Iraq War veteran Tammy Duckworth, a darling of national Democratic politicians, elbows into a northwestern Chicagoland House race where a lesser-known candidate with strong local ties is already running.
Sound familiar? It should. In 2006, Duckworth barely defeated Christine Cegelis, a poorly funded primary opponent who was beloved among the Democratic net roots.
This cycle, Duckworth and former Illinois Deputy Treasurer Raja Krishnamoorthi are running for the Democratic nod in the redrawn 8th district. Once again, Duckworth is taking on a Democrat with grass-roots support, and some of the heaviest hitters in Illinois politics are backing her.
"In some ways his story mirrors mine," Cegelis, a Krishnamoorthi backer, said. "I know she wanted to run for political office, I'm just surprised she picked this race at this time, when we already had such a strong candidate — much stronger than I was."
In 2006, Duckworth defeated Cegelis by 4 points in the primary before losing to Rep. Peter Roskam, a shrewd campaigner, by fewer than 5,000 votes in the general election.
Duckworth has a big advantage over Krishnamoorthi because she's well-known among Chicago Democrats because of her last race. But she also has a few new challenges in the 8th district race this cycle, including a better-funded primary opponent.
"I know she lost, but she's memorable," said Democratic pollster John Anzalone, who is not affiliated with any of the candidates. "She has a good story. She's recognizable. She's a woman. She's a veteran. She's going to be tough to beat."
In 2006, national news outlets fawned over the disabled war veteran's personal story. Then-Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) cut an advertisement for Duckworth, and high-profile veterans and elected officials, such as Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) and former Sen. Max Cleland (D-Ga.), fundraised for her.
But Duckworth's nationalized 2006 bid lacked local support — a problem exacerbated by the fact that she lived a few miles outside the district. Duckworth's challenge once again this cycle will be to try to prove her local ties.
"She's got a great story to tell, a lot of people nationally know her story," Chicago Democratic consultant Kitty Kurth said. "But her challenge once again is to make sure the people at the PTA, the grocery store and in the neighborhoods know her story."
While some of the territory from the current 6th district was moved into the new 8th during redistricting, a little less than half of the voters have never seen Duckworth's name on a ballot before. The new 8th district was drawn to heavily favor Democrats, so next year's primary will be tantamount to the general election — something that was not the case when Duckworth ran five years ago in a district that favored the GOP.
Another key difference is that Krishnamoorthi is a much better-funded challenger than Cegelis. Krishnamoorthi had $636,000 in the bank at the end of September, which is already more than three times what Cegelis raised for the 2006 primary.
While Duckworth bested Krishnamoorthi in third-quarter fundraising by more than $150,000, she ended the quarter with $364,000 in the bank.
Like Cegelis, who first ran for Congress in 2004, Krishnamoorthi was in the race first.
Krishnamoorthi started to take a look at running for Congress after he barely lost the 2010 Democratic primary for state comptroller. He called Duckworth for advice in January and met with Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) and former Rep. Melissa Bean (D-Ill.) about the race.
Krishnamoorthi announced his candidacy in May, just about a week before Illinois Democrats released the new Congressional map. He lives directly in the middle of the redrawn 8th district.
"I was actively recruited to run in this district" Krishnamoorthi said in a phone interview last month. "I was definitely in this race first, and we have the backing of a tremendous number of local and community folks. But at the end of the day, this is a democracy. I have to demonstrate why I'm the best candidate."
About the same time as Krishnamoorthi's announcement, Duckworth said she saw a draft of the new Congressional maps.
"I realized that over half of the new 8th were going to be parts of the 6th that I won in 2006, and none of the parts that I had lost," Duckworth said in a phone interview in October. "That's when I thought, 'Drats. I'm going to have to quit my job and go run for Congress.'"
Duckworth said her former job in the Department of Veterans Affairs prevented her from exploring a bid, except for speaking with the White House about it.
After she left her position June 30, Duckworth started calling local officials to gauge their support, including Durbin and another one of her top 2006 backers, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel.
Within a week, Duckworth announced a second bid for Congress. About one month later, Durbin endorsed her — a rare move for a senior Democrat who almost always stays neutral in his home state's primaries.
While Duckworth said she would welcome support from Emanuel or the president again, that's not her focus this time.
"I'm not asking. I would not put the president in that situation, just like I wouldn't put the mayor in that situation," she said. "And frankly, I'm really focused on going out in the district. At the end of the day, it's going to be about those folks."