The rematch between first-term Democratic Rep. Brad Schneider and former one-term Republican Rep. Bob Dold, in suburban Chicago's 10th District, is widely viewed as Illinois' bellwether U.S. House race this year. It's one of six Illinois congressional races that will be widely watched here and nationally.
It is not the only competitive race in the state, though. Democrats Cheri Bustos in the 17th District, William Enyart in the 12th, Bill Foster in the 11th and Tammy Duckworth in the 8th face varying degrees of risk, as does Republican Rodney Davis in the 13th.
Given that the number of House seats that are truly up for grabs across the nation has declined sharply over recent decades, six seriously contested House races out of 18 districts makes Illinois a virtual hotbed of competition.
Combined, these races may determine the partisan balance in Illinois' congressional delegation not only for the next two years, but over the remainder of this decade.
This year's elections will define whether the redistricting map produced by the Democrats who control the state government in Springfield will provide a lasting advantage to that party, which currently holds a 12-6 edge in Illinois' U.S. House delegation.
The sweeping overhaul of the map prior to the 2012 elections - justified by the state's loss of a House seat because of slow population growth over the previous decade - did enable Schneider, Bustos, Foster and Duckworth to oust Republican incumbents, helped Enyart maintain the party's hold in a potentially competitive open-seat race, and put the party within a hair of upsetting Davis in a race for a nominally Republican open seat.
If the Democrats are able to lock in most or all of these gains in this year's midterm elections, it likely would make Republican strategists less likely to target them in 2016 and beyond. If the Democrats' advantage erodes, though, it will temper the GOP's outrage over what they call an egregious gerrymander.
This year's contests, in Illinois and nationally, will also define whether we have entered a period in which the makeup of the electorate is distinctly different in midterm elections as opposed to presidential election years. Over the past three cycles, Democrats surged in 2008, as Illinois' Barack Obama claimed the White House and the party's increased its control over the U.S. Senate and House; Republicans rebounded sharply in the 2010 midterms, taking control of the House and narrowly missing a Senate majority; and the Democrats recovered in 2012 to re-elect Obama, trim the GOP's House majority and add a couple of seats to their Senate majority.
The biggest challenge the Democrats face is to forestall as big a drop-off in turnout as they suffered in their 2010 debacle among key constituencies, particularly minorities and younger voters.
Finally, looming over the entire congressional field is the fact that Illinois' main political event this year is the race for governor between Democratic incumbent Pat Quinn and Republican challenger Bruce Rauner, a venture capitalist. With Quinn and Rauner both primed to spend millions on campaign advertising, and outside interests certain to weigh in as well, it will be hard for U.S. House candidates to grab the voters' attention.
The following are synopses of this year's key races:
10th District (Northern Chicago suburbs)
Brad Schneider (D-incumbent) vs. Bob Dold (R-former incumbent)
There are three reasons why the 10th District race is considered one of the nation's most competitive - rated a tossup by some national election prognosticators.
First is that Schneider unseated Dold two years ago in a very close race, by 3,334 votes and a 1.2 percentage-point margin. Second is that Dold, the head of his family's long-established pest control company, did not have to have his arm twisted to seek a rematch, and was unopposed in the March 18 Republican primary. Third, the fact that much of the current 10th District was represented by Republican Mark Kirk for 10 years prior to the most recent redistricting indicates that the district's mainly affluent and Democratic-leaning suburban voters are willing to split their ticket for Republican candidates who present themselves as reasonably moderate.
Although Dold initially identified himself in 2010 as the most conservative among the Republicans seeking the seat Kirk left open to run for the Senate, he has sought the centrist mantle since. It turned out to be a tricky balance during his one House term.
During his first three months in office in 2011, Dold had an 87 percent "party unity" score in a study conducted by CQ Weekly that measured how often each member voted on legislation with most members of his or her own party against most members of the other party. Although Dold found more reasons to disagree with his Republican colleagues - his party unity score for 2012 was 74 percent - his early record provided ammunition that Schneider used to effect in his challenge, particularly his votes for the budget plans developed by Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan, the House Budget Committee chairman who would become the GOP's vice presidential nominee.
