republican candidate running against Bean. "Unfortunately, Phil didn't run a very good campaign last time around. His organization withered, and also he wasn't very active in the district."

McSweeney's campaign is quick to note an observation made by syndicated conservative columnist Bob Novak. In late August, Novak wrote in the Evans-Novak Political Report that Bean's seat is the only Democrat-held seat in the country that appears "truly vulnerable for takeover." He said Crane lost the GOP-leaning district — "not that Bean really won it" — and that voters would make a "correction" in November. 

McSweeney, 41, ran unsuccessfully against Crane in 1998. "This is the one chance to win the seat back — the first [election] time around for an incumbent," he says.

Bean casts McSweeney as an extremist whose social views are too conservative for suburban families. He accuses her of voting in the style of U.S. Sen. John Kerry, the Massachusetts Democrat who failed to unseat President George W. Bush in 2004. "Melissa Bean says one thing and does another thing," he says. "Look at her voting record over and over where she'll vote for final passage of a couple of Republican bills like the Patriot Act and immigration reform, but she'll vote to kill them a few minutes before that," he says. "It's the old John Kerry — 'I voted for it before I voted against it.'"

Bean responds, "Clearly my opponent doesn't understand the rules of Congress or the difference between procedural and substantive votes."

The outcome of these Illinois races could help determine whether the GOP retains its majority in the U.S. House. The Democrats must gain 15 seats nationwide to take control of the chamber. They're banking on voter antipathy toward President Bush, his administration's war in Iraq and the sluggish economic recovery to sweep them in.

Charlie Cook, a nonpartisan analyst and founder of the Cook Political Report, told the Chicago Tribune, "The Republicans had a great run for a while, and it's over."

Spin to the contrary, Republicans are playing defense. John McGovern, campaign spokesman of U.S. House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert, a Plano Republican, calls Illinois "an important battleground in our efforts to maintain a Republican House majority."

"We're prepared to play offense in this election, and both the 8th and 17th districts provide us with two of our best opportunities to pick up Democrat seats," he says.

Candidates for Congress from Illinois must navigate two competing trends. Nationally, Republicans must reconcile displeasure with the GOP president. In Illinois, Democrats must deal with the stubborn unpopularity of Democratic Gov. Rod Blagojevich — particularly downstate, where Blagojevich's support has long trailed that in Chicago, his hometown.

Just as Democrats nationally are trying to exploit Bush-related vulnerabilities among the GOP, Republicans in Illinois are working to link downstate Democrats with Blagojevich. As Republicans move to disassociate themselves from Bush, Illinois Democrats try to unhitch themselves from Blagojevich.

Hare, the Democratic candidate in the 17th, says he's not preoccupied with the prospect of Democrats staying home on Election Day due to Blagojevich's unpopularity. However, he says a particularly negative race between Blagojevich and state Treasurer Judy Baar Topinka, the Republican candidate for governor, could discourage voters generally.

"What I think will depress voter turnout is if we don't get voters excited and talk about the things that are on their minds," Hare says. "I expect that race [for governor] to be very, very negative on both sides. And I think that has a tendency sometimes to depress turnout, but I certainly hope not. There's a lot riding here and for people to stay home would not be a good thing."

On the other hand, John Gianulis is so confident Hare will win that he promised to fit a reporter's head with a classic Italian fedora if Republican Zinga wins in the 17th. Gianulis, Rock Island County's Democratic chairman, also is president of the Illinois Democratic County Chairmen's Association. "If this district doesn't go Democrat for a candidate for Congress, I'll buy you a new Borsalino hat the day after the election," Gianulis says. "I know politics."

The 17th stretches along the Mississippi River from the Quad Cities through Quincy to just shy of the Metro East region, then back northeast through Carlinville and Springfield to Decatur. It's shaped like a "C" that ballooned along the top-left edge. It resembles a serpent. 

Gianulis says Democrats drew the 17th precisely so they could win. "It's a configuration that looks like hell, but it helps the Democratic Party."

Chris Mooney, a political studies professor at the University of Illinois at Springfield, calls the 17th the "worst example of incumbency-protection gerrymandering in the country." He says he often shows a map of the district to colleagues throughout the nation, and they're universally appalled.

"Every time I run across somebody that's involved in this, they're just like 'Oh my God!' They can't believe it," he says. "They're using it as an example in various political science courses."

Mooney tends to agree that Hare will win by virtue of the district's makeup, and because he believes Zinga is relatively conservative for the district. "He's got a chance of losing, but it's a very, very small one," Mooney says of Hare. 

This is Zinga's second run for the seat. She ran unsuccessfully two years ago against Evans. This time around, she argues that voter appetite for a fresh face will trump the district's partisan predisposition. "We've heard so much about the corruption in Washington," she says. "And we've seen some of that in our own state. Some things aren't being done right and properly in this district. All of that said, I think it bodes very well."

Zinga says she'll win if she can disseminate her message throughout the awkward district. That will be no easy task — either spreading the word or getting it to stick in various reaches of the district. But she says similarities among voters outweigh disparities: Everybody wants a job and adequate health care.

Hare says he, too, would fight to protect jobs. His campaign theme, like Zinga's, is economic development.

"I think we've done a pretty darn good job of going out and talking to people about what we want to do, and not just making it a referendum on George Bush — because that would be a slam dunk,'' he says. "But that's not the case with people. And when they go in to vote, he's not up this time and he's not going to be up next time."

