Iraq vet faces obstacles to winning Ill.-6 Dem nod

Local Democrats warn that, despite Iraq war veteran Tammy Duckworth’s popularity in Washington, she is likely to face an uphill battle in winning her party’s nomination to run for the seat now held by Rep. Henry Hyde (R-Ill.).

Local Democrats warn that, despite Iraq war veteran Tammy Duckworth’s popularity in Washington, she is likely to face an uphill battle in winning her party’s nomination to run for the seat now held by Rep. Henry Hyde (R-Ill.).

Duckworth, who officially filed yesterday to run for the House seat, lives outside the district and has entered the race barely three months before the March 21 primary.

She is also running in the primary against a woman, computer consultant Christine Cegelis, who ran last year — and gave Hyde his closest race in decades — and who has been running in the current cycle since the day after the 2004 election.

Alycia Fitz, a DuPage County Democratic official who coordinates election observers, said Cegelis has a “very loyal following.”

What’s more, Fitz said, there does not appear to be any substantive differences among Cegelis, Duckworth and Wheaton College professor Lindy Scott on Duckworth’s signature issue: the war in Iraq and President Bush’s handling of it.

Steven Kierstead, a DuPage County Democratic activist who runs a weekly e-mail newsletter sent to 1,400-1,500 local Democrats, added that the question of Duckworth’s residency — she lives just over the line in the 10th Congressional District — will hamper her efforts to win the support of party officials.

“It won’t make much difference to John and Jane average voter,” Kierstead said, “but some of the activists are very hot about it. Some of the people in the Cegelis camp already have used it.”

And this lack of so-called institutional support, Democrats add, will make it difficult for Duckworth to avoid looking like a “Washington candidate” imposed on Democrats in the suburban-Chicago district.

Florian Wasik, a retired mechanical engineer who volunteers at the Wheeling Township Democratic headquarters, in the neighboring 10th District, called Duckworth an “intrusion” imposed on the 6th District by Rep. Rahm Emanuel, the chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) who represents the nearby 5th District, in Chicago.

Wasik also said that while there are many “single-issue” Democrats in the Chicago suburbs concerned first and foremost with getting the United States out of Iraq — voters whom Duckworth is counting on — most Democrats care about a range of issues such as healthcare and the economy, matters that, Democrats added, Duckworth has yet to delve into. Wasik said the collapse of light manufacturing in the area, including tool and dye making, had exacerbated concerns about the suburbs’ economic future.

Democrats on Capitol Hill, including Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin and Emanuel, appear to think that Duckworth can overcome those hurdles, snag the nomination and give state Sen. Peter Roskam (R), his party’s likely House nominee, a serious race.

One of Durbin’s aides is working for Duckworth. Emanuel spoke with Duckworth on several occasions, presumably to encourage her to run for the seat. And prominent Democratic consultant David Axelrod, whose recent clients include Emanuel, Sens. Barack Obama (Ill.) and Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.), and presidential contender and former Sen. John Edwards (N.C.), is working for her.

Within hours of Duckworth’s campaign announcement Sunday, the candidate had a website up and running that showcased her military experience. She has taken a less barbed approach than fellow Democrat and Iraq veteran Paul Hackett, who narrowly lost a House race last summer to Republican Jean Schmidt in Ohio’s 2nd District and who repeatedly lambasted President Bush.

Axelrod largely dismissed questions about Duckworth’s standing among local Democrats. “All I can tell you is that she’s filing 4,300 signatures today, which were collected in about a week, which is 500 more than anybody else running for this office, Republican or Democrat, filed,” Axelrod said yesterday. “I think that she has an extraordinary opportunity here.”

The consultant added that Duckworth would be getting help from two of Illinois’ leading Democrats. “I think both Durbin and Obama already have indicated that they’re supportive of her candidacy,” he said.

Joan Berman, an assistant to Democratic Committeeman Wilbert Crowley, in the 10th District, said Cegelis has an organization but predicted that, with Emanuel’s help, Duckworth would win the primary.

Berman also said that Democrats, far from being annoyed with Emanuel’s or Durbin’s getting involved in the race, would appreciate any help they can get winning a district that has supported Republicans for years.

Wasik, like other Democrats, said that portions of the 6th District are gradually shifting into the Democratic column.

Republicans, for the most part, scoff at Democratic hopes of capturing the 6th. Roskam, who worked for Hyde and Rep. Tom DeLay (R-Texas) in the 1980s, has been endorsed by Hyde and has been raising money at a rapid clip for a House contender. As of Sept. 30, the end of the last filing period, the Republican reported having raised roughly $286,000 in the third quarter, leaving him with just shy of $550,000 on hand.

A GOP source from Illinois familiar with the 6th District said that while Cegelis did relatively well against Hyde in 2004 — capturing 44 percent of the vote versus Hyde’s 56 percent — that result reflected voters’ sense that it was time for Hyde to go after having been in Congress since 1974, not growing support for Democrats.