This accusation that Dold was too far to the right played well enough in 2012 in a district redesigned by Springfield Democrats to remove some well-to-do North Shore voters who had been key to Kirk's success and replace them with more loyally Democratic voters elsewhere in Chicago's northern suburbs. It also helped Schneider overcome a barrage of negative advertising by the national Republican Party that accused him of inflating his career as a businessman, claiming that he had earned no income for three years from his small-business consulting firm.
Like Dold, Schneider plays toward the political center. His CQ party unity score for 2013 was 84 percent. That may sound pretty high, but in a House marked by historic levels of partisan divisiveness, it is what passes for relatively moderate these days.
With neither candidate facing opposition in the March 18 primary, Schneider and Dold have barely sparred yet in the run-up to the fall campaign. Instead, each has built a sizable campaign treasury that is being banked for what will be a very expensive campaign in the Chicago media market. As of March 31 - the end of the most recent campaign finance reporting period - Schneider had a modest lead over Dold with just a bit more than $2 million to $1.7 million. His cash-on-hand advantage at the time was smaller, less than $70,000, though both had well more than $1 million to play with at the time.
11th District (Southwest Chicago suburbs)
Bill Foster (D-incumbent) vs. Darlene Senger (R)
Foster has had an up-down-up career in congressional politics over the past six years. His victory in a March 2008 special election in the north-central Illinois' 14th District was symbolic of the declining fortunes of the Republican Party during George W. Bush's second term as president: He won the seat vacated by the resignation of Republican J. Dennis Hastert, the former House speaker. Foster was re-elected to a full term that November. But in 2010, the political pendulum swung sharply the other way, and Foster lost the seat to Republican Randy Hultgren.
His congressional hiatus did not last long. The redistricting map produced by Democrats in Springfield carved up the GOP-leaning 13th District that Republican Judy Biggert had represented for 14 years, leaving her with little choice but to run in an 11th District redrawn to include strongly Democratic cities such as Joliet and Aurora along with populous Naperville. Foster staged a comeback bid there and won easily by 59 percent to 41 percent, while the district gave 58 percent of its presidential vote to Obama.
This landscape alone pegs Foster as a favorite over Senger, a state representative since 2009 and a member of the Naperville city council prior to that. He also has personal assets that work to his advantage.
A physicist, inventor, and wealthy entrepreneur, he is very difficult for Republicans to brand as an anti-business candidate. His background as a scientist provides extra oomph to his advocacy for two major federal research sites that are important to the economy of Chicago's western suburbs: Fermilab in Batavia and Argonne National Laboratory in Lemont.
Senger believes she has an angle, though, in the public's dissatisfaction with the region's sluggish economic growth. Calling, like most Republicans for smaller government, Senger said in a May 1 press release, "Congressman Bill Foster has continually supported higher taxes and bigger government. His lack of leadership and advocacy for failed policies have resulted in less jobs and stunted growth. His votes in Washington have only produced economic uncertainty and hurt Illinois families." She supports repeal of the Affordable Care Act.
But Senger ended the last reporting period March 31 at a daunting disadvantage to Foster in campaign funds. The incumbent had outraised the challenger by more than a 5-to-1 ratio (nearly $1.6 million to $306,000 in total receipts). And because Senger had to fight her way through a closely contested four-way primary in March, she was left with just $41,000 cash on hand, while Foster was sitting pretty atop $1.2 million in campaign reserves. After those numbers were released in April, Senger told Lynn Sweet of the Chicago Sun-Times, "Right now, my focus is entirely on fundraising."
8th District (Northwest Chicago Suburbs, including Schaumburg)
Tammy Duckworth (D-incumbent) vs. Larry Kaifesh (R)
Duckworth's perseverance as a warrior who was badly wounded in Iraq gives her a high profile that will make her tough to unseat in her bid for a second House term. Duckworth, a U.S. Army Reserve officer, lost both legs and suffered serious damage to one arm after the helicopter she piloted was hit by a rocket-propelled grenade in 2004.
