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Illinois Democrats hope to catch Obama wave on Super Tuesday

Sen. Barack Obama (D) won’t be the only local candidate on the ballot in Illinois on Tuesday as voters there decide primaries for 19 House seats.

While Republicans are fighting to retain three seats long held by retiring GOP incumbents, Democrats are primed to ride a general shift toward Democrats across the state, as well as the momentum that comes with Obama’s drive to the White House.

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This year voters will choose a replacement for Reps. Dennis Hastert (R), the longest-serving House Speaker in history, and Ray LaHood (R), a popular moderate who often reached across the aisle. But most experts say the lawmaker who will have the biggest impact across the state is the junior Democratic senator.

“Everybody knows he’s going to carry Illinois in a primary,” said Dan Proft, a principal for Urquhart Media, which consults for Republican candidates. “It’s a small glimpse of what we’ll see in excitement and turnout that he’d generate if he would be the Democrats’ nominee.”

That excitement could easily translate into Democratic gains. Proft said that six of the nine districts now represented by Republicans would be vulnerable to Democratic takeovers if the state got a chance to vote for him in November. Only Reps. John Shimkus, Peter Roskam and Timothy Johnson would be safe, he said.

 Democrats have strong odds of picking up a seat in the 11th district. State Senate Majority Leader Debbie Halvorson (D) is making a bid to replace seven-term Rep. Jerry Weller (R), who is also leaving Congress. Halvorson has raised $427,874 for her campaign, four times as much as her expected Republican challenger, Tim Baldermann, the New Lenox mayor and Chicago Ridge police chief who was endorsed by Weller.

Democrats think they have another chance at taking a Republican seat in the 10th district, where Dan Seals, a former Senate and Commerce Department aide who came within seven points of beating Rep. Mark Kirk (R) in 2006, is running again. Though Seals faces a primary challenge from Jay Footlik, a former adviser to then-President Clinton and Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), he has held double-digit leads in recent primary polls. Seals said that Kirk’s votes for the Iraq war and to intervene in the Terri Schiavo case don’t mesh with the views of the district’s voters, who backed Kerry over President Bush in 2004.

“The people moving to the suburbs are different than they were a generation ago,” Seals said. They tend to be left-leaning and less supportive of the Bush administration than Kirk has been, he said.

Seals added that voter turnout for Democratic presidential candidates in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina, which was higher than those voting Republican, corresponds with the feelings of Illinois Democrats, who already hold all of the statewide offices.

“People are fired up,” he said. “We’re seeing a lot more independents coming up and a lot of pent-up energy.”

Democrats’ energy, however, won’t be as strong if Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) is their party’s nominee in November, said Proft. Clinton won’t attract as many independents as Obama would, something he did in his 2004 Senate race, Proft said.

Those independents could be key in the 8th district, where Republicans have rallied behind businessman Steve Greenberg (R) in a race against two-term Rep. Melissa Bean (D). Bean only won 51 percent of the vote in her last race, prompting the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC) to target her.

Bean’s and the three districts where Republicans are retiring are places that should favor Republicans, since they have traditionally supported GOP presidential candidates, said Ken Spain, an NRCC spokesman.

“We believe in a presidential election year that Republican candidates will be in a good position to succeed,” Spain said.

One of the most highly anticipated primaries will be the GOP contest to replace Hastert (R), who resigned in November after more than two decades in office.

That race has dairy mogul Jim Oberweis, Hastert’s own choice to replace him, taking on state Sen. Chris Lauzen. Both candidates are running as conservatives who would help stem illegal immigration and support military operations in Iraq. But Oberweis has run ads questioning Lauzen’s voting record on taxes and the integrity of his campaign contributors. For his part, Lauzen has called himself the candidate of the grass roots, one who would support conservative values while preferring a fairer trade system for Illinois workers. Lauzen has criticized Oberweis as a poor candidate who has already failed in three statewide races.

The winner will be heavily favored against whomever the Democrats nominate, since the 8th district has voted for both Hastert and President Bush by double-digit margins in recent years. The Democratic candidates include Bill Foster, a wealthy scientist, John Laesch, a veteran and the party’s 2006 nominee, and Jotham Stein, a lawyer. Still, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee said that it would name its nominee to its Red to Blue program, which provides credible challengers with financial support.

Republican like their chances to keep LaHood’s seat in the 18th district, where 26-year-old state Rep. Aaron Schock is their likely nominee. Republicans expect big things from Schock, who won the presidency of the Peoria School Board and a seat in the Illinois General Assembly when he was just 23.

“He works like hell and he’s really good in constituent services — that’s what Illinois is all about,” said Chris Mooney, a political scientist at the University of Illinois at Springfield.

But Proft said that Republicans may benefit not from tradition but from new blood, much needed after their candidates have lost to Democrats in all statewide races in recent years.

 “Things are looking up for Republicans — Baldermann is a 41-year-old police chief, Schock is a 26-year-old state representative, and Greenberg [is a] 30-something businessman,” he said. “It’s just a question of how many are successful the first time and then how many keep trying the next time.”