Juen 27, 2012


For former U.S. House speaker Nancy Pelosi and current Illinois House Speaker Mike Madigan, the 2011 Democratic remap of Illinois' congressional districts was to have been a "perfect firestorm."

It was designed to scorch six Republicans from the existing delegation in the 113th Congress, flipping it from an 11-8 Republican advantage to a 13-5 Democratic edge, a net gain for the Democrats in 2012 of at least five seats and a net loss to the Republicans of six seats, including one seat eliminated due to population loss. If Pelosi is to retake the House, the Democrats must win 25 Republican-held districts, and her arithmetic requires a five-seat gain in Illinois. If the Republicans hold two or three of their endangered seats, she is foiled.

The redistricting process is much like osmosis, and it requires time to ossify. Merely packing a district with minority populations, college students, 2008 Barack Obama voters and past-voting Democrats does not necessarily a victory make. Factors such as candidate quality, incumbent popularity, funding and national trends are operative. A demographically "safe" Democratic district, unless it has a minority population of over 50 percent, is always an iffy proposition.

The Democrats' expected firestorm has been momentarily extinguished by the Republicans' "firewall." The targeted Republicans -- Joe Walsh, Bob Dold, Judy Biggert and Bobby Schilling, along with the Champaign-Urbana seat being vacated by Tim Johnson -- are not going to be easy turnovers, and the East Saint Louis-area seat now held by the retiring Jerry Costello, which has been Democratic since 1944 and where Democrats have yet to field a replacement candidate, likely will flip to the Republicans.

Here's the early outlook:

12th District (East Saint Louis south to Cairo, including Belleville, plus rural counties around Mount Vernon): Costello, who was first elected in 1986, is the third-ranking Democrat on the House Transportation Committee, where he can direct plenty of federal pork -- meaning highway construction dollars -- to his district. Costello was re-elected in 2010 with 59.8 percent of the vote, meaning he was safe, although down from his 71.4 percent in 2008. He was unopposed in 2006, and he got 69.5 percent of the vote in 2004.

It was thought that Costello would pass off the seat to his son, who is a state representative, but the elder Costello didn't want to wait a decade to become the committee chairman, and Jerry Costello II didn't yet want his dad's job. Nor did a bunch of other prominent area Democratic legislators.

Almost by default, the Democrats slated Brad Harriman, the obscure Saint Clair County school superintendent, who raised $370,000 through March 31. But Harriman quit the race on May 30, with no replacement chosen -- a politically toxic situation, as the new nominee will have only a brief period to raise funds and become known.

The Republican candidate is no powerhouse, but he is somebody: Jason Plummer, the 2010 Republican nominee for lieutenant governor, whose wealthy family owns a chain of Downstate lumber yards. Plummer had raised $250,000 through March 31.

In the 2010 primary, Plummer faced state Senator Matt Murphy of Palatine, the party establishment choice. Plummer spent heavily Downstate, and he eked out a 238,169-233,572 upset, a margin of 4,597 votes. Plummer demolished Murphy in the 11 counties in the old 12th District by 21,154-4,428. In the 2010 election, the Brady-Plummer ticket beat Pat Quinn and Sheila Simon in the district by 132,327-110,310, carrying the northern Madison County suburbs (East Alton, Collinsville) by 11,322 votes and losing Saint Clair County (East Saint Louis) by just 1,380 votes.

Obama won the district 170,391-131,443 (with 56 percent of the vote), largely because of his 28,202-vote Saint Clair County majority; he won Madison County by 11,802 votes. Democrat John Kerry won the district with 52 percent of the vote in 2004. The district's black population is 16.4 percent, almost all living in East Saint Louis, a city with one of the nation's highest crime rates; it's population tumbled from 82,000 in 1960 to less than 29,000 in 2010.

The outlook: You can't beat somebody with nobody. Plummer is young (age 30), energetic, well funded, well known, a naval reserve officer and a conservative. In 2010 the Chicago Sun-Times endorsed Simon, snidely commenting on Plummer, "We were reminded of the old joke -- he was born on third base and thought he hit a triple," and saying that he projects "a certain unearned cockiness."

In this 78 percent white district, the Obama-Romney race will be close. If Romney wins, so will Plummer. Unless the Democrats find a credible candidate soon, they will gift this seat to the Republicans.

11th District (West and southwest suburbs): 14-year incumbent Biggert, of Hinsdale, is a pleasant, likable, well known 74-year-old congresswoman with a "moderate" voting record. (She is pro-choice on abortion.) But her predicament this year is akin to the hapless explorer in the boiling pot surrounded by hungry cannibals because, in fact, her old 13th District has been cannibalized by the Democratic remappers. The existing district was compact and contiguous, taking in heavily Republican areas in southern DuPage County (south of Interstate 88, including Naperville, Woodridge, Downers Grove, Hinsdale and Westmont), southwest Cook County (Orland Park, Tinley Park, Lemont), and parts of northern Will County (the north Joliet suburbs). She won with 63.8 percent of the vote in 2010, 53.6 percent in 2008, 58.3 percent in 2006 and 65.1 percent in 2004.

