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. 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."
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