Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Over the top in the Illinois 6

By Tim Bagwell
reprinted with permission from The Democratic Forward

Contested primaries, even those for an open seat, have generally been governed by a set of rules. First among the rules is that the party elites wait until after the primary to formally endorse, contribute and support a candidate. The second rule is that the first rule applies doubly to party institutions and organizations. In the Democratic primary in the Illinois 6 congressional district the party elites have turned off all the rules. The party elites, by meddling in a primary at the eleventh hour, have unreasonably raised the stakes for election to congress. In turning off all the rules they risk damaging, the party, congressional campaigns across the county, and their own reputations with their voters. All these risks apply even if their candidate wins.

The Sixth District of Illinois

The Illinois 6 congressional district is located in the western suburbs of Chicago. Most of the district is contained within DuPage County. The district takes in part of Cook. An important characteristic of the district is that it contains O’Hare Airport and many of its supporting industries. DuPage has been characterized as a Republican County for over 30 years. There are neither county wide Democratic office holders nor Democrats in any of the townships or mayoral offices. The same situation applies to the state senate and state representative officeholders who reside within the district. Henry Hyde (R) has held the congressional seat for 16 terms. Until the 2004 election Hyde had increased his margins in every election. In 2004, the Democratic challenger reversed Hyde’s gains by thirty years, delivering to him the worst margins since his first term in office.

DuPage had become a center for Information Technology (IT) workers during the last decade. This boom was part of a general period of prosperity that brought in many Chicagoans to the county, the start of a subtle change in the political character of the district. The airline industry is the top employer in the region. The area took a major hit with the technology downturn in early 2001. The attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon delivered a hit to the airline industry in September of the same year.

The Candidates

Enter Christine Cegelis (D), IT consultant, former airline employee, resident of the district, and first time office seeker. In 2004 Cegelis resoundingly defeated a primary opponent, (23,253 for Cegelis and12,905 for Berry) raised and spent just under $200,000 in her campaign against Hyde, built a strong grassroots and netroots organization, and garnered 44.2% (110,470 for Cegelis and 139,627 for Hyde) of the vote in 2004. Cegelis chose to continue campaigning after the November election. In April 2005 Henry Hyde announced that he would be retiring from the House of Representatives. The Illinois 6 became an open seat. As the only announced Democratic candidate Cegelis seemed poised to gain party backing. Her impressive percentage against Henry Hyde was the best of any losing Democratic challenger in Illinois and among the top performers in the country. Based on her performance and commitment voters might expect the party elites to come running to her cause.

Meanwhile, the Republicans lined up their candidate. The chosen candidate is Illinois State Senator Peter Roskam (R). Roskam, a native of Elmhurst represents Illinois 48th Senate District. Roskam has served as an aide to Tom Delay and has raised over a million dollars through fundraising events sponsored by Dennis Hastert, Tom Delay, Karl Rove, and Vice President Dick Cheney. Roskam has supported such far-right proposals as the destruction of public education in favor of private schools. It would be hard to cast a more representative poster-boy for the K Street, Abramoff, money driven, ideological purist of the far right than Peter Roskam. Roskam sits on both the State Senate’s Insurance Committee and Environment & Energy Committee. Both committees are prime targets of anti-consumer special interests. Roskam had made an earlier attempt at congress by running against incumbent Republican Judy Biggert in Illinois 13. Roskam was not a longtime resident of the district and was dealt a punishing defeat by Biggert.

The problem with the Illinois 6

The problem with the Illinois 6 is that it is as an open seat in the backyard of too many of Illinois’ Democratic elite. On its northeast, side the district touches Democratic Congressional Candidate Committee (DCCC) Chairman Rahm Emanuel’s Fifth District. The Senior Senator from Illinois is Richard Durbin who is also the Senate’s minority whip. Add in the Senate’s new star Barack Obama. This situation is compounded by the Daley organization in Chicago, and the prevalence of most of Illinois’ statewide office holders living within commuting distance of each other. Confounding things a bit more is the presence of Speaker of House Dennis Hastert (R) in Illinois 14 to the west of the Illinois 6. And if that weren’t enough, Illinois’ early primary schedule makes the Illinois 6 the first open seat in the regular primary season.

