ROSEMONT, Ill. — The absence of a Democratic Party organization in Illinois’s 6th Congressional District has made Rep. Rahm Emanuel (D-Ill.) the kingmaker in what could become a bruising Democratic primary.
“The fact that there is any race at all is the real story,” said Paul Green, a political scientist at Roosevelt University in Chicago. “This is new. In the old days, you were lucky to get anyone who wanted to run” because the district is so heavily Republican.
The district, which includes DuPage County and a sliver of Cook County, has been a long-running GOP bastion and a counterweight to the Democrats’ rule in Chicago. In the 1988 presidential election, Vice President George Bush garnered 68 percent of the vote here.
Since then, the Republicans’ grip has weakened, even though no Democrats have been elected locally. President George W. Bush won just 54 percent of the vote in 2004, and Democratic congressional candidate Christine Cegelis won 44 percent of the vote — holding Rep. Henry Hyde (R-Ill.) to his lowest vote total in 30 years. DuPage County delivers more votes to Democrats running statewide than every county but Cook County because of its high population.
Emanuel wants Ladda “Tammy” Duckworth, an Army National Guard pilot who lost her legs and suffered a broken arm when Iraqi insurgents hit her helicopter with a rocket-propelled grenade, to jump into the race. According to Bill Burton, the Democratic Campaign Congressional Committee’s (DCCC) spokesman, Emanuel believes her military credentials and wounds give her an edge in a district that no Democrat has ever won.
While Duckworth could tap into Emanuel’s political operation to raise money, some political operatives doubt a strategy of “nationalizing,” i.e. having national party officials involved in the midterm elections, would work.
“Congressional races are far more sheriff’s races than they are D.C. races, if they are going to be competitive,” said Mike McKeon, an independent, Chicago-based pollster. “It’s a mistake trying to run national in a congressional campaign.”
Cegelis spent last week in Washington trying to win support from several labor unions. She walked away without any firm commitments, and without a local party infrastructure she has been forced to build an all-volunteer, grassroots campaign.
“I was not cognizant of how little-organized the Democratic Party was here. I ended up doing a Google search of how to get on the ballot,” Cegelis said. “The DuPage Democratic Party has been great in helping me out, but prior to that I would not have had any clue.”
If Duckworth jumps into the race, she will have to build her own political network.
Skepticism from incumbent Democrats and the absence of a local Democratic political organization have made it hard to raise money. Cegelis had collected $153,000 as of Sept. 30, according to politicalmoneyline.com. In contrast, the likely Republican nominee, state Sen. Peter Roskam (R-Ill.), had raked in more than $550,000 and has attracted support from several GOP congressional leaders as well as Hyde.
Cegelis said that Chicago Democrats, including Sens. Barack Obama (Ill.) and Dick Durbin (Ill.), as well as Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.), want to stay above the fray of primary politics. Without their support, Cegelis has had a difficult time tapping Chicago’s wealthy political donors.
“Political giving is not something people in DuPage County think about doing,” Cegelis said, adding that 600 donors won’t show up on publicly available disclosure reports because they gave such small amounts of money.
Cegelis’s campaign has three full-time staffers and has hired Greenberg Quinlan to conduct polls and MSHC Partners, a direct-mail firm.
Complicating Cegelis’s political calculus is the fact that DuPage County voters, even those likely to vote for a Democrat for Congress, are skeptical of Chicago Democrats. Cegelis said she understand that problem and has said it would not be a good idea for Emanuel to campaign in the district.
Cegelis and Duckworth also face geographical challenges. Duckworth does not live in the district and would have to establish residency there to run. So far in the race, Cegelis, a software engineer who moved to Illinois in 1986, has focused on local issues, such as expanding O’Hare International Airport and aiding the DuPage County schools.
Cegelis lives in Rolling Meadows, Ill., which is in Cook County. Cegelis said a voter once told her: “‘You already live too far north for us to like you.’”