WASHINGTON — Seeing cracks in once solid GOP suburban Chicago turf, Democrats are promising to give Rep. Peter Roskam, R-Ill., his biggest race since he was first elected in 2006.
“There are at last count 22 different people looking to take him on,” said Rep. Cheri Bustos, D-Ill., on the recruitment team for the national Dem House political shop, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.
No one familiar with the district expects them all to end up on the March 20, 2018, Illinois Democratic primary ballot.
But after years of having to scrounge up contenders to run against Roskam for the 6th Congressional District seat, anchored in the Chicago collar suburbs, “literally, we are raining candidates,” Bustos told me.
Though it is extremely difficult to defeat an incumbent, Democrats “are very, very motivated,” Bustos said.
Roskam’s vote on Thursday for the GOP House health care bill — triggering concerns about coverage for the poor on Medicaid and for those with pre-existing medical conditions, plus worries among older Americans that they may pay more for coverage — only highlighted the reality that he is already a Democratic priority.
Roskam was seen by Democrats as vulnerable before the Trumpcare vote because Hillary Clinton won the 6th District over Donald Trump, 50 percent to 43 percent.
Since then, Roskam has been a prime Democratic 2018 target.
“This is a top race for us,” said a DCCC spokesperson Rachel Irwin. Starting unusually early, the DCCC in February sent in an organizer, Kevin Pallasch, to start working against Roskam.
Democrats have been able to gin up local and national free media by hounding and boxing in Roskam for not holding town halls, where would have been peppered with questions about the GOP health care bill.
That Roskam is “hiding” from constituents is already a 2018 Democratic talking point.
Even though Clinton won the district in 2016, Roskam beat Democrat attorney Amanda Howland 59 percent to 41 percent.
Still, that was a decent showing for Howland, from Lake Zurich, given she jumped in the race late and spent a pittance compared to Roskam, from Wheaton.
Roskam disbursed $3,357,095 between Jan. 1, 2015, and Dec. 31, 2016, in a race in which he barely had competition. Howland’s expenditures totaled only $104,678 between Jan. 1, 2016, and Dec. 7, 2016, according to Federal Election Commission records.
“I took this on last year when nobody would. I put myself on the line and worked my tail off” Howland told me on Sunday.
Howland is running again, one of three Democrats already in the expected crowded primary. Also in are Barrington Hills Planning Commission member Kelly Mazeski, who lost a 2016 state Senate bid, and Suzyn Price, a former Naperville district 203 School Board member.
Mazeski and Howland are cancer survivors. They have personal stories that will be used as Roskam defends Trumpcare over Obamacare. Roskam has long supported the repeal and replacement of Obamacare.
What’s different this year is that Roskam is running as health insurance has ripened into a major issue and as grass-roots Democrats are energized as a result of the shock of the Trump election.
These three Democrats have experienced strategists to advise their campaigns, which guarantees Roskam headaches no matter the outcome: Mazeski signed Pete Giangreco; Price hired Tom Bowen and Howland is working with Kitty Kurth.
They all see see Roskam’s re-election contest shaping up as a referendum on Trump.
“This is an educated, engaged district and [voters] are moderate,” Price told me Sunday. “If Peter continues to support Trump’s agenda . . . he is supporting an extreme agenda.”
National Republican Congressional Committee spokesman Maddie Anderson told me on Sunday, just because Trump “underperformed” in the 6th, does not mean voters “want their Congressman to be a Democrat.”
After the Trumpcare roll call, the influential nonpartisan Cook Political Report downgraded the prospects of 20 Republicans who backed the measure, including Roskam. Cook House handicapper David Wasserman shifted Roskam’s district rating from “likely Republican” in 2018 to “lean Republican.”
“To think that one vote will sink [Roskam] is absurd,” Anderson said.
AFTER DUCKWORTH, EASY WINS FOR ROSKAM
Roskam stepped up from the Illinois Senate to Congress after he beat Tammy Duckworth in 2006 in his closest vote to date, 51.4 percent to 48.6 percent.
The rivals got enormous help from their national parties in a race that gained national attention because of the powerful forces behind Duckworth and Roskam.
Mayor Rahm Emanuel, then in Congress, was the DCCC chairman and bolstered Duckworth. Now-disgraced and imprisoned former House Speaker Denny Hastert, R-Ill., was sending resources to Roskam.
Roskam narrowly won in the 2006 wave year when the Democrats took the House.
Duckworth went on to win an 8th District seat in 2012, and last year she beat now-former Sen. Mark Kirk, R-Ill.
In 2008, former President Barack Obama won the 6th, seen more as a home state advantage story than a fundamental change in the heavily Republican territory.
Even with an Obama bump, Roskam held off Democratic Army Col. Jill Morgenthaler in 2008, with 57.6 percent of the vote.
Ever since, Roskam’s re-election has become somewhat routine as he has trended to the right. That was in part to ward off primary challengers and to be viable to run for House leadership, as he did with his unsuccessful 2014 bid in an internal election among his peers to become House Whip.
Roskam, by choice, keeps a measured media profile — he appears nationally frequently on Fox News, but not on the other cable stations — and in Chicago he is heard on friendly radio outlets.
Roskam has tremendous fundraising capacity, especially with his pro-Israel activism and his seat on the tax-writing House Ways and Means Committee, in a year Trump wants to overhaul the tax code.
He is known for his work on a variety of fronts.
Roskam has taken on the IRS almost as a crusade in the wake of a controversy over whether the tax-exempt status of conservative organizations were unfairly targeted.
Roskam is a national leader in defending Israel against BDS — the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement — and has led a drive against the Iran nuclear deal.
Moreover, Roskam has name ID while all the Democrats mentioned in the mix are little known. There is no Democratic bench in the 6th because there are few elected Democratic elected officials.
Said Mazeski, “I think people are much more engaged now in this race than in the past. The Democrats are mobilized. The Republicans are upset. I think the timing is perfect for the Democrats to run and take on Roskam and beat him.”