Open seats are heated races and heated races take money to win. Both parties work to recruit what they consider to be viable fundraisers for open seats. The obsession with fundraising has gone so far as to make it the principle characteristic in assigning a candidate the label of “viable.” In our current climate of corruption and calls for reform in lobbying and campaign finance it is interesting that neither party makes an effort to curtail the very behavior that is the foundation of so much corruption. By making money the main variable of “viability” the two party system constrains itself inside a tragically flawed process.

The Money versus Cegelis

For the Democratic elite, desperate to win back seats in congress, the Cegelis fundraising record was not acceptable criteria as qualification as one of their “viable” candidates. The premise was that Cegelis was not an able fundraiser as demonstrated by her efforts in the 2004 cycle. However, 2004 had Cegelis challenging and 16-term incumbent. Typically challengers in both parties face an uphill battle in raising funds against long-term incumbents.

With the announced retirement of Hyde, Rahm Emanuel began his quest for an alternative to Christine Cegelis. Sources report that the first attempt was with Illinois a Democratic State Senator who did not reside in the district but whose district included part of District 6. The Senator turned down the offer for personal reasons. Asking a sitting state senator to run for a congressional seat makes good political sense. However, many of the Illinois State Senators and State Representatives have shied away from challenging incumbent Republicans in recent years.

Next came Peter O’Malley an attorney who works with the Illinois Mediation Service. The O’Malley name is prominent in Northern Illinois politics. The party often expects attorneys to be able to raise at least early money through their own professional network. O’Malley entered the race but was unable to generate significant money to challenge Cegelis. O’Malley dropped out of the race by the summer.

The next potential recruit was Brian McPartlin. McPartlin is the Chief of Administration Illinois State Toll Highway Authority. McPartlin had been active in Democratic politics including the Rod Blagojevich campaign for Governor. Governor Blagojevich appointed McPartlin to his job at the toll way. Supposedly McPartlin had the potential to raise money. However, the Illinois toll way receives enough Federal funds to place McPartlin’s state job under the Hatch Act. McPartlin would need to a new job to do the run. McPartlin still works at the toll way.

In the meantime, another Democratic challenger came onto the scene, this time without the encouragement of the party elite. Lindy Scott teaches Spanish and Latin American Studies at Wheaton College in Wheaton, Illinois. Wheaton is a private interdenominational Christian College. Dr. Scott has based much of his appeal on bringing Christian voters back to the Democratic Party.

The fourth and what looked at the time to be the final challenge attempt on Cegelis was rumored to be a local businesswoman capable of self-financing her campaign. That candidate never publicly materialized. However, this report highlighted the elite’s search for a self-funding candidate. It also highlighted the likelihood that there had been other attempts to recruit self-funding candidates even to extent of recruiting Republicans to the Democratic label.

For nearly eleven months, the Chairman of the DCCC along with many of the party elite had tried and failed to find a “viable” challenger to Cegelis. Petitioning for a place on the Illinois primary ballot began on September 20. The filing period for the petitions started on December 12 and ended on December 19. The window was narrowing for fielding a candidate. It was starting to look as though Cegelis had thwarted all the attempts of the elite to find a fundraiser with appeal from within the district to be a viable challenger to her in the primary.

Finally in November, with the help of Senator Durbin, Congressman Emanuel would unveil a candidate. Ladda "Tammy" Duckworth a major in the Illinois Army National Guard, Iraq War veteran, and recovering from war injuries was recruited by Durbin to bail Emanuel out of his candidate dilemma. Duckworth had not sought office prior to her recruitment by the Senator Minority Whip. She is not a resident of the district 6 and has a record as a voter that is only two years old. Her viability as a fundraiser is based solely upon a theory that the Party elite have about how the concept of “veteran” plays in Republican dominated districts and how well they could pitch this concept to the contributor pool.

The veteran theory is that conservative leaning voters are impressed with military service to the country. That voluntary military service in time of war is a conservative value and that also communicates a “strong on defense” message perceived as lacking within the party. The problem with the theory is that there have always been candidates with military service in their background running for congress. Most voters see the veteran attribute as a positive, but it does not usually represent the winning consideration in a race. Among the Republican incumbents a significant number have not served in the military and are even on record as having used many methods to avoid the draft during Vietnam. Many of these Republican incumbents have been sent back time and again by their constituents. The overlooked strategic questions for the Democratic elites are whether they give the appearance of just having discovered veterans and whether they truly understand how the voters value the status of veteran. Ultimately, as with any political variable, how do you elevate a lower level constant to the prime factor of a candidacy? The attempt would involve connections, power, pressure, and money.

