House primary divides Democrats along ideological lines

Democrats are confident they can finally pick up a Chicago-area House seat with the right candidate — they're just divided on the candidate.

Liberals have rallied around Ilya Sheyman, a 25-year-old campaign organizer, while centrists are backing businessman Brad Schneider.

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The two will face off in Tuesday's primary, with the winner going on to challenge freshman Rep. Robert Dold (R-Ill.).

Illinois's 10th congressional district has long been a Democratic target, but then-Rep. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) beat back successive challenges in the last decade. In 2010, it was supposed to be one of the Democrats' few pickup opportunities, but Dold won a tight race with 51 percent of the vote.

Democrats made the district even better for themselves in the redistricting process earlier this year — the new district would have given President Obama approximately 62 percent of its vote — and have made a win there a high priority this election.

Sheyman has become a darling of liberal groups, many of whom he used to work for. MoveOn.Org, the Progressive Change Campaign Committee (PCCC) and Democracy for America (DFA) are all backing him, as are former Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.) and former Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean, Sheyman’s erstwhile boss at DFA.

Schneider, meanwhile, has the support of House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) and the centrist New Democrat Coalition, as well as from centrist former Rep. Melissa Bean (D-Ill.). He also has the endorsement of the Chicago Tribune, a paper that often backs centrists of both parties.

Liberal groups have slammed Schneider for being a “Blue Dog Democrat,” although that group hasn’t endorsed him, and criticized him for donating to Republicans in the past.

Schneider pointed out that most of his donations went to Democrats, and fired back at the outside groups’ involvement.

“Everything MoveOn has done so far has been a distortion of reality, a pick of a small piece, looking through a keyhole to see a big picture,” he told The Hill. “I knew it would get ugly when I entered this race. But I expected it from the Tea Party, not our own party.”

Both candidates have sought to claim the “progressive” liberal mantle.

“I am a true progressive. I have spent my entire life fighting for women’s equality, reproductive choice,” Schneider told The Hill. “After some complications, my wife had to have an abortion. I would never deny someone else those health choices.”

Sheyman emphasized the economy.

“This campaign has really come down to economic issues, people who will get up and fight for middle-class families,” he said in an interview with The Hill. “There is the sense that economic mobility is slipping away, the American Dream is slipping away … This is one of the few districts in this country where we can not only turn a red seat blue but actually send a true progressive to Congress.”

Democrats have often nominated centrists in the 10th district with the assumption that they would have the best chance to win. But none of those candidates won there, and this election, liberals seem to have the edge.

Schneider has relied on the argument that he’s the most electable candidate, and argued that his economic views were in line with the liberal base. “I don’t think fiscal responsibility and liberal, progressive values are mutually exclusive,” he said. “The Republicans are just praying they don’t end up facing me.”

Sheyman pushed back, arguing that his focus on “bread-and-butter issues” would allow him to “bring Reagan Democrats, independents and progressive Democrats into the fold” in the general election.

A poll from MoveOn.Org and the PCCC released Thursday shows Sheyman building a big lead, with 45 percent in the primary to 27 percent for Schneider. But Schneider told The Hill that his own campaign’s most recent polling, conducted two weeks ago, had him leading by 15 points. Sheyman has also led in fundraising, although not by a wide margin.

“The big reason why we’re getting so [involved] in this race is because it’s one where a progressive can win,” said PCCC spokesman Neil Sroka. “If you run as a bold progressive, you inspire the grass roots and not only build the primary team but also have the organization and excitement to win the general.”

Local Democrats say Sheyman has made up a lot of ground on Schneider, and is likely to win the primary.

“I have never seen the on-the-ground emotional groundswell before,” one unaligned Democratic activist said about Sheyman’s grassroots support. “I can’t put it in words. I’ve never seen anything like it. The support is deep and broad.”

Sheyman predicted a close race. When told of the new MoveOn poll numbers, he paused. “Wow,” he said. “Just … wow.”

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