As he prepares for a rematch with Rep. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.), Dan Seals, who came within 6 points of pulling an upset last year, faces two difficult questions:
Will he have to fight for the Democratic nomination in 2008? And are national Democrats prepared to make a major investment in the 10th district, one of eight districts remaining in the country that have Republican Members of Congress despite voting for Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) in the 2004 presidential election?
Seals, a former GE Commercial Finance worker who earned 47 percent of the vote in his underdog bid, confirmed in an interview last week that he is looking into a repeat challenge of the four-term Congressman in the district that hugs Lake Michigan north of Chicago.
But Kirk is making certain he isn’t caught off-guard this time. He also has been promoting an agenda designed to appeal to his suburban constituents.
Seals said that if he runs again he should have the early financial muscle to win.
“Instead of coming on as an unknown and raising that $1.9 million, getting 2,600 volunteers and taking 47 percent, that’ll be my starting point,” he said. “My belief is, if I can get my positions out there, the majority of 10th district voters will support me.
“We didn’t get beat in the election as much as we lost — which is to say that up until the final day we were continuing to convert a lot of Kirk voters to our side. We weren’t able to get our message out to enough people in time, so at the end of the day the finish line just came too soon.”
Seals may not have the Democratic field to himself, however.
Jay Footlik, a former official in the Clinton administration who has roots in the district, described himself last week as “about as close as you can get” to being in the race without formally declaring. He said he has begun fundraising, but he hadn’t raised enough by the end of the first-quarter reporting period to have to file with the Federal Election Commission.
Footlik grew up in Skokie, just outside the 10th district, and has family living in the district. He worked on Bill Clinton’s 1992 presidential campaign and was a member of his transition team before moving to the Democratic National Committee. He then worked for Clinton on issues of importance to the Jewish community as a special assistant in the White House Office of Public Liaison.
Footlik, 41, currently is a partner at DiNovo Strategies, a business consulting firm in Washington, D.C., and would have to move back to Illinois to run. He certainly would be open to charges of carpetbagging, because the only time he has lived in Illinois since graduating from high school was from 1998 to 2003, when he split time between Israel and the United States (Seals, incidentally, lives one block outside of the district, a fact Kirk brought up during the campaign).
Asked if he would defer to Seals if the 2006 nominee ran again, Footlik said, “My decision is not really about him and very much about Mark. The way I read the last election is, it tells me a couple of things. First, Mark is vulnerable. … The other thing is, Dan had a shot, but if he couldn’t win in the ‘Year of the Democrat,’ where Democrats were winning all over, with a good pot of money and where Mark didn’t take him seriously … Dan hit the high-water mark.
“Statistically,” Footlik continued, “if you look at Congressional rematches, they’re seldom different than the first time around.”
In 2006, Seals got lost in something of a numbers game in which Democrats — with Rep. Rahm Emanuel (Ill.) from the neighboring 5th district at the helm of the DCCC — were focusing on two other Chicago-area races: grabbing a pickup opportunity in the open west-suburban 6th district and protecting Rep. Melissa Bean (D) in the 8th district.
The DCCC invested $1.3 million in helping Bean win a second term and spent $3.2 million on behalf of 6th district nominee Tammy Duckworth, who lost with 49 percent of the vote.
Seals, meanwhile, received only $158,000 in late support from the committee.
“Tammy was a great candidate, and there was nothing wrong with them picking her, but they made a mistake,” Seals said of the DCCC.
“The DCCC, while understanding the potential of the [10th] district, didn’t know what to do with me,” he said. “I was not recruited by them, never went to candidate charm school. I was a homegrown candidate. They were pleasant, but I don’t know that they ever thought I could move voters the way I did. I think if you asked them, they’d say they wished they had done more.”
While saying that the committee had “no regrets about picking up 30 seats” in 2006, DCCC spokesman Ryan Rudominer acknowledged that “you learn lessons in every election.”
“Certainly Dan Seals proved himself a very capable fundraiser last cycle and an excellent candidate,” Rudominer said, adding that “suburban seats held by Republicans are an endangered species.”
Although Kirk spent a healthy $3.5 million in 2006, his first-quarter fundraising numbers ($654,000, among the top in the House) suggest he realizes he’ll be targeted this cycle. Kirk almost doubled the $348,000 he raised in the first quarter last cycle.
Seals kept his 2006 campaign account open and took in $13,000 in the quarter despite not actively fundraising, leaving him with $37,000 in cash on hand. One Democratic consultant in Chicago said that because the city’s mayoral election was in March and runoffs and local elections were held last Tuesday, most of the Democratic money in Chicago wouldn’t have been going to federal candidates, anyway.
In the previous cycle, Seals didn’t declare his candidacy until December 2005 and finished the year having raised $60,000.
Despite all the Democratic activity, Republicans believe that Kirk is well-positioned for re-election. He has organized Congressional moderates to promote an agenda that the GOP can sell in suburban districts like his.
National Republican Congressional Committee spokeswoman Julie Shutley accused Democrats of “throwing darts at a board and calling them targets.”
Kirk said in an interview that despite his district’s Democratic lean on the presidential level, voters see beyond party label.
“The tradition of our district going back 20 years is of always backing moderate Republicans,” he said. “The most educated zip code in the nation is in the district. With voters who have spent that long in graduate and post-graduate education, they pick the candidates they like. They’re predominantly ticket-splitters.”