Still, Democrats nationally are working to connect Republican congressional candidates to national concerns. U.S. Rep. Rahm Emanuel of Chicago, an energetic former aide to Democratic President Bill Clinton who heads the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, is determined to return the U.S. House to Democratic control.

In late August, Emanuel published his answer to former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich's Contract with America.  That small-government manifesto helped Gingrich and his fellow Republicans win the U.S. House in 1994. Emanuel's book, The Plan: Big Ideas for America, suggests a new "social contract" supportive of universal health care for children and private retirement accounts.

Paul Green, a political science professor at Roosevelt University in Chicago, believes the strategy could help the Democrats win the 15 seats they need for a majority. "The idea is that all politics is local, but if you can nationalize the congressional races because incumbents win most of the time, then it's really irrelevant who's running," he says.

"It's a question of changing the course of America and creating an enemy — instead of [Bill] Clinton, now it's Bush. If they're successful, they will put a lot of these congressional districts that are swing or moderate in play."

Duckworth, whose campaign has enjoyed extraordinary national exposure, says she is leaving discussion of "the national geopolitics thing" to pundits.

"I am really focusing all of my energy," she says, "on talking to the voters of this district and just sending out the message that I'm someone who's going to stand up for change and who's going to work with both sides [of the aisle]."

Roskam responds: "My opponent is a candidate who has raised 97 percent of her support from outside the 6th Congressional District. She's literally been on a plane flown to [U.S. House Democratic Leader] Nancy Pelosi's district, where she raised money. She's been to New York with [U.S. Sen.] Hillary Clinton, who hosted her and raised money. The idea that my opponent isn't trying to run a national campaign is, I think, a little bit silly."

Roskam also has attracted national interest in his campaign. First Lady Laura Bush, among other dignitaries, helped him raise money. "There's a local dynamic at play that, I think, is stronger than the national dynamic," he says. "But, by the same token, you're always operating within a context. Clearly, Illinois 6th is a seat that you want to keep in the win column."

This race, far more than the other two, has been underscored by finger-pointing between the candidates. The rhetoric is harsh, even negative.

Duckworth has made much of her military experience, prominently featuring photos of her uniformed self in campaign material. She says she's just stating the facts — that she is a veteran who can speak with authority on issues of war, and that she understands the nation's homeland security needs.

She calls it a skill set, just like her ability to speak multiple languages. "If Peter Roskam wanted to stand up and push his skills as a personal injury lawyer, then that's a fact," she says. "That's what he is."

Roskam is by trade a personal injury attorney. But as a state lawmaker, he joined his Republican colleagues in supporting legislation to restrict jury awards in lawsuits such as those he files on behalf of injured plaintiffs. He is continuing that theme as a candidate for Congress.

"I've been willing to put my own self-interest aside and vote in favor of changes when I thought there needed to be changes," he says. "I always thought we wanted policymakers who voted against their own financial interests. I think my opponent, by contrast, is being funded by [trial lawyers] who are in favor of the status quo."

Bean, the 8th District incumbent, has worked during her first term to craft a moderate image. She voted for a Central American free trade deal, for instance, that cost her support from organized labor but won her an endorsement from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

The business group typically supports Republican candidates, not Democrats. It's expected to spend more than $400,000 on television advertisements to promote Bean's re-election bid. She has eluded GOP attempts to pigeonhole her.

She says her positions should come as a surprise to no one. 

"I ran as, and I am, a fiscal conservative and a social moderate," she says. "That makes me, just by my nature, very representative of this district."

The Republicans hope to keep the west suburban 6th, while winning back the northwest suburban 8th and perhaps even taking the western Illinois 17th. The Democrats hope to hold onto the 8th and the 17th, while capturing the 6th.  

Bean is a face of that Emanuel-led nationwide campaign. But she joins Duckworth in brushing aside the notion that her campaign is at the core of a national effort by Democrats to win control of the U.S. House. She suggests she's too busy considering the interests of her constituents to think much about that.

"Certainly the winds are blowing for the Democrats on a national basis," she says. "But I really think that in this district, there's a lot of independence and ticket splitters. These are people who are proud of not voting along partisan lines, but instead voting for who they think is going to represent them on the issues they care about."

Her opponent also is trying to position himself as independent in the eyes of voters. McSweeney calls himself "an independent conservative" and identifies former U.S. Sen. Peter Fitzgerald, the Republican from Inverness who bucked GOP leaders and fought for the appointment of maverick Patrick Fitzgerald as U.S. attorney for northern Illinois, as an early supporter. The two Fitzgeralds are not related.

"It's a good year," he says, "to be running against an incumbent." 


The 17th District

Phil Hare
Aide to U.S. Rep. Lane Evans
of Rock Island
Age 57

Andrea Zinga
Former TV news reporter
of Coal Valley

Age 57


The 6th District

Tammy Duckworth
National Guard major,
helicopter pilot
of Hoffman Estates

Age 38

Peter Roskam
State senator
of Wheaton

Age 45


The 8th District

Melissa Bean
U.S. representative
of Barrington
Age 44

David McSweeney
Investment banker
of Barrington Hills

Age 41

Aaron Chambers is Statehouse bureau chief for the Rockford Register Star. Previously he was Statehouse chief for Illinois Issues.


Illinois Issues, October 2006

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