Taking an ax, Madigan's creative mapmakers chopped out every Republican-leaning bailiwick, creating a convoluted new district. All of Aurora and Joliet, both in a different district and both with large Hispanic populations, were spliced in. Naperville, with a large liberal vote, was kept in, as was the Interstate 55 corridor, along Bolingbrook and Romeoville, with a large Hispanic vote. Westmont, Tinley Park, Orland Park and Hinsdale were sliced out. Biggert's Hinsdale home was appended to Democrat Mike Quigley's Chicago-based 5th District, which stretches to Lincoln Park and the Lakefront.

The district was created to elect a specific Democrat: Bill Foster, a one-term former congressman whose support for Obama and Obama's health-care program got him bounced in 2010. Foster won a 2008 special election by 5,075 votes and the November 2008 election by 49,751 votes, and he then ignominiously lost in 2010 by 13,724 votes. "Foster is far from a stellar candidate," concluded a Roll Call article on the race.

The outlook: Foster has raised $1,229,000, and Biggert has raised $1,299,000. One-quarter of the district was in Foster's old area, half was in Biggert's, and the rest is new. Turnout is the key. If Hispanics don't flood the polls, Biggert wins.

17th District (Western Illinois: Rockford, Peoria, Quad Cities): Another Democratic cannibalization, with Schilling, a likable former pizza owner, as the victim. The Democrats' problem is that it's tough to cannibalize what's already been cannibalized. In 2001 the Democrats solidified Lane Evans' hold on the seat by stringing together every Western Illinois Democratic stronghold: Rock Island, Moline, Springfield and Decatur. The only Republican area in the district was Quincy.

Lane retired in 2006, after his nomination, and he passed the seat to his top aide, Phil Hare. Hare won by 28,864 votes in 2006 and was unopposed in 2008, and then he incredibly lost to underdog Schilling in 2010 by 19,129 votes. In 2011 the Springfield Democrats tried to re-cannibalize, chopped off Quincy, Decatur and Springfield, and ran the district north to the Wisconsin border, adding Galena and Rockford. Their hand-picked 2012 candidate is Cheri Bustos, an obscure East Moline alderman who is backed by Emily's List and who is a fervent Obama supporter.

The Democrats thought any Democrat could win the district, but Schilling is a hugely popular congressman with great appeal to the average voter. Recent polls show Schilling leading Bustos by better than 15 percent.

The outlook: Schilling has raised $1,109,000, to $811,000 for Bustos. Schilling voted as a conservative and against "Obamacare." He will frame the contest as Romney-Schilling vs. Obama-Bustos. Does Bustos attack Schilling for being anti-Obama? This looms as another Democratic SNAFU. Edge to Schilling.

10th District (north Cook County suburbs and east Lake County): Dold is not Mark Kirk, the current U.S. senator who represented the district for a decade, but he's inching closer. Kirk won by 78,275 votes in 2004, getting 42,957 more votes than George Bush got. Kirk won in 2008 by 14,802 votes, getting 39,047 more votes than John McCain.

Dold has $4 million in cash on hand, and he has compiled a somewhat "moderate," Kirk-like record. His problem is that the remap chopped out Palatine and Republican-leaning Cook County suburbs and replaced them with Waukegan and Zion, with Hispanic majorities. The Democrats' problem is that their nominee, Brad Schneider, has less charisma than a fire hydrant, and, having won his primary with 46.9 percent of the vote, faces an enthusiasm deficit. He has raised $1,035,000.

The outlook: North Shore denizens are prickly and counter-cyclical. They like "balance" -- a Democrat for president, a Republican for Congress. Obama won 61 percent of the vote in the district in 2008. To win, Schneider needs Obama to get more than 58 percent of the vote, since 5 to 8 percent will opt for Obama-Dold and none of the Romney voters will opt for Schneider. Slight edge to Dold.

13th District (Champaign-Urbana, Bloomington, Decatur, Springfield, Edwardsville): Another cannibalization. Johnson's old 15th District ran north-south from Pontiac to Mount Carmel; now it runs east-west from Champaign-Urbana through Decatur to Alton. It includes nine college towns.

The district was created to elect a Democrat. It still may. David Gill, who lost to Johnson in 2004, 2006 and 2010, beat the party choice in the 2012 primary and is running as an unabashed Obama Democrat. Johnson resigned his 2012 nomination, and the party picked Rodney Davis, an aide to U.S. Representative John Shimkus, to run.

The outlook: A serial loser, Gill is well known, and the Democrats have already reserved $770,000 in media advertising time. Davis is totally unknown. This will be a very tight race.

My prediction: In the next Congress, the state delegation will be 10-8 Democrats.