December 10, 2008


If the recession continues to worsen, Democrats in 2010 will surely try to pin the blame on the previous Bush Administration, not on the fledgling Obama Administration, and that means using the "DCCC play book" yet again.

Crafted by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, the "play book" instructed 2008 Democratic candidates to hammer on one fundamental theme: "Bush, Blame It On Bush, Get Rid Of Bush and My Opponent Supported Bush." Democrats picked up a net of 22 U.S. House seats, defeating 14 Republican incumbents, and seven U.S. Senate seats, defeating four Republican incumbents.

Illinois, however, was an aberration. Democrats won the open 11th District seat, giving them a 12-7 majority in the delegation, but two targeted Republican incumbents -- liberal Mark Kirk in the North Shore 10th District and conservative Peter Roskam in the west suburban/DuPage County 6th District -- overcame both the Barack Obama tide and the anti-Bush onslaught. Both won comfortably despite a horrendous political environment.

Kirk's victory is the more remarkable of the two. He faced a rematch with Democrat Dan Seals, who came within 13,651 votes of ousting him in 2006. Seals, a self-proclaimed anti-war candidate, spent more than $3 million on the election, the bulk coming from the DCCC. Kirk was battered with a barrage of negative ads on major market television and radio, tying him to Bush's alleged Iraq and economic failures, and Seals relentlessly demanded an immediate withdrawal of all U.S. troops from Iraq. Obama carried the district with nearly 60 percent of the vote.

Nevertheless, in a stunner, Kirk not only beat Seals, but he did so by 14,906 votes, getting 52.5 percent of the vote and slightly exceeding his margin of victory in 2006. Significant numbers of liberal, independent, Democratic and Jewish voters cast ballots for Obama and Kirk. "He has a well deserved reputation of independence, and he had an outstanding precinct organization," said Cook County Republican chairman Lee Roupas. "Seals' attacks were ineffectual."

In Roskam's district, much-hyped Democrat Tammy Duckworth came within 4,810 votes of victory in 2006, after spending nearly $4.5 million. The candidate this year, Jill Morgenthaler, a retired Army Reserve colonel, was far less formidable, but Roskam broke a sweat. He posted a quote from Obama on his Web site calling him "terrific." Even though Obama won DuPage County with 54.7 percent of the vote, Roskam was re-elected by a 38,899-vote margin, with 57.6 percent of the votes cast.

In the south suburbs, Democrat Debbie Halvorson took a page out of the Republicans' prospective 2010 play book and repeatedly ripped Republican foe Marty Ozinga for giving a $10,000 contribution to Democratic Governor Rod Blagojevich. Never mind that Halvorson, as the Democratic Senate majority leader, has been a loyal stooge for the governor for the past 6 years.

Ozinga, who runs one of the area's largest concrete construction companies, tried to position himself as the outsider. "I am not a politician" was his mantra, but his donation to the governor infuriated Republicans, and voters perceived him as just another fat-cat, deceptive insider. Halvorson crushed him by 185,652-109,608, with 62.8 percent of the vote.

Here's an analysis of two key congressional contests:

10th District (the North Shore, stretching west to Palatine and Barrington, and the east half of Lake County): Kirk, age 49, first elected in 2000, is far more industrious than charismatic, and he keeps his ear closely affixed to the ground.

Once a big booster of Bush's Iraq policies, Kirk heeded the "wake-up call" in 2006 and became an advocate of a drawdown of U.S. troops, but not a withdrawal. He publicly called for an exit strategy. A member of the U.S. Navy Reserve, Kirk has always been a social liberal. He supports abortion rights, gay rights, gun control, and cloning and stem cell research. He is a staunch defender of Israel, a key issue in a district with a Jewish population of roughly 20 percent. He supported the $700 billion economic bailout. Most critically, he raised $5 million, more than the $3.5 million he spent in 2006.

Clearly, Kirk is not a "Bush Republican," and, according to Roupas, his extensive precinct operation inoculated him against Seals' TV assault. "He had an incredible ground game," Roupas said, consisting of paid staff and workers supplemented by college students who worked as interns. "Every precinct was canvassed, every Kirk voter identified, and every undecided voter bombarded with information about his 'independence.' When (Seals') 'rubber stamp' attacks came, they weren't credible."

