August 27, 2008


This analysis is about political timing. It's about the calculated happenstance of being in the right place at the right time. It's about the perceptivity to run for Congress in the right year in the right district.

Democrat Dan Seals, who is challenging Republican U.S. Representative Mark Kirk in the North Shore 10th District, unquestionably is running in the right year, with Barack Obama atop the Democratic ticket and voters inclined toward some amorphous "change." But Seals, who like Obama is of mixed racial background, may be running in the wrong district. There may be too many Republicans there.

Kirk was an early and enthusiastic supporter of John McCain, who will run well in the district. Democrat John Kerry beat George Bush in the district in 2004 with 51 percent of the vote. If McCain amasses 46 to 48 percent of the 10th District vote, Kirk will win, as a McCain vote is a Kirk vote. But if Obama tops 55 percent, Seals will win; at least 90 percent of the Obama vote will go to Seals.

Kirk won in 2004 by a 78,275-vote margin, with 64 percent of the vote, running almost 90,000 votes ahead of Bush. In the anti-Bush year of 2006, Kirk beat Seals by just 13,651 votes, with 53 percent of the vote, after spending $3.5 million to Seals' $1.7 million. Seals' spending for this election will equal Kirk's, as he is a top Democratic priority.

Kirk is a social liberal, supporting abortion rights, gay rights and gun control. That reflects majority opinion in the district.  But he also is a fiscal conservative and an Iraq War supporter. Seals wants to get out of Iraq now. Seals is trying to make the race a referendum on Bush and Iraq, and he is tying Kirk (and McCain) to the president. Kirk notes his differences with Bush and the "progress" in Iraq.

The outlook: Make Kirk the narrow favorite.

Democrat Debbie DeFrancesco Halvorson, who is seeking the open Will County-based seat of retiring U.S. Representative Jerry Weller (R-11), already has proven herself a dunce. Halvorson, a state senator, is the chamber's Democratic majority leader. With the recent retirement of Senate President Emil Jones, Halvorson would be a lock to move into the top spot. As a woman, no fellow Democratic state senator would have been so politically incorrect as to challenge her.

But, enticed by entreaties by U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and by Emily's List and other liberal groups, Halvorson chose to run for Congress. If she wins, she will be a junior member of the House. She can't participate in the jockeying to succeed Jones, and she faces a big-spending Republican, concrete construction owner Martin Ozinga, who already has loaned himself $500,000 and who has raised another $310,000.

And because the Illinois Senate's Democrats have been a bulwark of support for the monumentally unpopular Governor Rod Blagojevich, Republicans are tying that albatross around Halvorson's neck. With Blagojevich's popularity hovering around 13 percent, according to the latest polls, being a Blagojevich backer is politically fatal. Halvorson has $916,000 in her campaign account.

The vote to replace Jones will occur in January, but Halvorson is effectively isolated: She can't line up support now, as that would be an admission that she could lose the congressional race, and if she does lose in November it will be too late and she will be too tarnished.

Halvorson could have been one of the "Four Tops" and a powerful player in Springfield for many years. Instead, at best, she'll be a junior congresswoman; at worst, she'll be a has-been state senator, as she'll lose her majority leader's job in the frantic dealing to win Jones' post.

The outlook: Halvorson is attempting to make the congressional election a referendum on Bush, and Ozinga is trying to make it a referendum on Blagojevich. Neither will succeed. Ozinga has many shortcomings, so the only way Halvorson can win is to go negative on her opponent. Republicans will be going negative on her. The outlook: Whoever has the least negatives by Nov. 4 will win. Give a slight edge to Ozinga.

For Democrat Jill Morgenthaler, who is challenging first-term incumbent Peter Roskam (R-6) in the west suburban 6th District, the question is this: If the much-hyped Tammy Duckworth couldn't beat Roskam in 2006, then how will the utterly unknown Morgenthaler do so in 2008? The answer: She won't. She's running in the wrong year.

In 2006 Duckworth spent $4.5 million, to Roskam's $3.3 million, and lost. Bush won the district in 2004 by 17,674 votes (with 53 percent of the vote) -- not an overwhelming margin. But Roskam managed to squeak by in 2006, when Henry Hyde retired, by 4,801 votes (with 51 percent of the vote).

The outlook: Roskam is a staunch conservative, and some of his votes (see adjoining chart) could cause him problems. But Morgenthaler, a 30-year Army veteran who was Blagojevich's deputy chief for public safety, lacks the necessary resources. Roskam will win with 56 percent of the vote.

For Northwest Side Democratic incumbent Rahm Emanuel (D-5), serendipity seems to be the epitome of his career, which reads like a fairytale: He was a chief fund-raiser and senior advisor for Rich Daley in his 1989 mayoral campaign; he was a strategist in Bill Clinton's 1992 presidential campaign and then an assistant to the president during both terms; he then became an investment banker and made millions; and in 2002 he ran for Congress in the Northwest Side 5th U.S. House District, had support from the mayor and his organization, and won the primary over liberal Nancy Kaszak by 11,058 votes, getting 50.5 percent of the vote.

Emanuel became the chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee in 2005, and is widely credited for 31-seat Democratic gain in 2006 which gave his party the House majority for the first time in 12 years.

As a reward, Emanuel was made the House's Democratic Caucus chairman, the number three post in leadership, behind Speaker Pelosi and House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer. That means he's in line to be speaker. Pelosi, of California, is age 68, and Hoyer, of Maryland, is age 69. If Pelosi retires in 2010 or 2012, Hoyer will take her place. If the Democrats retain their House majority for the next three Congresses and Pelosi doesn't retire until 2014 or later, Hoyer will be viewed as too old for the succession, and Emanuel, age 48, will become the speaker (or the Democratic leader).

There is no doubt that Emanuel will be re-elected in 2008 -- and thereafter. It would be noteworthy if a Chicago Jewish Democrat (Emanuel) were the speaker while a Chicago black Democrat (Obama) was the president, but it could happen.

In the southwest suburban 3rd District, incumbent Democrat Dan Lipinski has the right DNA. He's the son of former (1983 to 2004) U.S. representative Bill Lipinski, the 23rd Ward Democratic committeeman and a longtime Daley supporter. Lipinski decided to make son his successor -- as Emil Jones is making his son his successor in the Illinois Senate -- and the younger Lipinski got the job in 2004 and was easily renominated in 2006 and 2008.

Lipinski, age 42, is a social conservative, but he seems to have fallen into line with the House's liberal Democratic majority. He will win another term -- and probably many more.

In the Hispanic-majority 4th District, incumbent Democrat Luis Gutierrez, age 54, is champing at the proverbial bit to run for Chicago mayor. Gutierrez announced his retirement in 2005 but then changed his mind and was re-elected in 2006. To run for mayor, in 2011 or later, Gutierrez needs to retain his base as a congressman.

In the Northwest Side/Evanston/Skokie 9th District, incumbent Jan Schakowsky's liberalism is no impediment to her re-election. She won with 76 percent of the vote in 2006 and also with 76 percent in 2004. Schakowsky is one of eight chief deputy whips, but she failed in her 2007 bid to become the majority whip. She will never be speaker.

Schakowsky's current goal: To have Blagojevich appoint her as senator replacing Obama if he becomes president. Failing that, Schakowsky, age 64, will be a congresswoman for life. The outlook: Blagojevich will appoint Duckworth if Obama wins.