Illinois is politically dead this year when it comes to statewide races because President Barack Obama is certain to win his home state and there are no governor or U.S. Senate contests.
In the race for control of the House of Representatives, it’s ground zero.
To achieve the 25-seat net gain the Democrats need to reclaim the majority they lost in 2010 they will likely have to win all five targeted Republican-held districts.
“Illinois is pivotal to Democrats taking a majority and stopping” Republican policies including a plan to overhaul Medicare, Representative Steve Israel of New York, the chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, said in an interview.
The competitive Illinois campaigns underscore how many of the 435 congressional races are in states that aren’t battlegrounds in the presidential election, which is focused on just nine states. Illinois is the most populous of the states that aren’t up for grabs in the presidential race and don’t have a Senate election this year. California and New York also will influence the outcome of the House elections without having competitive statewide contests.
A major disadvantage in such races is that the candidates don’t have the benefit of a presidential-level ground operation that targets voters and works to get them to the polls. House candidates in Illinois and elsewhere have to do it on their own.
“It dramatically changes the dynamic and the operations of our campaigns,” Israel said.
An upside to running outside the presidential battlefield: Obama, Republican challenger Mitt Romney and allied super-political action committees “are not crowding the environment, and so our campaigns have an opportunity to get their message out on the air without competing with presidential advertising,” he said.
Democrats expect gains in Illinois after their party’s state legislators redrew congressional district boundaries last year. Democrats hold 8 of the 19 current districts and are seeking 13 of 18 revised districts in Illinois, which lost one seat in the post-census reapportionment after below-average population growth in the past decade.
Democratic targets include a Z-shaped district based in suburbs southwest of Chicago that seven-term Republican Judy Biggert and former Democratic Representative Bill Foster are seeking.
About one-half of residents come from Biggert’s current district, compared to about one-fourth from the district Foster held for a 34-month period ending in January 2011. Obama would have won 61 percent of the vote in the reshaped district in 2008, compared with 62 percent statewide.
Biggert, 75, has emphasized her ties to the community and her ability to work with Democrats on issues including flood insurance, domestic violence and transportation. She said that the past three elections thinned Congress of bipartisan-minded members from both parties.
“It seems like we’re just moving further and further to the right and further and further to the left, and we’ve got to get back and have that base in between to really be able to solve problems,” Biggert said in a telephone interview.
Foster, 57, says he wants to boost the middle class and U.S. manufacturing employment. He touts his independence from Democratic leaders by pointing to his votes against party-sponsored federal budgets and a cap-and-trade system to limit carbon emissions.
He’s also trying to puncture Biggert’s reputation as a compromise-minded Republican.
“She voted for every single one of the Bush policies that drove us into debt and wrecked our economy, every single one, right at the time when we needed independence,” Foster said in an interview near his campaign headquarters in downtown Naperville.
Foster also is trying to win backing from suburban female independent voters who may be more inclined to back Biggert, the longest-serving Republican women to represent the state in Congress.
Foster held a conference call Oct. 10 to tout an endorsement from Lilly Ledbetter, the Alabama woman who inspired a 2009 law that makes it easier for victims of salary discrimination to receive damages in lawsuits. The next day in Naperville, Foster held a roundtable discussion on pay equity with five women from the area. He and Ellen Moran, a former Obama Commerce Department official, told the women that Biggert voted against the Ledbetter law.
Biggert, a lawyer, said she voted against the measure because of issues related to extending the statute of limitations.
“I have forever worked on equity for women,” she said, adding that her opposition to discrimination was shaped by a law school professor telling her she was taking the place of a man.
The race is unusual partly because Biggert and Foster served together before becoming opponents this year. In 2010, amid a losing re-election campaign in a Republican-leaning district, Foster touted how frequently he voted with Biggert. In this race, with Biggert as his adversary in a more Democratic-friendly district, Foster is describing the incumbent as too beholden to Republicans.
Outside groups, including super political action committees, have joined Biggert and Foster in airing television ads.
A National Republican Congressional Committee ad says “mainstream Judy Biggert” has “the most moderate record of anyone,” while describing Foster as “straight party-line.” The U.S. Chamber of Commerce and American Unity PAC, a super-PAC funded by New York hedge-fund executive Paul Singer, also have supplied ads aiding Biggert.
Foster’s allies include House Majority PAC, a Democratic super-PAC that says Biggert’s vote for proposed by Representative Paul Ryan, Romney’s running mate, shows she has “a Republican record that’s just too big to hide.”
Elsewhere in Illinois, Democrats also are trying to unseat Bob Dold, a freshman representing upscale suburbs north of Chicago. Dold has emphasized fiscal restraint and breaks with Republican leaders to back abortion rights and environmental protections -- much like his predecessor, Republican Mark Kirk, who was elected to the Senate in 2010. Brad Schneider, a business consultant who’s challenging Dold, is trying to tie the incumbent to anti-tax Tea Party activists.
The most likely Democratic pickup is the northwest suburban district held by Joe Walsh, a Tea Party favorite elected in 2010. Walsh’s Democratic opponent is Tammy Duckworth, a former Veterans Affairs official and Army helicopter pilot who was wounded during the Iraq War.
Democrats also are seeking two other Republican-held districts outside of Chicago.
Representative Bobby Schilling, a pizzeria owner elected in 2010, faces Democrat Cheri Bustos in a district that hugs the Mississippi River as it stretches from Rockford to Peoria. Farther downstate, in and around Springfield and Champaign, Republican Rodney Davis, a former congressional aide, and Democratic physician David Gill are seeking the district of retiring Republican Timothy V. Johnson.
Republicans aren’t wholly on defense in Illinois. They’re vying for a southern Illinois district held by retiring Democrat Jerry Costello that includes some territory that is closer to Tupelo, Mississippi, than to Chicago.
Republicans say their candidates are holding their own in the contests, even with the state’s tilt toward Obama.
“The Democrats’ road to the majority has hit a dead end in Illinois,” NRCC spokeswoman Katie Prill said in an e-mailed statement that also described Democratic candidates as “a pack of degenerate partisan politicians.”