For politicians in a supposedly "blue" state, quite a few Illinois Democrats are looking vulnerable right now. Republicans could pick up a number of statewide offices, and also a few congressional ones. In fact, some Illinois voters will play a large role in deciding which party controls the U.S. House and the coveted speaker's gavel.
It is rare that an incumbent member of Congress is the underdog. But that's the way it's looking for some Democrats this year, including Debbie Halvorson, a first-termer from Illinois' 11th Congressional District. It includes much of Will County, and snakes south to Bloomington.
Poll after poll has Halvorson behind - in some by large margins - to her GOP opponent, Adam Kinzinger. Both campaigns have launched a series of attack ads, all containing claims the other campaign says aren't true.
AD MONTAGE: Politician Adam Kinzinger says Social Security benefits need to be capped...This is how Congresswoman Halvorson holds public town hall meetings - by phone...Keep your hands off of my Social Security, Adam...See the Hitler mustache on Captain Adam Kinzinger? This disrespects a decorated Air Force pilot...Young man, you have no idea what you're doing.
That last line - from a Halvorson ad going after Kinzinger on free trade - makes a not-so-subtle reference to the challenger's age. Kinzinger is 32 years old; Halvorson is 52. Here's Kinzinger at a recent debate on Bloomington radio station WJBC.
KINZINGER: Am I a young man? Yes. Am I going to bring a fresh perspective to Washington, DC? You doggone betcha I will.
HALVORSON: I am sorry he has such a thin skin. It has absolutely nothing to do with his age. It's his vision.
And their visions are different. Take the health care overhaul championed by President Obama and Democratic congressional leaders. Kinzinger is using the catchy national GOP tag line "repeal and replace." Halvorson voted for the bill, and defends that vote, though says she's open to amending the law.
HALVORSON: This is something that's going to be worked on for a long time. And it's going to be improved. It's like diversifying your portfolio. What works, let's build on. What doesn't work, let's fix.
Democrats like Halvorson have been busy this election season defending their votes on health care, and on the $787-billion economic stimulus bill.
Congressman Bill Foster represents Illinois' 14th Congressional District, which begins west of Chicago and travels almost all the way to the Mississippi River. He won the seat a couple years ago after longtime Republican House Speaker Dennis Hastert retired.
Foster's vote for the stimulus bill has become a major talking point for his Republican opponent, state Senator Randy Hultgren, who says the economic recovery has failed, while plunging the country further into debt. Hultgren complains that not enough jobs have been created by the money the feds have spent in the 14th District:
HULTGREN: $400-million because of the stimulus bill, so...
HUDZIK: So you would've voted no, but what would you have done differently?
HULTGREN: Well, I think it is, it's part of the process of the free enterprise where sometimes companies do have to go bankrupt, sometimes companies do have to reorganize themselves. We've seen it happen before and they've done it successfully.
Hultgren explicitly presents his campaign to oust Foster as a key race nationally for the GOP's efforts to take control of the House. And that's when he echoes another Republican talking point, lumping Foster in with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. He cites a statistic that Foster has voted the same way as Pelosi 92-percent of the time.
HULTGREN: People recognize that she doesn't necessarily or her voting record doesn't fit with the 14th congressional district.
FOSTER: Like I say, I get myself in hot water roughly in equal portions from the leadership on the left and the leadership on the right.
That's Foster, employing a line he uses to rebut charges that he's a partisan Democrat. He points to his vote against the cap-and-trade energy bill that passed the House last year, and says he stood up to pressure from his party. Foster says his voting record is middle of the road, among the most centrist in Congress.
FOSTER: I was one off of dead center, which I sort of interpret as being that my right ear and my left ear are going deaf at about the same rate from people yelling at it.
Foster had a less-practiced response when I brought up Randy Hultgren's comments about the congressman's similarities with Nancy Pelosi. When I asked him whether he'd support Pelosi as Democratic leader - as he did two years ago - he said he was withholding judgment until he sees who the candidates for leadership are. And he wouldn't really answer when I asked him flat-out if he thinks Pelosi has done a good job.
FOSTER: Well, I think that, there are a number of things, you know, I'm new to this business. I've been in Congress for - geez - a little over two years now, and wasn't in politics, so I don't have the basis to grade anyone as a politician on this, whether they're an effective or not effective politician...
HUDZIK: She's, she's your speaker, too. I mean, you're a citizen of the United States. Has she done a good job or not?
FOSTER: I don't really thi-, you know, I will look at that when it's time to elect a new speaker.
Pelosi, healthcare, stimulus - these are the debates playing out in the final weeks of this election across the U.S., and Illinois is no exception.
GONZALES: Even though it's the president's home state, Democrats could really take a beating.
Nathan Gonzales is political editor of the Rothenberg Political Report in Washington, DC. And that means Gonzales spends a lot of his time looking at public opinion polls. He's closely watching Halvorson's 11th District and Foster's 14th, as well as the 17th District in western and central Illinois, also represented by a Democrat, Phil Hare.
GONZALES: [That's] actually a district we weren't paying attention to even early in the cycle until recently, and now that's come on to the map and has become one of the bigger Democratic headaches nationwide, I think.
Republicans have far fewer headaches this year, but they do have one in Chicago's northern suburbs.
GONZALES: Out of the 100 competitive House seats on our list, we only have 9 that are currently held by a Republican, and Illinois' 10th is one of those.
The 10th is the seat now held by Mark Kirk, the 5-term congressman who's running for the U.S. Senate. The last two times, Kirk beat Dan Seals, a Democratic business consultant who's making another go of it. Seals' Republican opponent is Robert Dold, owner of a pest control company.
The two got together last month before several hundred seniors at a debate in Arlington Heights hosted by the AARP. Seemingly recognizing the independent nature of this district, each called for bipartisanship. Here is Seals first.
SEALS: We talk about an ability to reach across the aisle. One of the things that we see, is that I've picked up now 13 endorsements that have gone to Mark Kirk, a Republican, in the past, that have crossed over to my campaign.
DOLD: We have to today reach across the aisle. We have to come up with consensus to the problems that we face.
When Dold did take a stab at a more partisan talking point, the crowd didn't react well. He said his first vote in Congress would be to make sure Nancy Pelosi is no longer speaker. There were a few cheers, but many in the crowd sneered - evidence that in a swing district like this, not all national messages hit home.