With early voting starting in less than a month, Illinois will be a testing ground for Democrats’ ability to nominate general election candidates they think can win out of crowded primaries.
The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee is targeting four Republican-held districts, but the committee is not explicitly picking favorites in all those primaries.
In two competitive districts — the 6th and the 13th — Democratic candidates who have won the primary before but fallen short in the general election are running again. Even though they’re not raising much money, there’s still fear among Democratic campaign veterans that they could sneak by in the primary.
“They’re almost like quasi-incumbents because Democratic primary voters voted for them before,” one Democratic strategist in the state said.
Watch: How the Open Seats Are (or Aren’t) Creating Opportunities in the House
Hillary Clinton won Illinois by 17 points in 2016. Democrats hold 11 of the state’s 18 House districts. The party failed to recruit candidates in the 12th and 13th districts last cycle — both of which Democrats drew to be competitive for themselves.
That’s why there’s so much attention on this year’s March 20 primaries.
“They’re huge,” the Democratic strategist said. “You could take two districts that we should win and almost take them off the table” if those previous nominees make it through the primaries.
The Congressional Leadership Fund, the super PAC backed by House GOP leadership, has said it will play in Democratic primaries in 2018. But it hasn’t yet stepped into Illinois to help candidates who they see as weaker general election contenders.
“Illinois is incredibly important because you have the three kinds of districts Democrats need to compete in, plus the kinds they need to defend,” said Ian Russell, former deputy executive director and national political director at the DCCC. He’s working with two Illinois primary candidates backed by EMILY’s List.
“It’s one of those districts where we have to perform; it’s a part of our path,” a national Democratic strategist said.
Out of the four Illinois seats on the DCCC’s target list, it’s the only one Clinton carried — by 7 points.
Democrats plan to hit Roskam on the GOP tax overhaul, which the state’s Republican governor called “punishing” because of its cap on state and local tax deductions.
“It’s clear that [Roskam’s] voters wanted a conservative representative who was focused on cutting their taxes — and that’s exactly what Roskam did,” Maddie Anderson, a spokeswoman for the National Republican Congressional Committee, said in an email.
“I’m a little confused by the notion that following through on what voters asked for would lead to being voted out of office,” she added.
Seven Democrats have filed the requisite signatures to run in the primary, including 2016 nominee Amanda Howland, who lost to Roskam by 18 points.
But the DCCC is not in a position to back any of the other candidates because members of the Illinois delegation are split.
Many national Democrats see Kelly Mazeski, a former financial adviser and local elected official, as the front-runner. The breast cancer survivor announced her candidacy the day the House voted to repeal the 2010 health care law, which earned her national attention. She raised $163,000 in the fourth quarter of 2017 and loaned herself another $100,000. She ended December with $510,000 in the bank.
In addition to support from EMILY’s List, she has endorsements from Illinois Reps. Jan Schakowsky and Cheri Bustos and several of Bustos’ closest female allies in Congress, who have been politically active across the country.
But some members of the delegation prefer lawyer Carole Cheney, a former district chief of staff to Rep. Bill Foster. She has the backing of Foster and Rep. Robin Kelly. She had $90,000 at the end of the third quarter.
Clean energy entrepreneur Sean Casten raised $335,000 in the fourth quarter, including $250,000 of his own money. One national Democrat described the primary as a race between Mazeski and Casten, both of whom he thinks would be strong general election candidates.
But Howland’s team thinks she has the connections to take advantage of an energized electorate since she’s run before without national backing.
Russell, the former DCCC political director, is working with Mazeski. He acknowledged that Howland probably started as the front-runner — she led seven candidates with 46 percent of the vote in her own campaign’s poll from last August.
But he’s less worried about Howland as a primary threat now since she hasn’t amassed the resources to communicate in such an expensive media market. She had $50,000 at the end of September. End of the year fundraising reports are due to the FEC at the end of January.
Having the backing of national Democratic leaders, though, doesn’t always guarantee electoral success. When Tammy Duckworth, now the state’s junior senator, first ran for Congress in 2006, she had money and the backing of EMILY’s List, then-DCCC chairman Rahm Emanuel and then-Sen. Barack Obama.
She defeated the 2004 nominee, who had strong local support, 44 percent to 40 percent in the primary. But despite outraising Roskam, Duckworth lost in the general by about 5,000 votes.
The 12th District, held by two-term GOP Rep. Mike Bost, is the only pickup opportunity in which the DCCC is showing their cards.
The committee courted St. Clair County State’s Attorney Brendan Kelly for years. This cycle, he finally said yes and quickly earned a spot on the committee’s Red to Blue list.
Democrats failed to land a candidate in this downstate district in 2016. “Oh god, it was awful,” Russell recalled. “We went through four or five candidates in the 12th. There was a lot of skepticism about the viability of the seat.”
On paper, the 12th District is trending away from Democrats. Former President Barack Obama carried it by double digits in 2008 but by less than 2 points in 2012. Trump won it by 15 points in 2016.
But Duckworth carried the seat in her 2016 Senate victory, and Democrats are optimistic that Kelly, who they see as a moderate, can compete in the general election.
“I just hope the demographics don’t overcome good candidate quality,” Russell said.
The 13th District was another recruiting miss for Democrats last cycle.
Obama carried the district by double digits in 2008, and lost it narrowly four years later. But in 2016, the 13th swung to Trump, who carried it by about 6 points. Davis won a third term by 19 points. This year’s race is rated Likely Republican.
As in the 6th District, there’s a Democrat running who’s won the primary before — David Gill, who beat the DCCC’s recruit in 2012. Since then, though, he’s alienated many in the local and national party establishment. He had $4,000 at the end of the third quarter.
Betsy Dirksen Londrigan has the backing of EMILY’s List, Schakowsky and Senate Minority Whip Richard J. Durbin, for whom she used to be a fundraiser. Londrigan ended the third quarter with $129,000. Erik Jones could also be competitive here; he ended the third quarter with $195,000.
The super reach
Trump carried the 14th District by only 4 points. The DCCC has included this exurban Chicago district on its target list, but Democratic strategists who’ve worked in the state are skeptical.
“That’s a very tough one,” Russell said. Another Democratic strategist called it “a bridge too far.” GOP Rep. Randy Hultgren won a fourth term by 19 points in 2016.
Still, national Democrats are hoping to have a candidate who makes the general election competitive. Seven Democrats are running. Nurse and former Health and Human Services official Lauren Underwood had the most cash on hand at the end of the third quarter. Engineer Matthew Brolley wasn’t far behind, with $51,000. He’s backed by Schakowsky and just secured the endorsement of the state AFL-CIO, which should boost his ground game.
But Republicans scoff at Democratic chances in the district.
“That’s Republican delight,” said one Republican from the state. “Waste your money on that one.”