Election 2000: The Swinging Suburbs

Why they'll decide who controls the House

If you're looking for mean streets, skip Sheridan Road. A curlicue of suburban contentment, it winds past the fancy homes that line Chicago's North Shore. This is the heart of Illinois' 10th Congressional District, which stretches from Wilmette to Lake Bluff and points north. Tour a town square, and you'll find a Saks Fifth Avenue and, not far off, a Jaguar dealership tucked into a 1920s storefront. Farther up Sheridan, a grocery hawks patisserie. A mere "bakery" doesn't cut it in the tony 10th.

The district seems an unlikely spot for political combat. But like scores of other suburban zones, it is on the front line of a fierce battle for control of the House of Representatives. The economic boom has made suburbanites richer and mellower. Many have leavened their traditional fiscal conservatism with an expansive desire for better schools, improved health care, and stricter environmental protections.

The fusion of market economics and social activism make the suburbs a haven for independents--a Third Force that increasingly holds the key to elections. With Republicans clinging to a six-seat margin in the House, the battle of the 'burbs will prove pivotal to Democrats' hopes of regaining control of the chamber they lost in 1994.

Right now, the contest is a dead heat. Republicans have battled back from their post-impeachment funk, and a bipartisan Battleground Poll conducted on May 1-3 found voters split 41%-41% when asked if they favor a Democrat or Republican for Congress. Still, the GOP has a tough task ahead. Of 33 open seats, Republicans must defend 24--many in districts like the 10th.

Suburban "soccer moms and baby-boomer fathers" will be decisive, says pollster John Zogby. "You have to win them over on education, health care, Social Security, and gun control." It sounds like a platform tailor-made for Democrats. But Republicans are going with the flow, ditching their dog-eared 1994 Contract With America for a new Song of the Suburbs that adapts Democratic themes.

Case in point: the fight to succeed House GOP lawmaker John E. Porter. He will retire this fall after 21 years representing the 10th District. For a time, the area was so conservative that the Democrats didn't bother to put up an opponent. In the late 1980s, tract homes began sprouting on farmland, and the 10th edged toward the political center. Today, three commuter rail lines connect these communities to Chicago. Says Porter: "A pro-life, pro-gun, anti-environment Republican is going to lose every single time in my district."

In 1992, Lauren Beth Gash, 40, a homemaker and mother of two, defeated a pro-life conservative to become the first Democrat ever elected to the Illinois statehouse from the area. Now this prototypical soccer mom, a New Democrat who often votes with Republicans, is vying for Porter's open seat.

FRESH IMAGE. Her foe: ex-Porter aide Mark Steven Kirk, 40, a soft-spoken GOP moderate who won the primary against four more conservative rivals. "He is the kind of Republican that can hold that district," says National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Thomas M. Davis III of Virginia. "Their candidate is the kind of Democrat that can win."

Gash trumpets her free-trade views and independent streak: In 1995, she was one of only three Democrats to back a GOP-led school-choice bill. Kirk pushes HMO reform and vows to clean up PCBs in Waukegan Bay. Both are pro-choice, back trigger locks, and put a priority on education.

To prevail, analysts say Gash will have to paint Kirk as in thrall to Washington right-wingers. Her Achilles' heel could be the money she's collecting from unions and trial lawyers. (Both sides expect to raise over $2 million.) "Labor knows it will never get 100% of my vote," Gash insists. Meanwhile, Kirk is reaching out to Democrats. On May 30, he visited one of North Chicago's poorer, minority communities with Representative J.C. Watts Jr., an African American who ranks fourth in the House leadership, and praised President Clinton's Community Renewal Act, which gives tax breaks to blighted neighborhoods.

Such conspicuous displays of compassion will be critical to GOP hopes this fall. The trick is to shed the scowling, government-bashing persona developed during the Newt Gingrich era. And there are signs that the new tack may be working. In the Philadelphia suburbs, freshman Representative Joseph M. Hoeffel is only the second Democrat to hold the 13th District seat in more than 80 years. But Republican Stewart Greenleaf may wrest the seat back. How? By stressing that he's pro-choice, backs gun control, and wants a new prescription-drug benefit for seniors.

In the coastal suburbs of Los Angeles, Democrat Jane Harman, who surrendered her seat in 1998 to run for governor, is trying to win the 36th District back from another first-termer, Steve T. Kuykendall. Democrats and Republicans are almost evenly divided in the moderate, GOP-leaning district. Harman is a fiscally conservative free-trader; Kuykendall makes much of his votes against crime and for education.

BIG GUNS. With many suburban Republicans adopting similar strategies, it's getting hard to tell who the real moderate is. "The notion of political party is hazy for the typical voter," says Bernadette Budde, senior vice-president of the Business-Industry Political Action Committee, which backs pro-business candidates. "A one-dimensional strategy can't work this time."

House Speaker J.Dennis Hastert, who himself represents an Illinois suburb, seems to agree. He's trying to help by keeping arch-conservative House Whip Tom DeLay and Majority Leader Dick Armey under wraps as he pushes a kinder, gentler agenda. This session, Hastert has boosted GOP chances by backing patient rights, prescription-drug benefits, and school aid. Meantime, suburban heartthrob Senator John McCain is hitting the road to raise cash for GOP incumbents.

Both Hastert and McCain are parachuting in to give Kirk a lift in the Illinois 10th. But ultimately, local voters will make a choice: Do they want a conservative who's compassionate some of the time but will be pressed to side with hawkish House leaders on litmus-test votes--or a New Democrat who struggles to maintain budgetary discipline amid a Democratic Hill contingent that's more liberal than the electorate? The outcome won't just determine the battle of Sheridan Road. It could also shape the contours of the House of Representatives for years to come.

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