Illinois Democratic candidates set sights on House majority


Tammy Duckworth, left, greets diners at a restaurant the day after she won the Democratic primary election for the 8th congressional district, Wednesday in Rolling Meadows, Ill. (Mark Welsh/AP)
March 22, 2012

The uphill Democratic effort to reclaim the House majority got a boost Thursday as three nominees in key Illinois districts began a coordinated campaign against the GOP budget, led by a legless Iraq war veteran who barrels around Chicago’s western suburbs in her Ford F-150 truck trumpeting an economic-fairness agenda.

Tammy Duckworth, whose near-miss campaign for Congress in 2006 made her an icon in the antiwar movement, secured the Democratic nomination for a new congressional district that some argue was drawn specifically for her, part of an aggressive effort by Illinois Democrats to net as many as five seats with the new lines. With a hometown hero, President Obama, at the top of the ticket, Democrats hope that their down-ballot candidates in the Land of Lincoln can draft off of him and collect up to 20 percent of the 25 seats they needed to return the speaker’s gavel to Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.).

The key battleground will be in suburban Chicago, where Duckworth is squaring off in a high-profile race against a tea party favorite, Rep. Joe Walsh (R), and where two other GOP incumbents, moderate freshman Rep. Bob Dold and seven-term Rep. Judy Biggert, are facing tough challenges in districts that have been redrawn and tilted toward the Democrats.

The three Democratic challengers — Duckworth, business consultant Brad Schneider and former representative Bill Foster — campaigned together Thursday in Chicago, holding a press conference to blast the latest Republican budget proposal as a “vote to end Medicare as we know it.” The rare appearance of three challengers together served to demonstrate how much Democrats want to take on the budget from Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wisc.), but also how critical they view these seats as key to their chances of securing the majority.

Republicans are paying the price for a narrow defeat in the 2010 governor’s race that left them powerless in the state capital and gave Democrats the chance to control the redistricting process.

“Their road to Pelosi as speaker is through Illinois redistricting,” Walsh said last week while campaigning in Elgin, a suburb 45 miles from Chicago.

Across the nation, the complicated calculus of redistricting has mostly ended without dramatic gains by either party — “something of a wash,” independent analyst Stuart Rothenberg said this week. That was a moral victory for Democrats, who initially feared their national wipeout in 2010 would shift many districts toward Republicans.

However, GOP strategists are quick to note that many of the 89 freshman Republicans will now be running in shored-up districts, making the Democratic “drive for 25” a bit steeper of a climb because first-term lawmakers are usually the ripest targets. Rep. Peter Roskam (R-Ill.), who defeated Duckworth in 2006 and is being relocated into a very safe GOP seat next to the Walsh-Duckworth district, called the Illinois Democrats “petty” for a redistricting process that is part of an unpopular political culture in the state capital. He predicted the endangered Republicans have “a real opportunity” to run against a stalled national economy and a corrupt culture in Springfield.

“I should have died in Iraq”

A few days earlier Duckworth pulled up to a home in Lombard, a small town 25 miles west of downtown Chicago, next door to Roskam’s hometown. Here to talk to a group of women in a supporter’s home, Duckworth hopped out of her truck with the aid of a cane, wearing a dark dress suit. Her right prosthetic is painted over with the colors of the U.S. flag, her left prosthetic sporting military camouflage colors.

In 2004, while she was piloting a Blackhawk helicopter in Iraq, insurgents hit the chopper with a rocket-propelled grenade. “I should have died in Iraq,” she told the women, saying she was presumed dead by the soldiers who scooped up her body. Instead, she was alive and went to Walter Reed Army Medical Center for rehabilitation. Soon after, she began a career in politics.

Almost six years after losing to Roskam, she is framing this race beyond her military biography. The key issue six years ago was the war; now her focus is Walsh and his tea party agenda. She wants to cut the defense budget, not to bring troops home but to carve out more funds for federal programs that benefit her constituents — the sort of programs that have been on the chopping block this Congress.

“It’s a referendum on just extreme partisanship. When I talk to people here, they are just sick and tired of the yelling and the lack of getting things done,” she said.

Almost no one in Congress has yelled louder than Walsh, a onetime American history teacher who is conducting a one-man political science experiment: He vows that he will do nothing to help his constituents and instead focus entirely on his “mission to sorta scream from the mountaintop” to tackle the nearly $16 trillion federal debt.

“I made that promise when I got elected: I’m not bringing anything back, you’re not gonna get squat from me. That’s not my job,” he said, tapping a coffee shop table for emphasis as he pledged to focus exclusively on the national issue of the nearly $16 trillion debt. He mocked Duckworth for making such promises and said that old adage of “all politics is local” has been “flipped upside down” by outrage over federal red ink.

“I think people are growing up,” he declared.

Screaming from the mountaintop

This sets Walsh apart from other Illinois GOP incumbents, especially Dold, who raced from his northern suburban district to Chicago’s waterfront last Wednesday to get media attention for his effort to save a suburban Coast Guard station.

“My constituents are looking for thoughtful, independent leadership, they are looking to get things done. They want Congress to work,” Dold said at the Shedd Aquarium, overlooking Lake Michigan.

Dold will face Schneider, who won a heated Democratic primary against a community activist who had support among liberal grass roots. Dold is prepared to run a campaign along the same lines as Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.), a centrist who previously held the seat despite constant targeting by Democrats. No matter his efforts to focus on local projects, Schneider plans to focus his line of attack on Dold’s support for the Ryan budget last year and its controversial plan to phase Medicare into a private system with federal support.

“He wants to leave seniors on their own to try and buy coverage from insurance companies with a voucher that they know won’t cover the cost of insurance,” Schneider said Thursday at the Chicago event with Duckworth and Foster.

The redistricting math makes it a steeper climb for Dold and Walsh. Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), the GOP nominee in 2008, won just 36 percent of the vote in Dold’s new district, a 2.5-point drop from his old district. That small movement could be the difference between winning and losing. In Walsh’s new district, just 37 percent supported McCain, down from more than 42 percent in the old district.

Despite that shift, Walsh is not changing his message.

“I could be wrong, and I could get my butt handed to me in November. But yes, I went there to sorta scream from the mountaintop that our country is falling off a cliff,” Walsh said.

Paul Kane covers Congress and politics for the Washington Post.
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