DECATUR — The candidates for Illinois congressional seats heard all about it during visits with voters in August: Disgust with Washington. Dismay over accusations and negative advertising in Illinois’ state races. Lack of interest in the Nov. 4 election.
While the complaints transcend party allegiances and demographic boundaries, Republicans are aiming to capitalize on the frustrations and predicted low voter turnout to take back a number of congressional districts across Illinois and help the GOP solidify its hold on the House just two years after losing most of the state’s competitive seats.
Among the incumbents targeted as vulnerable are freshmen Democrats Brad Schneider, who represents the suburbs north of Chicago, Bill Enyart, who represents southern Illinois, and Cheri Bustos, who represents a swath of northwestern and central Illinois.
Meanwhile, both sides are pouring money into a tough contest pitting one of the GOP’s own freshman, Rodney Davis, against former Madison County Circuit Court Judge Ann Callis in the bow-tie shaped district that stretches from Champaign to the St. Louis suburbs.
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Two of the races are rematches from 2012, when Schneider defeated first-term GOP Rep. Bob Dold and Bustos defeated first-term GOP Rep. Bobby Schilling.
The Democratic victories two years ago were aided by turnout for President Barack Obama and a new congressional district map, drawn by Democrats in Springfield that heavily favors Democrats. They currently hold a 12-6 majority in the state’s congressional delegation, having reversed the Republicans earlier 11-8 advantage. Illinois lost one seat after the 2010 census.
David Yepsen, director of the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University, says the sour voter mood compounds the typical problems faced by the party in power during midterm elections. To many, Washington appears to be paralyzed by partisan conflicts while national and international crises have unfolded.
“Some (voters) are just giving up on the political process, and I think that will help Republicans,” he said. “The party in power always has trouble in midterms, but this could be more pronounced.”
Another possible factor is a Democrat at the top of the ticket, Gov. Pat Quinn. Quinn’s approval ratings are among the lowest of the nation’s governors and he has angered some traditional Democratic allies, such as union members, for supporting reduced state worker benefits to deal with the state pension crisis.
“I think you’re going to see a lot of Democrats just staying home,” Yepsen said. “I think that starts to hurt other Democrats up and down the tickets.”
Congressional candidates have encountered the general malaise as they make their campaign rounds.
Congress “has lost sight of the average Americans’ needs and wants and concerns,” said Albert Weidlich, an 84-year-old retiree after a candidate forum in Decatur during Congress’ annual August recess.
Katie Prill, a spokeswoman for the National Republican Congressional Committee, said the GOP’s Illinois strategy has changed from defense to offense. The NRCC has spent a half million dollars on television ads to support Dold against Schneider, and a total of $1.4 million to support Mike Bost, who is facing the Democrat Enyart, and Davis in their races.
Prill singled out the Dold-Schneider race as a “huge pickup opportunity” for Republicans. Dold lost to Schneider in the independent-leaning district by about one percentage point in 2012.
The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has spent $800,000 on ads so far in the Dold-Schneider race, and about $3.5 million in the other two districts. U.S. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi recently appeared in Chicago to rally with Callis and Schneider, and push the Democratic campaign themes of equal pay for women and raising the minimum wage.
DCCC spokesman Brandon Lorenz rejected the idea of GOP gains, saying voters will recognize that the GOP “rewards the ultra-wealthy and the special interests.”
Eighty-one year-old Barbara Norem was among the undecided voters who showed up at a Decatur senior center to hear Davis speak last month. She said her top concerns were the future of Medicare, Social Security and other government services that help her and her husband stay in their home as health care costs escalate.
However, “When you hear the news, you think all Congress does is fight,” she said.
KERRY LESTER, Associated Press