LEMONT, Ill. — Rep. Judy Biggert built a reputation as a genteel Republican willing to work across the aisle during her 14 years in Congress.
But politics has changed, and Biggert has not.
“The last time I went to the Civility Caucus, there were three people there: the two co-chairs and me,” Biggert recalled to a roundtable of local business leaders last week.
Today, one of those co-chairmen is the head of the organization that has already spent $1.35 million to defeat her next week: Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Steve Israel (N.Y.).
Biggert has never faced a race like this — and it shows. Now there’s a good chance her hesitance to embrace the aggressive tactics of today’s politics could cost her in her race against former Rep. Bill Foster (D).
She last faced a competitive race in 1998, when she defeated Peter Roskam, then her colleague in state Legislature and now a neighboring Congressman, in an open-seat GOP primary. Seeking to make amends afterward, Roskam sent Biggert flowers on the state Legislature’s floor. And when Republicans appointed Roskam to the state Senate two years later, Biggert returned the gesture.
“It was nothing as ugly as this,” Biggert said in an interview, referring to the 1998 contest. “People say you have to be thick-skinned here. But I am. I know what’s happening. That’s just not the way I would conduct myself.”
Biggert’s opponent followed a different, more recent path to politics. A physicist and businessman, Foster, 57, came to Congress in a 2008 special election and won a full term later that year. He lost in 2010 to now-Rep. Randy Hultgren (R).
“There’s a big difference between pointing out policy differences and lying,” Foster said Saturday. “The advertisements that both Congresswoman Biggerts’ campaign and her allies is putting out are wrong.”
It’s easier for this relative political newcomer to embrace the aggressive tactics necessary to win one of the most competitive House races in the country. In their debate last week, Foster tweaked Biggert after she stopped short of supporting gay marriage, calling it a “matter for the state.”
“She has not yet evolved. So she’s crawling out of the swamp or something,” Foster shot back. By Thursday morning, Foster’s sound bite carried much of the debate’s local coverage.
It was not only a symbol of changing politics, but also of the district’s altered political composition. Biggert’s current district is anchored in the Chicago exurbs southwest of the city, including Naperville and Boiling Brook. She’s won re-election easily there, even though President Barack Obama carried the district with 54 percent in 2008.
But Democrats dismantled her district during redistricting last year, moving Biggert’s Hinsdale home inside Rep. Mike Quigley’s (D) heavily Democratic district. Privately, they speculated the 75-year-old would retire rather than stay and fight in such a heavily altered district.
Instead, Biggert sought re-election in the neighboring 11th district, which is so oddly constructed that one of her aides compared it to a “genie in a bottle.” The district includes about 45 percent of her current terrain, compared with about a quarter of Foster’s old territory. But most devastating for Biggert is the new partisan makeup of the district — the president would have won it with 62 percent four years ago.
The demographics of the district have also changed. The Hispanic population booms in Aurora, which is now the second-largest city in the state.
It’s why Foster brought Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D), the state delegation’s sole Hispanic lawmaker, to the district to campaign for him. He has scheduled additional immigration forums in Joliet, another city new to the 11th district.
“There is a difference if you voted for the DREAM Act or against it,” Foster said. “This is a big issue for many people.”
Biggert voted against the failed immigration bill that would have offered a path to citizenship for children of undocumented immigrants. In another debate, Biggert explained she felt “very, very sorry” for these children — but it might not be enough to persuade the district’s burgeoning Hispanic and Asian populations to vote for her.
In that same debate, she struggled for a painful 15 seconds to come up with a question for her opponent. Again, she chalked up her hesitancy to the negative nature of the campaign.
“I don’t like the negativity,” Biggert said later. “It really bothers me. What I like to do is listen to what people have to say, and then I go do what I can to help.”
Regardless of whether he wins, Foster shouldn’t expect any flowers in November.