Sweet column: Duckworth faces struggle to unite Dems in 6th cd after Cegelis strong showing. Where is Howard Dean on this?

SHARE Sweet column: Duckworth faces struggle to unite Dems in 6th cd after Cegelis strong showing. Where is Howard Dean on this?
SHARE Sweet column: Duckworth faces struggle to unite Dems in 6th cd after Cegelis strong showing. Where is Howard Dean on this?

Democratic House nominee Tammy Duckworth, facing a big contest with state Sen. Peter Roskam (R-Wheaton) has to deal with uniting Dems as well as seeking cross-over voters in the suburban district.

Duckworth faces struggle to unify Dems

March 23, 2006


‘Way to go, Christine,” Democratic 6th District House candidate Tammy Duckworth said Tuesday night as she saluted chief rival Christine Cegelis in her victory speech.

But wounded Iraq war veteran Duckworth needs to do more than lavish words of praise on Cegelis if she wants to unify the suburban Democrats she will need to beat state Sen. Peter Roskam (R-Wheaton).

“A lot of people feel really, really, really betrayed,” said Justin Major, an attorney who lives in Wheaton and who had been volunteering on the Cegelis campaign.

“There are a lot of real hard feelings,” said Marilyn Katz, the Chicago public affairs consultant who has been organizing against the Iraq war since it started three years ago.

Duckworth’s win in Tuesday’s primary showed that with powerful sponsors, a compelling personal story, mainly fawning media coverage and a lot of money, a political unknown can be dropped into a Democratic primary House race in a district where she does not live and three months later wind up the nominee.

For these last months, I’ve been writing about how the 6th District primary was a test of the net-roots (Internet and grass-roots supporters) vs. the Democratic establishment.

The Democratic establishment won. With Duckworth the nominee, the fight to fill a rare open seat — to replace retiring Rep. Henry Hyde (R-Ill.) — may well become one of the top 10 in the country.

I give the telegenic Duckworth credit for pulling it off, especially as she is still recovering from the wounds that cost her both legs when her helicopter was shot down in Iraq. She delivered for her main patrons, Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) Rep. Rahm Emanuel (D-Ill.), the chief of the House political operation, and Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.).

“I’m happy to have two Democratic senators,” Major said when we talked Wednesday. “But I am not particularly happy with my two Democratic senators.”

Let’s look inside the numbers that make up Duckworth’s victory.

Last week, staffers for Duckworth, Cegelis and Lindy Scott, the third contender, estimated that Democratic turnout would be between 25,000 and 36,000. Tuesday’s primary yielded 31,996 Democratic votes, of which Duckworth won 43.8 percent (14,019) and Cegelis took 40.4 percent (12,939), with 15.7 percent or 5,036 for Scott.

The tepid turnout suggests that Duckworth’s plurality win did not engage new Democratic voters.

The intrafamily Democratic feud merely divided the party faithful. And while a strategy of Emanuel is to nationalize House races on a wave of anti-war sentiment, Duckworth’s numbers did not show much of a turnout surge among the Democratic base.

Again, a win is a win. But I never quite got why the brain trust behind Duckworth’s campaign-in-a-can could not figure out a way to advance her candidacy without alienating the Cegelis backers.

Let’s look at how some of the same political operatives behind Cegelis handled a similar situation with one of their pals, Cook County Board member Forrest Claypool, in his bid to be Cook County Board president. Earlier in the campaign, Claypool’s backers pressured his chief rival, Cook County Board member Mike Quigley, to drop out. Quigley was treated with respect as he was pushed aside and given a position inside the Claypool campaign.

Cegelis, the 2004 nominee, never got her props from Emanuel and company, which only infuriated her base. Privately, a few of Duckworth’s advisers agreed that Cegelis should have been handled better. The more than $600,000 Duckworth raised just to beat her could have been better used against Roskam.

I asked Duckworth spokesman Billy Weinberg what their strategy is for engaging estranged Democrats like Major. “By reminding them how high the stakes are,” he said. “And how it is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to compete and win in November. And to point out the stark differences.”

Here’s what needs to happen, and it’s more than having all of the Democrats show up at Saturday’s DuPage Dems post-primary breakfast in Oakbrook Terrace.

*Cegelis, even if she turns it down, needs to be asked to be part of the Duckworth operation.

*Emanuel, whose presence in the race touched a raw nerve among Cegelis supporters, needs to reach out to them. Durbin and Obama also ought to be mending fences.

*And there is one person who really could help. That’s Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean. It was his people-powered, grass-roots, Internet-based, anti-war 2004 presidential campaign that gave birth to the movement that yielded Cegelis 40.4 percent of the vote.

GOP chief to rally support

End note: On Friday, Republican National Committee Chairman Ken Mehlman is in Chicago to rally support for the Illinois ticket. He will huddle with GOP governor nominee Judy Baar Topinka and travel to north suburban Kildeer to appear at a press conference with 8th District nominee David McSweeney. Emanuel’s counterpart, Rep. Tom Reynolds (R-N.Y), who heads the GOP House political committee, will attend.

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