December and January – The Party raises the stakes

Tammy Duckworth’s candidacy faced several hurdles. Among them was the time of her release from the National Guard in order to legitimately pursue public office. Had she been released during the summer the resources that were gathered for her in November through January would not have been necessary. By the end of November she was provided with official release from the Illinois Guard. With just over two weeks before the final filing date the Duckworth supporters needed to produce an impressive petition drive by the deadline on December 19. Utilizing largely paid volunteers from both the Governor’s campaign and the Kerry campaign, and recruiting as far south as Southern Illinois University in Carbondale at the southern end of the state. The Duckworth campaign pulled off the petition drive on schedule. However, the filing occurred on the last day and will appear as the third choice on the ballot. The ballot order is Cegelis, Scott, and Duckworth.

The party elite’s next strategy was to attempt to crush the Cegelis campaign with a high profile media blitz for their candidate. This started during the petition drive first in a NewsWeek article and with an interview with George Stephanopoulos on ABC’s This Week. These were the first salvos in an effort to demonstrate the power of the party to the Cegelis campaign.

The end of the year, holiday season blitz was not aimed at the voters. The timing was wrong for the voters to be paying attention. To the public the blitz might appear as the media’s discovery of this new kind of candidate, “An injured Iraq war veteran running as a Democrat.” Many challenger candidates, especially second run candidates, the media attention appears as an obvious hotwiring of a candidate. The hotwiring performed by the media contacts provided by the party elite and its consultants. Articles about Duckworth appeared in the New York Times, Washington Post, The Guardian, and locally in the Daily Herald.

The next set of pressures came from a jointly signed fundraising letter signed by Senators Obama and Durbin. The letter went out to many Cegelis contributors. Endorsements of Duckworth were coming in from Congresswoman Schakowsky (D), IL-09 and from Congressman Mike Honda CA-15, Chairman of the Asian Pacific American Caucus. In early January, more behind the scenes moves were taking place to line up labor support of Duckworth. At the January endorsement meeting, over objections from the Machinist, an endorsement of Duckworth was spearheaded by Illinois AFL-CIO President Margaret Blackshere. Shortly after the general session, the Illinois Federation of Teachers, AFSCME, and SEIU endorsements were delivered to the late arriving, out of district candidate. In late February, the Machinist, the largest union in the district would break ranks with the AFL-CIO by endorsing Cegelis and contributing to her campaign. Clearly the little “d” democratic aspects of union processes were not all they were cracked up to be. A total of seven mailers have gone out to Democratic voters from the Duckworth campaign. Duckworth and her consultants have taken the endorsement road. The local and metropolitan dailies have all endorsed Duckworth. The campaign was able to enlist an email from John Kerry to raise funds and a fundraiser in New York hosted by Hillary Clinton. With the Kerry and Hillary backing the party elites cemented the “over the top” proposition of this report. The scale of national party support for a local congressional race is unprecedented.

Toward the primary – In the trenches of campaign gridlock

Cegelis has held the strategic upper hand on the ground for the entire campaign. She is in essence the “incumbent-nominee.” Her in-district residency provides an important comfort level to most voters. In the 2004 Illinois voters were aghast at the introduction of Alan Keyes from Maryland as the state’s Republican Senate candidate. Her well-developed grassroots organization responded to the introduction of an out of district, elite chosen candidate with vigilance. When confronted with the upping of the stakes by the elite Cegelis responded by calling the bluff and stayed in the race and redoubled her efforts.

At this writing no polls have been publicly reported by either campaign. The old rule of thumb on these matters is that you report a poll when it is in your favor. The Cegelis campaign does not have the cash for a significant poll. The Duckworth campaign has been polling but has not reported the results. The campaigns are in a gridlock. Cegelis can’t afford the poll that would likely show her ahead. The Duckworth people can’t report a poll that shows her too far behind. Duckworth’s institutional supporters are caught in their own quagmire. Two weeks out and substantial points behind would normally cause most contributors to pull out. The party elite have placed such high stakes on this race they must now stay through the end. Those stakes are no doubt made higher by the commitment made to the Duckworth family. Duckworth and her family took on significant risks to participate in such an intense and concentrated campaign during the rehabilitation program for her injuries. Backing out by the elite was not an option.

