Illinois — the home of the sitting president, two former governors serving prison time and a big-city mayor and former Congressman known as “Rahmbo” — has not disappointed political observers this election cycle.
Both parties in the Prairie State have seen nasty, contentious primaries for House seats. One was a Member-vs.-Member contest, and the other featured a Member facing off against a former Member. For the first time in years, the state was relevant in the GOP presidential primary, which presumptive nominee Mitt Romney won last month. Republicans are still celebrating the statewide victory of Sen. Mark Kirk, who continues to convalesce after suffering a stroke in January. And House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) is hoping the road back to the majority is paved with several Illinois pickups.
“You never want for interesting politics in Illinois,” Rep. Aaron Schock said with a smile. “Between George Ryan going to prison, Rod Blagojevich going to prison, the attempted sale of [President Barack Obama’s] Senate seat — [in] my adult life, Illinois politics has always been action-packed and fascinating.”
The Republican lawmaker was heavily involved in the messy GOP primary between 10-term Rep. Don Manzullo and freshman Rep. Adam Kinzinger, encouraging financial support for the younger lawmaker. That contest caused a ruckus in the House Republican Conference and made the Democratic primary between Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. and former Rep. Debbie Halvorson — a contest defined by their antipathy toward each other — seem mild.
Indeed, lawmakers and Illinois political observers note that much of the news coming out of the state is in large part due to this year’s redistricting rumble that threw several districts into disarray. Illinois lost a seat in reapportionment, and the Democratic Legislature did its best to box out Republican gains from 2010.
“I just think that when you have redistricting and one party controls the complete redistricting process, as in the case of Illinois, and the Republicans’ failure in court, that’s what you get,” Democratic Rep. Luis Gutierrez said. “I think, really, that’s what it’s all about. The fighting for fewer seats.”
With the dust mostly settled from Illinois’ March 20 primary, Democrats hope to flip several seats as part of their goal of netting 25 seats and regaining the House majority. The party repeatedly names Reps. Robert Dold and Joe Walsh as vulnerable first-term Republicans. Five Illinois candidates have been named to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s Red to Blue program, including former Rep. Bill Foster and Iraq War veteran Tammy Duckworth, who ran unsuccessfully in 2006.
“The road to the majority goes through Illinois,” DCCC Chairman Steve Israel (N.Y.) said last month.
One election year surprise Democrats and Republicans agree on is Rep. Timothy Johnson’s retirement announcement earlier this month, just three weeks after the lawmaker cleared his primary and was poised to win another term in office in a newly redrawn, although slightly more competitive, district. The race to replace Johnson as the GOP nominee in the central Illinois district has already gotten ugly, with several accusing Johnson of orchestrating an exit to help his former chief of staff, Jerry Clarke, run in his place.
At a GOP luncheon in Bloomington, Ill., state Sen. Kyle McCarter, who is interested in running for the open seat, told attendees that Johnson’s retirement “is not right.”
“You know what’s really insulting about this? It didn’t just happen. There was talk of this happening a year ago, and it’s a real insult to the people,” the Republican state lawmaker said, according to the News-Gazette.
Rep. Peter Roskam (R-Ill.) said Johnson’s retirement was “a complete surprise to me.”
Despite that setback, Roskam said Illinois Republicans have rallied in Kirk’s absence and that the party is aggressively pushing back against Democrats in the competitive House contests.
Asked if he was embarrassed by the attention paid to Illinois in recent years, from the theatrical trial of Blagojevich to Kirk’s embellishment of his military credentials during his Senate campaign, Roskam said he wasn’t.
“Illinois [is] a great state with tons of things going for it,” he said. “It’s got a transportation system that is something to be celebrated and invested in. It’s got huge [agricultural] interest, big financial services, big manufacturing. It’s a state with a great heritage that just has to live up to that heritage and that potential.”
For Chicago, Obama’s re-election campaign headquarters there has made the city an even bigger symbol of rough-and-tumble politics for national Republicans. The GOP also refers to the city led by Mayor Rahm Emanuel as a hub for liberal policies that have contributed to a suffering economy. But while Obama did serve in the state Legislature and represented Illinois in the Senate before ascending to the White House, he rarely touches on those roots and even irked his former colleagues last month when his administration did not grant disaster zone status to downstate counties suffering from tornado damage.
Nevertheless, Democratic Rep. Jan Schakowsky said, “I don’t know that there’s an expectation that the president would focus especially on Illinois.
“People are happy with the president, that incident notwithstanding,” she added.
Schakowsky also called Illinois “the land of opportunity for Democrats” this election cycle and said the GOP’s success there in 2010 was “representative more of a national wave than anything else.”