From the posh homes on the North Shore to the middle-class towns in central Illinois to the rich farm ground of the Mississippi River valley, Illinois will find itself in the national spotlight come November 7.
In fact, Illinois is poised to be among a handful of make-it or break-it states in this fall's battle for control of the U.S. House of Representatives, where Republicans now hold a narrow five-seat lead.
With two congressional incumbents retiring and the seat of another under siege, the state is already getting plenty of attention from the two major political parties.
Read plenty of cash. So far, Republicans have raised a monumental $260 million nationally to hand out to candidates throughout the country. The Democrats have raised a not-too-shabby $165 million. Though party officials won't specify how many of those dollars will come to Illinois, it's likely a significant share will.
"I would say that Illinois is one of the top four or five states that is being looked at nationally because some of the races are a toss-up,'' says Ron Faucheux, editor-in-chief of Congressional Quarterly's Campaigns & Elections magazine, a nonpartisan publication for the political industry. "The national committees are being careful in targeting races, so they can put a lot of money into them to make a difference.''
The reasoning is simple: Congressional incumbents are almost impossible to dislodge, given their overwhelming advantages in money, name recognition and proven records. But open seats are another matter. A Washington Post analysis found three in five of the competitive open seats switched parties in the last election. And in Illinois, it's the open seats that are hotly contested.
The most compelling of these races is set along Lake Michigan's affluent North Shore. Illinois' 10th District has garnered considerable attention because both major parties believe they have a good chance to capture that independent-minded voter base.
The district's 20-year incumbent, John Porter of Wilmette, a moderate Republican, surprised supporters when he announced his retirement. Running for his seat are Kenilworth Republican Mark Steven Kirk, who was once Porter's chief of staff, and Highland Park Democrat Lauren Beth Gash, a state representative and longtime local activist.
Central Illinois also is losing a congressional incumbent in the 15th District. The race to replace retiring Tom Ewing, a Pontiac Republican who was elected in 1991, promises to be close, too. The candidates are Normal Democrat F. Michael "Mike" Kelleher Jr., an American government professor, and longtime state Rep. Tim Johnson, a Republican from Sidney.
In northwest Illinois' 17th District, incumbent U.S. Rep. Lane A. Evans, a Democrat from Rock Island, is trying to fend off three-time Republican challenger Mark Baker of Quincy, a development rep for the Illinois Department of Commerce and Community Affairs. The Almanac of American Politics 2000, published by the National Journal, calls this race
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"highly competitive" because Evans' previous two wins were tight and because the demographics of the district continue to shift away from the Democrats. The almanac calls Evans "one of the most vulnerable incumbents in the country."
But the parties consider the race in the 10th key. That district is wealthier and better educated than the average Illinois voting bloc, and more independent-minded. It has a median household income of $50,000 and 66 percent of its residents have a college degree, according to data compiled by the almanac. That's high compared to the state as a whole: The state's median income is slightly higher than $32,000, and 46 percent of all Illinois residents have a college education.
The 10th straddles Lake and Cook counties, starting in the picturesque lakefront city of Wilmette and continuing north along Lake Michigan's shores to the Wisconsin border. It extends westward toward Wheeling, Arlington Heights and Vernon Hills. The district's communities are predominately white, and most residents commute to Chicago to work in white-collar jobs. However, there are a few blue-collar pockets, home to employees of Outboard Marine Corp., Cherry Electrical Products and the Great Lakes Naval Training Center. But it's the 10th's tendency to swing to either party that makes the outcome in this year's congressional election difficult to call. In 1996, the majority of the district's voters went with Democratic President Bill Clinton, but in 1992 they backed Republican President George Bush.
Porter, a fiscal conservative and social progressive, has been popular throughout the district. No surprise, then, that both of the candidates hoping to replace him tout moderate credentials. As a lawmaker, for instance, Gash has been supportive of GOP proposals to reform education. Both support abortion rights and gun control measures. They would require trigger locks, ban assault weapons and impose strict background checks at gun shows.
These candidates do differ, though, on their assessments of their own and their opponent's experience. A native of the district, Kirk began his government career in 1984 as an aide to Porter, eventually serving as his chief of staff from 1987 to 1990. Kirk served in other Washington posts and in 1995 joined the staff of the U.S. House International Relations Committee as counsel under Chairman Benjamin Gilman of New York.
While critics argue Kirk has spent too long living and working out of the district, he calls the time spent in Washington valuable on-the-job training. "Washington is a very complicated place, and if you miss the difference between an authorization and appropriations bill, you could miss funding for a key issue in our district like the air control tower that I got for the Waukegan Airport,'' he says.
Gash, meanwhile, is running on a platform that features local ties. "I have worked hard in this area and have raised a family here,'' she says. "My kids were in baby-sitting co-op here, so I have driven the car pool and shopped at the local grocery stores. I know what's important to the families here.''
Gash has worked for former U.S. Sen. Alan J. Dixon and in Paul Simon's 1990 U.S. Senate campaign. Gash won her seat in the Illinois House in 1992 and is serving her fourth term. She chairs that chamber's Judiciary Committee on Criminal Law and is vice chair of the Committee on Elections and Campaign Reform.
