Two incumbent Democrats may be among Illinois’ biggest political matches in 2022

two photos of Sean Casten and Marie Newman speaking
Democratic Illinois state Rep. Sean Casten, left, speaks during a 2021 news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington. State Rep. Marie Newman, right, smiles as she campaigns in 2018 in the Archer Heights neighborhood of Chicago. Amanda Andrade-Rhoades and Charles Rex Arbogast / Associated Press
two photos of Sean Casten and Marie Newman speaking
Democratic Illinois state Rep. Sean Casten, left, speaks during a 2021 news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington. State Rep. Marie Newman, right, smiles as she campaigns in 2018 in the Archer Heights neighborhood of Chicago. Amanda Andrade-Rhoades and Charles Rex Arbogast / Associated Press

Two incumbent Democrats may be among Illinois’ biggest political matches in 2022

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It’s still early in what could be one of the most closely-watched campaigns in Illinois in 2022.

But already, control for the 6th Congressional District is shaping up as a potentially big-money and nasty fight in the family — the Democratic family. Freshman U.S. Rep. Marie Newman, of LaGrange, and second-term U.S. Rep. Sean Casten, of Downers Grove, are vowing to compete against one another for the same southwest and west suburban Chicago turf.

This surprising intraparty fight is the hand that these two up-and-coming faces in the Illinois Democratic Party were dealt by state lawmakers when they voted late last month on new congressional boundaries.

To the delight of some in the party, a second, Latino-leaning congressional district was produced to reflect population growth within that demographic group. But that came at an expense for Casten and Newman.

Both say they are friends with one another. But even as that map awaits Democratic Gov. JB Pritzker’s signature, which is a near certainty, any veneer of friendship between these two may begin disappearing quickly.

Because here’s the bottom line: If they indeed run against each other, one won’t be heading back to Washington, D.C., next year.

There’s also a chance next year could be a Republican wave election across the country, increasing the chance that neither Casten nor Newman prevails. After all, Pritzker won the newly drawn 6th District by a relatively narrow 5 percentage points in 2018. And signs are increasing for a potential GOP swamping of Democrats nationally with last week’s upset loss of the Virginia governorship by Democrat Terry McAuliffe and a surprisingly close reelection call for Democratic New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy.

It’s a vastly different future than perhaps these two politically promising Illinois incumbents envisioned.

Both rose to power by beating establishment opponents. Last year, on her second try, Newman toppled a political dynasty by narrowly defeating eight-term Democratic U.S. Rep. Dan Lipinski, whose father had represented the region in Congress since 1983. And in 2018, Casten beat six-term GOP U.S. Rep. Peter Roskam for control of a district that had been in Republican hands for decades,

Now, given the new developments in Springfield, it’s fair to say both Casten and Newman are still in shock about what happened to their existing districts. It’s also fair to say they’re both displeased with Springfield Democrats.

“I think it’s got all of us in the Illinois delegation scratching our heads as to what was driving the folks in Springfield,” Casten said.

The screws progressively tightened on Casten and Newman between mid-October and the end of the month as four different versions of congressional maps surfaced.

The first draft largely kept Casten’s existing congressional district intact, while Newman’s 3rd Congressional District was elongated so that it stretched from Midway Airport west to just north of Starved Rock State Park. Drawn into her district was Republican U.S. Rep. Adam Kinzinger, of Channahon, who has molded an impressive national profile as an anti-Trump Republican.

But in draft maps two and three, a new Latino-leaning district was created, stretching from Logan Square to near West Chicago. Casten and Newman’s districts were jammed together as a result, and both were drawn into the same district. More than half of Casten’s existing district had been politically amputated.

Displeased by that development, some of Casten’s DuPage County-based allies in the Illinois House threatened to withhold voting for the congressional maps unless he was treated more favorably. That appeared to be why the final map that won approval on Oct. 29 moved Newman’s home in LaGrange six blocks out of the 6th, unleashing fury in her camp.

