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Robert Dold Fights District, Party Label in Bid for Second Term

Rep. Robert Dold and his 5-year-old daughter, Honor, greet a supporter at his campaign headquarters in Highland Park, Ill. (Shira Toepliz/CQ Roll Call)
Rep. Robert Dold and his 5-year-old daughter, Honor, greet a supporter at his campaign headquarters in Highland Park, Ill. (Shira Toepliz/CQ Roll Call)

HIGHLAND PARK, Ill. — Freshman Rep. Robert Dold boasts the dubious distinction of representing the most Democratic district of any Republican Member of the House.

If he’s lucky, Dold will keep that title next year in this redrawn district north of Chicago.

“Where is Zion?” asked his daughter Harper, 10, studying an atlas from the front seat of Dold’s blue, decorated campaign bus early Saturday afternoon. “Is this the right map?”

That’s probably the same question Dold asked himself 16 months ago, when Democrats redrew the Congressional map in Illinois. Democrats unsuccessfully dumped millions into the 10th district during the past three cycles, so Dold began his first term as a top target, even before the redrawn map made his road to a second term more challenging.

“I’m a firm believer that you worry about the things that you can control and frankly, that wasn’t one of them,” mused Dold in the back of his bus, the former “Straight Talk Express” that Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) used for his presidential run.

Dold’s contest against businessman Brad Schneider (D) remains competitive, and Roll Call rates it as a Tossup. That’s mostly because of the new map.

“It’s a different district,” said Schneider in nearby Arlington Heights an hour earlier. “This district? I describe it as not even a sibling – it’s a distant cousin. We only have 65 percent of the old 10th district.”

But remarkably, Dold has kept his head above political waters in a heavily Democratic district bordered by Lake Michigan on its east side. To stay afloat, he followed the road map drawn by his predecessor, Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.), a former Congressman from the 10th district.

Like Kirk, Dold presented himself as an independent. He repeatedly described himself as a “fiscal conservative, social moderate, strong on national security” in an interview. His television spots never say “Republican” (only “my party”), and he avoids bringing up his affiliation in conversation.

Just as important, Dold raised gobs of money, inside and out of this well-to-do district. It’s one of the wealthiest House districts in the country, and Dold’s campaign headquarters neighbors an Iberian Rug retailer and Lexus and Corvette dealerships.

Dold’s $4.5 million haul for the cycle is about $1.5 million more than Schneider raised — and more than Kirk brought in for each of his House races except his closest contest in 2008.

Much like that cycle, Democrats hope President Barack Obama will boost Schneider in his home state. But four years is a lifetime in politics: Obama will still win the district, but the Republican Party has changed too. Dold has had to contend with the GOP’s rightward turn following the 2010 mid-term elections.

“He has voted with the tea party-led Republican party,” said Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D), who represents a neighboring district. “Since 2010, they’ve made a sharp turn to the right, and Dold has been there with him.”

So far, these labels aren’t sticking. Even Schneider supporters such as Grant Crowell, an online video specialist from nearby Wheeling, referenced Dold’s bipartisanship.

“Even though Dold himself was not at all portrayed as far fringe, and has done some good, we just made a decision based on we just need to see more people in one party” to limit gridlock in Congress, said Crowell, 42, as he walked out of an early voting precinct. “This was a decision made on the bigger level, rather than a candidate level.”

For Democrats, the 10th district marks an obvious target. Obama would have won the redrawn district by a 27-point margin. But the district’s main interstate, I-94, is paved with failed Democratic candidates from Northbrook to the Wisconsin state border. Last March, Schneider defeated two Democrats to win his party’s nomination in a district that hasn’t been held by a Democrat since 1979.

So on this chilly Saturday, the Dold for Congress bus rides again on smooth, recently paved roads, carrying a full passenger load of Dold’s three children, friends and staff. They will visit new parts of the district, including a fall festival in Zion, and Round Lake Beach’s Harvest Moon Gala. Energetic, family-friendly tunes including ABBA play on the loudspeaker while Dold flips his 5-year-old daughter Honor over his shoulder like a jacket.

“You find that person and regardless, whether it’s a Republican or Democrat,” said Alex Brown, a former Chicago Bears defensive end and Dold supporter who joined him on the campaign trail. “Bob – he’s an unbelievable guy.”

More coverage of the Rust Belt Road Trip here.

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Photos of the week ending December 8, 2023