The concerns in the 10th, the candidates say, are similar to those that most other Illinoisans worry about, including health care. Both candidates support reducing the role of HMOs in treatment decisions. "Too often, the quality of care we receive is obscured by the insurance companies' bottom line," Gash says. "Too many health-care organizations have forgotten that their primary responsibility is to protect the health of their members.''
Kirk would offer seniors more flexibility in federal prescription drug programs. "No senior should have to choose between groceries and the prescription drugs they need,'' he says.
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"We need an effective program, offering flexibility and a choice of affordable plans to cover the cost of prescription drugs.''
And each candidate backs a plan to protect the environment. Gash supports Vice President Al Gore's proposal to provide zero-interest bonds to local initiatives designed to protect open space and redevelop brownfields. Kirk is hoping to use his seat in Congress to further efforts to lower PCB contamination in the Great Lakes.
While local voters will decide which of these candidates heads to Washington, the national parties are keeping close tabs on this district. "We're going to go all out. Short of some meltdown on either candidate's part and the race disappearing from the 'most competitive' column, we're going to treat [the race in the 10th] as if it is what it is. And that is one of the most competitive races in the country," Rhode Island U.S. Rep. Patrick Kennedy told the [Arlington Heights-based] Daily Herald during last summer's Democratic National Convention.
As head of that party's Congressional Campaign Committee, Kennedy holds the national party purse strings. Indeed, the contest in the 10th already has drawn some big bucks. The candidates have raised more than a combined $1.2 million for the upcoming general election. And in last spring's primary, two Republicans raised $1 million each in their losing effort against Kirk, who spent $400,000.
The national parties also are watching the race in Illinois' 15th District, where U.S. Rep. Tom Ewing is stepping down after almost a decade of service. Democrat Kelleher, a government professor at Illinois State University, is facing Johnson, a 24-year Republican state representative who manages a small farm.
Though it reaches through some of the richest farmland in the state, the 15th is not strictly rural. It encompasses many small towns and four sizable urban areas: Champaign-Urbana, Bloomington-Normal, Danville and Kankakee.
Again, national party money ---- and oddly enough, a paper clip -- is playing a major role in the election. This month, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee paid for Kelleher's first television ad of the general election season. The ad highlights a 1980 incident involving Johnson's voting record at the Statehouse. A photo captured a paper clip that was lodged in Johnson's voting button so that he could vote along party lines while he was out of the chamber. The ad implies Johnson was legislating on autopilot. For their part, national Republican leaders have sent some big names into the district, including U.S. House Majority Leader Dick Armey, to help raise cash for Johnson's campaign.
On substantive matters, the candidates in the 15th are raising issues that face most of the nation: the debate over the need to reform Social Security and Medicare and improve access to prescription drugs.
The positions of these two candidates tend to follow party lines. On guns, for instance, Republican Johnson believes Congress shouldn't approve any additional restrictions until the executive branch "makes a good faith effort to enforce the current gun control legislation." He would support increased funding for enforcement of federal gun laws. Democrat Kelleher, meanwhile, slams Congress for not doing more to prevent gun violence. He would, for instance, require background checks for sales at gun shows and establish harsher penalties for those who buy guns for felons.
A third Illinois congressional race is attracting national attention. The 17th District lies in the northwestern region of the state. In this race, the GOP is hoping the third time will be a charm for its candidate, former broadcast journalist Baker. He's trying to unseat Evans, who is seeking his 10th term in office.
Mostly agriculture, the 17th stretches across 14 counties. Its largest city, Moline is headquarters to Deere & Co., manufacturer of John Deere tractors. So it's no surprise that farming is a major campaign issue in that race.
"It's urgent we develop and open new markets for our ag products," Baker argues. "We must pass trade agreements that open export markets for farm commodities and machinery.''
But these candidates differ on the specifics of trade policy, most recently over granting China permanent normal trade status with the United States. Evans voted against the measure, siding with a number of Democrats who are worried about that country's record on human rights. Baker believes reducing restrictions on trade with China would be a boon for farmers in the district.
Still, Evans has been popular with farm organizations, receiving the 1999 "Friend to the Farmer Award" from the American Corn Growers Association. He backed federal legislation that calls for replacing petroleum-based methyl tertiary butyl ether, or, MTBE -- a gasoline additive known to cause water contamination -- with ethanol, which can be made from corn.
"With agriculture facing the lowest prices in decades, increased ethanol production is one of the most effective ways to stimulate increased domestic demand for grain, boost farm income and create jobs," Evans told a House subcommittee.
The outcome in any one of these three Illinois races, each of which is expected to be tight come November, could shift the partisan balance in this state's evenly divided 22-member congressional delegation -- and help shift party control in Congress itself.
That puts this state in the spotlight. Still, the candidates say while national attention is nice, it won't decide the races. "Sure the Washington Post and the national finance people are looking at the race, but the critical thing is to remember who is in charge here -- and that's the voters,'' says 10th District candidate Kirk. "When you're out campaigning, the national attention just does not cut it.''
Lucio Guerrero is a reporter for the Chicago Sun-Times. He covers the north suburbs.
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