The fact that celebrated Democrat Tammy Duckworth came within 4,800 votes of winning Illinois’ 6th district in 2006 may have national Democrats thinking they are on the tipping point in the formerly Republican stronghold.
But the party’s hopes of taking the suburban Chicago seat in 2008 — or, more likely, beyond — may depend on the outcome of infighting between grass-roots activists who backed a well-known local candidate in the Democratic primary last year and party leaders who supported Duckworth.
A major in the Illinois National Guard who lost both her legs while piloting a helicopter in the Iraq War, Duckworth didn’t get into the race until December 2005, after being heavily recruited by then-Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Rahm Emanuel (Ill.) and Illinois Democratic Sens. Dick Durbin and Barack Obama. Her campaign — and her life story — gained widespread national attention and became a special project of Emanuel, who represents an adjoining district.
But that was not enough to propel the veteran to Congress.
Duckworth beat Christine Cegelis, the 2004 Democratic nominee, 44 percent to 40 percent in the March 2006 primary before losing to now-Rep. Peter Roskam (R) 51 percent to 49 percent in the general election. The seat became open for the first time in 32 years with the retirement of Rep. Henry Hyde (R).
Now the director of the Illinois Department of Veterans’ Affairs, Duckworth told the Chicago Sun-Times last week she is considering running again in 2008 and will decide later this month. Despite the fact that the district appears to be moving away from the GOP, she is the only Democrat to express any interest in running for the seat so far.
Meanwhile, Cegelis said in an interview this week that she will not run this cycle but would consider another bid — for Congress or a local office — in 2010 or beyond.
Cegelis said the defeat of Duckworth, who was from just outside the district in Hoffman Estates, “validated the premise that you need to have somebody who comes from the grass roots — particularly in that kind of district where it is Republican.”
Asked if Duckworth could win in 2008, Cegelis hedged.
“That’s a difficult question,” she said, “because although everyone said it didn’t matter that she didn’t live in the district, what I heard on the ground was that it did matter. That’s not going to change in 2008.”
The 6th district is straight west of Chicago, mostly in DuPage County, which delivered 80 percent of the district vote in 2006. It is 75 percent white and gave 53 percent to President Bush in 2004.
A slew of Democratic activists, most of whom were Cegelis backers, have started a group focused on party-building called Operation: Turn DuPage Blue. They include some of Cegelis’ campaign staff, three Democrats who ran unsuccessfully for the DuPage County Board in 2006, and Joe Vosicky, who lost a bid for an area state Representative seat by less than 300 votes.
Amy Tauchman, who was the office manager for Cegelis’ campaign before working for Vosicky and is now on the steering committee of Turn DuPage Blue, said the group brought its plan for recruiting precinct committeemen to the county party but was rebuffed.
“They didn’t perceive the lack of precinct committeemen to be a problem,” Tauchman said. “We did, and we started doing something about it. In a district with 735 precincts, a national election, with demographics turning rapidly, and only 120 with precinct committeemen?
“I don’t know if they had been so battered down by thinking DuPage was the most Republican county in the nation, but our frustration was such that we … said, as Democrats who are tired of losing, we’re going to do what we need to do to fill precincts.”
Gayl Ferraro, the chairwoman of the county party, said in an interview that Turn DuPage Blue wanted her to “abdicate and let them come in and take over the party.”
“We were not in a position to be dictated to,” she said.
Cegelis said although Turn DuPage Blue and the county party share the goal of “overthrowing the Republican lock on DuPage County,” there is tension between the two groups.
“There is a feeling that the county party is going to promote what the state and national party tell them to do,” Cegelis said. “The people in Turn DuPage Blue — and there is some crossover, don’t get me wrong — aren’t going to wait for the national party to come in on a white horse. They’re going to go get the votes themselves.
“For a Democrat to win in that area, they’re going to need to heal that tension,” Cegelis continued. “One of the reasons I didn’t want to run in 2008 was that tension, and I’m hoping there will be somebody else who can heal that.”
Besides Duckworth’s strong performance, other good signs for Democrats in the district include the fact that Obama took 64 percent in DuPage County against Alan Keyes (R) in 2004 and that state Attorney General Lisa Madigan (D) took 66 percent there in her re-election bid last year.
But Roskam raised $228,000 in the first quarter of 2007, had $273,000 banked and he currently has no opponent. Is there a potential challenger besides Duckworth and Cegelis?
“I don’t know that there is one,” Cegelis said. “That’s the real conundrum for us. That’s why Rahm had so much trouble finding someone to run against me.”