Just over half of the district encompasses the affluent North Shore suburbs, stretching from the Lake westward north of Golf Road, including Wilmette, Winnetka, Kenilworth, Glencoe, Northbrook, Northfield, Glenview and Golf. The district also takes in Wheeling, Prospect Heights, part of Buffalo Grove, Palatine, Arlington Heights, Barrington and Inverness. Kirk topped Seals in those townships by a solid 88,856-72,358, by a margin of 16,498 votes and with 55.1 percent of the votes cast.

Kirk won with 57.3 percent of the vote in New Trier Township, where John McCain got 36.1 percent. He got 55.2 percent of the vote in Northfield Township, where McCain got 39.6 percent, and 52.2 percent of the vote in Wheeling Township, where McCain got 40.6 percent. Kirk won with 60.6 percent of the vote in Palatine Township, where McCain got 44.1 percent, and with 58 percent of the vote in Elk Grove Township, where McCain got 40.5 percent. McCain amassed roughly 40 percent of the vote in the district, while Kirk ran an incredible 15 percentage points better, which means that about one in four Obama voters also punched for Kirk.

In 2006 Kirk beat Seals in Cook County by 63,506-51,248, a margin of 12,258 votes in a turnout of 114,754. In November Kirk beat Seals by 16,498 votes in a turnout of 161,214. Seals' vote increased by 21,110 over 2006, but Kirk's spiked by 25,350.

Less than half of the district lies in Lake County, roughly east of Routes 83 and 45, including Highland Park, Deerfield, Riverwoods, Buffalo Grove, Lincolnshire, Lake Bluff and Lake Forest, towns with large Jewish populations. West of Interstate 94 are more conservative areas such as Vernon Hills, Mundelein and Libertyville, and there is a large black and Hispanic population in Waukegan and North Chicago.

Obama won Lake County with 59.2 percent of the vote, but Seals beat Kirk by 65,818-64,226, a margin of 1, 592 votes and a share of 50.6 percent. In 2006 Kirk defeated Seals by 44,423-43,030, a margin of 1,393 votes.

In 2000, when Kirk ran for retiring Republican John Porter's seat against Lauren Beth Gash, a Jewish Democratic state representative from Deerfield, he won in Cook County by 9,283 votes and lost in Lake County by 3,625 votes. Eight years later he won Cook County by 16,498 votes and lost Lake County by 1,592 votes. Clearly, Kirk has entrenched himself. If a Democrat couldn't beat him this year, he won't lose in 2010. Having lost twice, Seals is toast.

There is a possibility that Kirk might run for the U.S. Senate in 2010. "He'd be a great candidate," Roupas said. "He has demonstrated broad appeal." But this much is certain: Without Kirk, the Republicans will have to spend more than $5 million to hold the seat.

6th District: After fending off Duckworth in 2006, Roskam has made his seat safely Republican, although there are pockets of Democratic, mainly Hispanic, voters in Bensenville, Addison and Wood Dale and liberal white voters in Elmhurst. Roskam's predecessor was the late Henry Hyde, who served from 1974 to 2006.

Unlike Kirk, Roskam, age 47, is a social conservative who generally has supported Bush's Iraq policies. Unlike Kirk's district, the 6th District is a largely white, middle class area where opposition to abortion, gay rights and gun control is more mainstream, not extreme. Polls taken just prior to the Nov. 4 election showed the race tightening, and Roskam redoubled his efforts.

The district includes most of DuPage County (Wheaton, Lombard, Carol Stream, Glendale Heights, Bloomingdale, Roselle and Hanover Park), where the "Republican Machine" is viable and visible. It also encompasses a swath of Cook County suburbs, including parts of Park Ridge, Des Plaines, Mount Prospect, Elk Grove, Streamwood, Schaumburg, Hoffman Estates and Elgin.

Roskam won DuPage County by 6,778 votes in 2006, but he lost Cook County by 1,968 votes. This year Roskam won his DuPage County base by 36,563 votes and also carried Cook County by 2,336 votes. Roskam spent more than $1.6 million, to $450,000 spent by Morgenthaler.

Despite the Democratic trend in DuPage County, where three Democrats won county board seats, Roskam has entrenched himself. Had Duckworth, the state's veterans' affairs director, run again, the result would have been closer.

Two lessons can be deduced from the outcomes:

First, at least in Illinois, voters resoundingly rejected the Bush Administration, but not necessarily all Republicans.

And second, astute and competent Republican candidates -- and particularly incumbents such as Kirk and Roskam -- can survive in a hostile environment.