Illinois House Races Taking Shape
Duckworthís Entry Means 6th District Will Be Headliner By Lauren W. Whittington
Roll Call Staff
December 20, 2005

Iraq war veteran Tammy Duckworth (D) formally launched her Congressional bid in Illinoisí 6th district this week, ensuring that the open seat race to succeed retiring Rep. Henry Hyde (R-Ill.) will be fought on a national stage in 2006.

Duckworth's candidacy was the biggest news to come out of Monday's close of the candidate filing period in the Land of Lincoln, the earliest filing deadline for Congressional races in the country.

After weeks of anticipation, the retired Army Major announced her candidacy in a nationally-televised interview on the ABC News program "This Week" and at a rally in the suburban Chicago district Sunday. She lost both of her legs and partial use of her right arm when the Black Hawk helicopter she was flying in Iraq was hit by a rocket-propelled grenade in late 2004.

"There's a lot of power to her story and that gives her I think the ability to be heard and she's very compelling," said Chicago-based Democratic media consultant David Axelrod, who is working for Duckworth's campaign. "She's a unique candidate and I think she's got a unique story."

Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Rahm Emanuel (Ill.) has taken a deeply personal interest in the race and he was heavily involved in getting Duckworth to run, as well as in helping to orchestrate the announcement of her campaign.

"I've never seen a rollout like that before for a Congressional candidate anywhere," Axelrod said, referring to the degree of media coverage Duckworth has received so far.

Duckworth has the cream of the crop when it comes to longtime Chicago-based consultants advising her bid, including Axelrod and Pete Giangreco of The Strategy Group, a top political adviser to Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich (D).

She also has hired Joe Shafer to manage the campaign. Shafer most recently managed former Rep. Leslie Byrne's (D) unsuccessful bid for lieutenant governor in Virginia.

Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) was also a driving force in encouraging Duckworth's candidacy, and he has endorsed her.

But while Duckworth appears to have at the very least the implicit backing of national party leaders, she does not have a clear path to the Democratic nomination. She will face businesswoman Christine Cegelis and Wheaton College professor Lindy Scott in the March primary. Cegelis challenged Hyde in 2004, winning 44 percent of the vote.

The winner of the Democratic primary will face state Sen. Peter Roskam (R), who is unopposed for the GOP nod.

In an interview Monday, Cegelis said she welcomed the primary fight and believes that in the end the party's nominee would be better for it.

"I look forward to this race," Cegelis said. "No matter which one of us comes out we'll be a stronger candidate because of it."

Cegelis also said that she is under no illusions that the DCCC is remaining neutral in the contest, asserting that she and the committee's chairman have "differing points of view" about what's best for the district.

"I think Rahm Emanuel is doing what he thinks he needs to do for his job, and I understand that," she said. "I also don't think he knows my district well and I am doing what is best for my district."

In the end, Cegelis said, "the voters will tell us which one is right."

As of Sept. 30, Cegelis had less than $50,000 in her campaign account and her fundraising ability has been viewed as a major question mark as she attempts to prove her viability.

Duckworth's fundraising potential would appear to be limitless, based on her story and access to a national Democratic fundraising network.

Some party strategists also view Cegelis as too liberal for the Republican-leaning district that Hyde has represented for 32 years.

Already, surrogates such as Axelrod are painting Duckworth as an "independent-minded" candidate with "very mainstream values that represent the district."

Duckworth favors abortion rights and also supports stem-cell research, according to Axelrod, two positions that are in contrast to Roskam's legislative record.

Duckworth's unique personal story also may make it difficult for Republicans to attack her.

"I think it's tough for the Republicans because I think she really represents values and commitments that are unassailable," Axelrod said. "They like to do the values attack; I think hers are hard to shake and hard to undermine."

National Republican Congressional Committee spokesman Carl Forti said that Democrats were putting the cart before the horse.

"I think Ms. Duckworth and her team should worry more about the primary than Republican attacks," Forti said. "In addition, the first vote she would make for the liberal Nancy Pelosi [D-Calif.] for Speaker shows her true values."

Roskam's campaign released a statement welcoming Duckworth into the contest and noting that he "admires" her "service and sacrifice" to the country.

"Ultimately, the Democratic primary voters will have to choose their nominee," said Roskam campaign manager Ryan McLaughlin.

For now, the DCCC is publicly remaining neutral in the contest, although a spokeswoman had high praise for Duckworth.

"I think you can't argue that she has an amazing story and is an incredibly courageous woman and would be a very strong voice for the committee," said Sarah Feinberg, adding that it's "very admirable that she wants to continue her service" in Congress.

In recent years, the DCCC has had mixed results in races where it was perceived to have a favored nominee in a contested primary.

In the previous cycle, banker Christine Jennings (D) was the preferred candidate of national party leaders to take on Rep. Katherine Harris (R) in Florida's 13th district. However, Jennings failed to win the Democratic primary, losing to attorney Jan Schneider, who had been the party's nominee in 2002.

In 2002, the DCCC leaders took some heat for their open support of Bettendorf Mayor Anne Hutchinson (D) in Iowa's 1st district primary. While she won the primary, she was defeated handily in the general election. That same year national Democrats' preferred nominee in Pennsylvania's 18th district also unexpectedly lost the primary.

In 2000, the last time the DCCC issued any formal primary endorsements, the party-backed candidate lost the primary in a neighboring western Pennsylvania district, setting up the GOP pickup of the seat that fall.

That same year, the party also suffered a major defeat when it endorsed against Fanwood Mayor Maryanne Connelly, who eventually won the Democratic primary in New Jersey's 7th district.

One Democratic consultant observed that there already is more evidence of DCCC involvement in the 6th district race than in any previous contested primary in recent memory.

"I would say what's happening in Illinois is outsized compared to what happened in any of those other races," the consultant said. "Already they've done as much or more in a contested primary situation than I've ever seen."

But the consultant noted that Emanuel's maneuvering is firmly rooted in the belief that the only chance Democrats have of picking up 15 seats next year is by pulling upsets in territory that has been traditionally Republican.

"These second-tier opens are the key to whether we challenge for the majority," the consultant said.

Meanwhile, the passing of the state's candidate filing deadline on Monday brought the Congressional races into focus for 2006.

Aside from the expected competitive 6th district race, freshman Rep. Melissa Bean (D-Ill.) will be a top target for Republicans.

A crowded field of seven Republicans have lined up for the chance to challenge her, including investment banker David McSweeney, attorney Kathy Salvi, businesswoman Teresa Bartels and state Rep. Bob Churchill. The race is expected to be expensive, with at least three of the top candidates devoting a significant portion of their own fortunes to the primary.

Elsewhere in the state there appears to be little other Congressional competition on the horizon in 2006, as the state's gubernatorial contest is expected to take top billing next year.

In the 3rd district, freshman Rep. Dan Lipinski (D) will face two primary challengers next year in what is considered his first real electoral test.

Lipinski was essentially anointed the heir to his father's House seat when then-Rep. Bill Lipinski (D) announced his retirement after the primary had passed in 2004. Cook County prosecutor John Sullivan and self-employed financial planner John Kelly have filed to run against Lipinski in the Democratic primary.