“Clearly, the folks who did that little maneuver in the middle of the night didn’t understand Marie Newman,” she told WBEZ.

She was now in the heavily Latino district controlled by fellow progressive Democratic U.S. Rep. Jesus “Chuy” Garcia. Given his popularity, it arguably would be a political fool’s errand to run against him. She also lacked any real familiarity with Garcia’s turf, and its demographic composition — more than 6 of 10 voting-age residents are Latino — heavily favors Garcia.

Her other option in that final map would be running in the newly created Latino-leaning 3rd Congressional district, for which there is no incumbent. But again, the new district’s demographics and its largely unfamiliar territory would be tall orders for Newman to overcome.

So, in a last-ditch political Hail Mary, Newman’s backers got their hands on the personal cell phone numbers of Senate President Don Harmon, D-Oak Park, and House Speaker Emanuel “Chris” Welch, D-Hillside, and made call after call after call to protest her treatment. It was pure lobbying chutzpah, multiple legislative sources confirmed.

Ultimately, it didn’t move the needle, and it’s a tactic from which Newman seeks to distance herself.

“I know they made calls to all the legislators that had involvement in remapping,” she said, when asked whether she signed off on the move. “So I have no idea who was called or who wasn’t called. But I do know that my constituents followed all of the rules, and they were very angry about these middle-of-the-night shenanigans.”

Undeterred, not long after lawmakers approved the congressional boundaries, Newman put out word she was going to run against Casten anyway, even though her home doesn’t fall within the district. There is no constitutional requirement that says a member of Congress has to live within a particular district they represent; they only have to reside somewhere in their home state.

Working to her advantage, the new 6th Congressional District contains a significant chunk of Newman’s current turf. That has Newman invoking the old cliche that she may have been dealt political lemons, but she’s prepared to make lemonade. On Monday, EMILY’s List, the national group advocating for women abortion-rights candidates, offered an early endorsement of Newman.

“I was born in the Beverly neighborhood, grew up in Palos. I have lived in the southwest or western suburbs my entire life. So if you had to tailor-make a district for me, this brand-new district called Illinois 6, which is primarily my current district, is the right one for me to run in,” she said. “Just because I live a block outside doesn’t mean anything.”

In a subtle dig at her new Democratic rival, Newman said, “What I don’t think Sean is aware of is that this brand new district is very different from his old district. But I assume he’s a smart guy. He’ll look at it and think about it.”

For his part, without accusing Newman of being an outright political carpetbagger, Casten’s early messaging underscores her residency in Garcia’s political terrain, not the new 6th Congressional District.

“The operative question that none of us can really answer is why was a map created that left a friend in such a difficult situation, where she either has to decide to run against a very popular member of the district she lives in, Chuy Garcia, or to run in an empty seat that she’s got no history of representing, or to run for a seat that’s got some of the community she used to represent but isn’t in her district,” Casten said.

“I can’t imagine having to make that choice myself. … I’m sympathetic to the issue,” he continued. “The good news is that we’re both friends. We respect each other. And all told, I’d rather run against someone who I respect than someone I don’t.”

Casten said the new map represents a “disrespectful” affront to the suburban women who elected him, but he isn’t willing to share any pages of the playbook he’ll have to use to fend off an opponent who is … a suburban woman.

“You know, as my daughters like to joke, we’ll burn that bridge when we cross it,” Casten said.

All that he is certain of, he said, is that he’s running for reelection.

Newman, meanwhile, said she’s ready for a fight — if it comes to that.

“Moving forward, we’ll see how this goes. You know, we’re a long way away from petitions,” she said alluding to the March deadline for candidates to file nominating petitions for the June 28, 2022 primary.

“I am running for sure,” she continued. “My team is fully assembled. I have an enormous on-the-ground constituency. So we’re ready to go on, and we’ll see if Mr. Casten stays in the race.”

Dave McKinney covers Illinois politics and government for WBEZ. Follow him @davemckinney.