The people who recruited Tammy Duckworth need to address several very difficult equations in order to win. The first equation is the three-way race. That calculus consists of an “incumbent-nominee” who made significant strides against the thirty-two year incumbent congressman, a credible niche market candidate likely to take 6000 to 8000 votes, and their own candidate who is a late arrival and who lives outside the district. A voter turnout of 28000 to 34000 turns into hair splitting margins with three candidates such as these.

The second equation is the “veteran theory.” How does a campaign move the veteran-status constant from its lower position in the voter’s mind to the prime position? How do you make that prime position the reason for not voting for the other candidates?

The third equation is the problem of district residency. Is it possible to remove that consideration from the minds of voters, is it possible to replace that comfort level constant of in district residency with something more important? Is it possible to overcome the comfort level constant during a primary?

The lack of a reported poll by the Duckworth campaign makes the answer to the three-equation problem obvious. The voters whom Duckworth impresses and who are willing to give her a pass on residency have already made up their minds. The voters who are not willing to give her pass and who support Cegelis or Scott have also made up their minds. The campaigns’ gridlock could be less than 2000 voters, it is even probable that the numbers are already set and Duckworth’s campaign has gone to the lengths that it has in order to budge a nearly surmountable obstacle.

What does winning mean?

The Republicans have handed the Democratic Party a war without end, a congress dominated by corrupt lobbyists, and an incompetent executive that has not provided a responsive government to the people. The core of this failure is the connection of lobbyists’ favors and money to the legislative process. This process works within the context of an ideology that is anti-government. Effective government is impossible if the people in charge hate government. Effective government is impossible if the legislature is up for sale.

In this context, the opportunity of the Democratic Party is to offer solutions from a different context. This is an opportunity to rebuild the message of the Democratic Party. The Democrats have a greater appreciation of the positive role of government. They must now positively demonstrate that role to the voters. The “different context” the Democrats need to present is broader than “strong on defense.” It needs to demonstrate to the voters that Democrats will approach winning congressional races differently than the Republicans. They need to demonstrate that they can remove the money from the process. Not an easy task but a necessary one.

Elite recruitment of candidates from outside a congressional district where other Democrats have already made a stand is not a positive demonstration of building a different context. The unprecedented support through media connections and campaign contributions does not aid the Democrats in rebuilding the message of the party. A primary victory in this kind of context can only lead to more unprecedented campaign contributions in the general election. More money means more of the same in Washington, more of the same in Congress.

A Duckworth victory in the primary will lead to a bidding war with the Republicans. The Republican candidate is solidly allied with the money machine of Rove, DeLay, Hastert, and Cheney. With over one million dollars on-hand, at this writing, the Republicans have established the context of their campaign as more of the same. A five to ten million-dollar race on Duckworth’s side alone will be the sucking sound heard by every Democratic challenger race in the country trying to raise funds. Since 2004 Democratic challenger candidates have organized into several groups. They now communicate with each other about develops in their states, campaigns, and the Party. If Duckworth looses in the general the Democratic leadership and party will face recriminations from challenger candidates around the nation.

If Duckworth wins the general by spending five to ten million-dollars and the Party does not win back the house, the message will be that the U.S. House has become like the Senate and will require millions for every contested seat. The House will effectively become a millionaire’s club. The Party will also be held accountable for an over concentration of resources in one race while ignoring others that might have produced more seats in the House for Democrats.

Finally, if Duckworth wins the general and Duckworth is the model for a victory for Democrats in taking back the house it will means that five to ten million dollars will have been spent on fifteen to twenty races. The result is the same as a sole Duckworth victory. The House will effectively become a millionaire’s club. There is no improved democracy in a money-based victory.

Fortunately the Democratic elite may need to yield their power and money to the Democratic voters. A Cegelis victory would be about winning without the money, without the taint of elitist politics, without the obligations to the contributors. A Cegelis victory would be about rebuilding the message of the Democratic Party.

Based on historic trends, the complicated three-way calculus, and the gridlock described earlier The Democratic Forward calls the race in the Illinois 6 as follows. Based on an estimated turnout of 32,000. We predict Cegelis 42%, Duckworth 38% and Scott 20%. Their respective vote totals 13,440, 12,160 and 6,400. Any lower turnout will likely benefit Cegelis.


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