Illinois has been one of the most important battlegrounds for House Democrats this cycle. It's a state where they expected to make up for redistricting losses in more conservative territory.
Party strategists initially projected the state's redrawn map could yield as many as five seats this November. But less than two months before Election Day, party elders are suggesting the net gain there will be less bountiful.
"I'm extremely confident that - worst-case scenario - we pick up two in Illinois," Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Steve Israel (N.Y.) said during an interview with Roll Call last week at the party's convention in Charlotte, N.C. "I'm comfortable saying we can pick up three or four. It's not beyond the realm of possibility that we can get to five or six in a very strong year where the president's already strong coattails in Illinois grow even stronger."
There are six competitive House races in the Land of Lincoln - five of which are seats held by Republicans. Thanks to their redraw of the Congressional map, there are more Democratic voters than Republicans in all of these districts.
But Democrats' path to winning the five GOP-held seats has become more treacherous over the past year because of sudden retirements and the GOP's early spending advantage.
Privately, Democratic operatives concede only one race is a slam dunk: Iraq War veteran Tammy Duckworth's (D) bid against Rep. Joe Walsh (R) in the suburban Chicago 8th district.
The remaining four seats held by Republicans are still up for grabs:
. Rep. Robert Dold (R) versus businessman Brad Schneider (D) in the 10th district, north of Chicago.
. Rep. Judy Biggert (R) versus former Rep. Bill Foster (D) in the 11th district, southwest of Chicago.
. Rep. Bobby Schilling (R) versus former East Moline Alderwoman Cheri Bustos (D) in the 17th district in western Illinois.
. The open-seat race for retiring Rep. Timothy Johnson's (R) 13th district in downstate Illinois. Medical doctor David Gill (D) is running against Rodney Davis, a former aide to Rep. John Shimkus (R-Ill.).
The party must also hold retiring Rep. Jerry Costello's (D) 12th district east of St. Louis. That's an expensive proposition in that media market, even if Democrats are favored to keep the seat.
Israel said in March that "the road to the majority goes through Illinois." But last week, the DCCC chief was using a much more cautious tone.
"I'd rather play it conservatively than overoptimistically," Israel said. "You look at the map, and you see a path to six. But I think it's more important to analyze the dynamics that you have in real-time."
Recent Democratic polls in the 10th and 11th districts underscore the party's precarious situation in Illinois, with the surveys showing dead-even races.
Last week, Foster's campaign touted an internal survey that showed him virtually tied with Biggert, 42 percent to 43 percent. But the same survey showed self-identified Democrats have a 7-point advantage in the district.
"It's probably a reflection of the fact that I have a deficit in name recognition, but it's a Democratic-leaning district," Foster said last week outside an Illinois delegation breakfast at the convention. "As a result, we probably have a lot more room to improve than she does - and that's why [the poll is] very good news."
A couple weeks earlier, two Democratic outside groups jointly released a poll that showed Schneider and Dold tied at 46 percent in the overwhelmingly Democratic 10th district. They wanted to show
Schneider remains competitive even though Republicans, including Dold, have been airing ads in the race.
But Republicans feel most confident about the districts in downstate Illinois - specifically Schilling's race, as well as the open seats in the 12th and 13th districts.
"The farther you get away from Chicago, the more reticence you see with Obama and his policies," said Guy Harrison, executive director of the National Republican Congressional Committee. "They had the opportunity to sock away two or three wins, and instead, they tried to reach for the brass ring. And I think they're going to fall short."
Democrats could not foresee many of these problems - such as the retirements of Costello, who would have been a lock for re-election, and Johnson, a Republican who had not faced a tough race for many cycles. As a result, Democrats are on track to spend more money in Illinois than they had hoped.
The DCCC has reserved more than
$6 million in airtime across the state and is already airing spots in the 12th, 13th and 17th districts. The Services Employees International Union and House Majority PAC, a super PAC, have reserved an additional $2.4 million in airtime for the remaining competitive House seats around Chicago - the 8th, 10th and 11th districts.
The NRCC reserved about the same amount of airtime ?- $6 million - as the DCCC. House Republicans started airing spots in the 13th and 17th districts this weekend. Additionally, two conservative outside groups, New Prosperity Foundation and YG Action Fund, have made six-figure buys in several House districts on behalf of GOP candidates.
All of this cash goes a long way in Illinois, which will likely not see any campaign spending from the presidential race in its in-state media markets. Democrats said this gives their candidates a better shot to break through to voters in the final two months.
"What's unique about Illinois is that these Congressional races are the whole ball of wax in this election," said Ann Liston, a Democratic media consultant in Chicago.
Still, many of these House races remain too close for comfort for Democrats.
"We could talk the day after the election about being anywhere from three out of six, to six for six," Rep. Mike Quigley (D-Ill.) said last week. "They are that close."