Illinois Races Draw National Attention

Voters in Chicago’s west suburban sixth congressional district, long represented by venerable and retiring Henry Hyde, are caught in the crossfire from the adjacent districts of two of the most powerful House members in both parties.

The cannon to the right of them, as Tennyson might write, are those of dug-in House Speaker Dennis Hastert. The cannon commanding the heights to the left of them are those of the doggedly aspiring Rep. Rahm Emanuel, chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

For more than a year now, voters there have been pounded by some of the heaviest artillery that both sides can muster—massive amounts of out-of-district campaign contributions and campaign stops by the likes of Vice President Dick Cheney. Hastert and Emanuel each would dearly love to sweep down through the valley and claim it as its own, giving the victor a huge symbolic and strategic triumph. The spoils of victory could well be control of the House.

The GOP has reason to fear an epic loss. It’s not for nothing that this race has drawn national attention. No less important, but less visible because the district isn’t flanked by two high-profile politicians, is the nearby battle in the traditionally Republican 8th district, where the “moderate” Democrat Melissa Bean, who ousted the former Rep. Phil Crane, holds the incumbent’s advantage over Republican challenger, David McSweeney.

With good reason, these two Illinois congressional races have been named among the nation’s 14 key House contests by Rightroots, the new conservative fund-raising blog. For Hastert, no less than his Speaker’s job is at stake. For the driven Emanuel, it’s his future as an up-and-coming political mover and shaker.

A win for Emanuel would make him a kingpin in local, state and national Democratic politics, if he’s not already. A former top advisor to President Bill Clinton, Emanuel has worked his way into the critical fundraising role as DCCC chairman. With the power to direct campaign funds to key races, it is not hyperbole to suggest that he already can make or break candidates.

Such was the case in the sixth, where Emanuel stuck the knife into a credible, independent and liberal Democratic candidate, Christine Cegelis. In 2004, she captured more than 40 percent of the votes—an impressive number against an invincible Hyde. But, Emanuel didn’t control Cegelis, so she wouldn’t do. To the dismay of Cegelis and her supporters, who believed she had earned the right to challenge the conservative Roskam, Emmanuel inserted his own candidate, Tammy Duckworth. She lived outside the district and had so little political experience that she couldn’t even be called a novice. No one knew what she stood for, and she had no grassroots support.

None of that mattered to Emanuel, who organized and financed her campaign because she is: (1) an Iraqi war veteran who has turned against the war, and (2) a genuine war hero who lost her legs in an attack on her helicopter. Even in Chicago, were cynicism reigns, Emanuel raised eyebrows. With money and manpower from his Chicago district base, Emanuel handed a win to Duckworth.

She now faces Republican candidate Peter Roskam, a conservative state lawmaker who is something less of a surrogate for Hastert than Duckworth is for Emanuel.

Of course, Duckworth’s profile drew fawning media’s attention, including a flattering story in the Washington Post. In one respect, the story was inaccurate: It said she announced her candidacy on George Stephanopoulos’ ABC Sunday talk show, which she didn’t. Although he had agreed to have her come on (a decision interesting in itself for what it says about media bias and one former Clinton staffer doing a favor for another), her handlers first allowed some interviews with local reporters because they had raised a stink about being scoped by a national outlet.

Still, one local columnist wasn’t all that offended; she later reported on a favorable portion of a Duckworth poll, even though her handlers would not let her examine the entire poll for any unfavorable news. And journalists wonder why they’re regarded as Democratic pawns.

The race is close. Both have raised more than $1 million, and both can thank national figures for their good fortune. Roskam, for example, benefited to the tune of more than $200,000 from a spring campaign appearance by Chaney. But Roskam inevitably suffers from the fact that he has a well-established legislative record for Duckworth to attack, while she is a blank slate, for her handlers to sketch as they please. They’re hoping that the Iraq War will be a big campaign issue.

Still, Roskam has garnered support some unexpected corners: the Teamsters and Operating Engineers locals. The importance of union support has taken on new importance in Chicago as a federal jury recently convicted some of Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley’s top patronage aides on charges stemming from their violation of a federal court order prohibiting the trading of jobs for political work, such as ringing doorbells. Conventional wisdom holds that the doorbell ringing now will fall to the armies of union rank-and-file. No doubt, however, that Duckworth and Emanuel hold some union cards too.

One uncertainty is Democratic voters themselves. Bitter feelings remain in the party over Emanuel’s maneuverings against Cegelis, which could result in a low Democratic turnout. Some might think: Better to challenge a victorious Roskam in 2008 than try to unseat incumbent and insider Duckworth then. Democrats might more inclined to turn out if they were passionate, which they’re not, about re-electing their governor, Rod Blagojevich, who is breathlessly shallow.

Meanwhile, up the road from the west suburban 6th is the northwest suburban 8th, where another heated race may be up for grabs. It pits Bean against conservative McSweeney. After getting thumped in 1968 when he tried to unseat Crane in the GOP primary, McSweeney this year ran successfully against five other candidates in a primary brawl. Among them was Kathy Salvi, whose law partner is Roskam.

Lingering resentment among district’s Republicans could help Bean. This is a suburban/rural district that survived a Democratic redistricting and remained firmly in Republican hands. Until voters couldn’t take any more of Crane’s lazy work habits and his treatment of his district as a distant fiefdom and they gave him the boot in favor of Bean. Bean, who had the support pro-choice PACS and other left-wingers, was in the right place at the right time.

If Democrats win the two races, it will mark another milestone in the suburbanization of the Democratic Party, at least in the Chicago area. Evanston, immediately north of Chicago, had for decades been solidly Republican, until the flow of white liberals, not happy with the city, moved to the safer urban-like suburb and its better schools. Eventually, known as “lakefront liberals” when they lived on Chicago’s North Side, marched up the affluent and once-conservative suburban North Shore, where they are now limosine liberals. The 10th district, home to Republican Rep. Mark Kirk, no longer elects conservatives—Donald Rumsfeld’s public service began there as a congressman—and Republicans no longer count it as a sure thing. Same goes for the southern suburbs, which have become home to an expanding black middle-class migrating out for Chicago and their Democratic congressman, Rep. Jesse Jackson, Jr.

Republicans gave up on suburban Cook County (which includes Chicago) years ago, and if the two Democrats win, it could be the first time ever, or at least in recent memory, that the party has extended its reach into the “collar counties” of DuPage, Lake and McHenry.

Thus further cementing Illinois as a permanent blue state.