While Duckworth has been a relatively reliable vote for the House Democratic leadership - her 2013 CQ party unity score was 87 percent - she continues to be best recognized for her military background. She gained national attention in June 2013 when, as a member of the House Armed Services Committee, when she grilled a businessman over federal contracts he had obtained using disabled veteran status, even though the injury he cited had been incurred playing high school football.
Duckworth was recently appointed to a special committee created by the House Republican majority to investigate the attacks on U.S. facilities in Benghazi, Libya, on Sept. 11, 2012, that resulted in the deaths of U.S. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans.
Republicans are countering this year with Kaifesh, who has extensive military service on his own resume. He spent more than 20 years in the U.S. Marine Corps, most of those as an infantry officer, and his campaign website credits him with five tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Kaifesh campaigns in a much lower key than did former one-term Republican Rep. Joe Walsh, the fiercely outspoken, tea party-aligned conservative who lost to Duckworth by 55 percent to 45 percent in 2012. He is, however, running as a conservative who has described Duckworth as "the poster child" for the Obama administration, which he has said "will go down as the worst in history."
This suggests he would need a pretty huge Republican wave to defeat Duckworth in November in a district that gave Obama 57 percent of its votes in 2012. The district was designed by Springfield Democrats first to unseat Walsh that year and then provide an enduring Democratic advantage.
The latest fundraising reports also showed Duckworth with a daunting advantage. She had raised $1.5 million as of March 31, more than 10 times higher than Kaifesh's $145,000. And while the incumbent still had more than $1 million on hand as of that date, Kaifesh was down to about $6,400 after his campaign for the March 18 primary in which he defeated businesswoman Manju Goel with 71 percent of the vote.
12th District (Southwestern Illinois)
William Enyart (D-incumbent) vs. Mike Bost (R)
Of the five Illinois' Democratic freshmen facing serious challenges this year, Enyart is the only one who did not unseat a Republican incumbent in 2012. Rather, he kept the 12th in Democratic hands after the retirement of Jerry Costello, who dominated district elections for most of his two dozen years in Congress.
Yet the 12th is not exactly a Democratic stronghold. The district, one of the least changed by the most recent redistricting, runs south along the Mississippi from suburban St. Louis to the tip of Illinois and inland to Carbondale and its environs. Its mix of Democratic-leaning cities and Republican-leaning rural areas was evident in the 2012 presidential vote, which Obama carried by just 50 percent to 48 percent over Romney.
Enyart - a military veteran of long service who was adjutant general of the Illinois Army National Guard at the time of his election - won more comfortably, with 52 percent of the vote and a 9 percentage-point margin over Republican businessman Jason Plummer. His seats on the House Armed Services and Agriculture committees enable him to focus on issues important to district interests.
But district politics are competitive enough to give Enyart and party strategists pause about Democratic-voter drop-off in the midterm election. The GOP recruited a substantial opponent in Mike Bost, who gave up re-election to the state House seat he has held for two decades to run for Congress.
A former firefighter and a Marine veteran, Bost is trying to ride popular dissatisfaction with the federal government in his challenge to Enyart. In his candidacy announcement last summer, Bost said, "People ask me why I am doing this. Like a lot of other people I am disappointed with the actions coming out of Washington these days."
He has been trying to tie Enyart (who had an 87 percent CQ party unity score in his first year in the House) closely to Obama. Like many Republican challengers, Bost sees the long-lasting controversy over "Obamacare" as a liability for the Democratic incumbent, and for months belabored Enyart for not stating a position about the health care law on his official House website.
Enyart recently addressed this, amending his site to add his view that the Affordable Care Act is providing many benefits - including coverage for people with pre-existing conditions and lowering prescription costs for seniors - while advocating for adjustments to the law. In particular, Enyart takes credit for being one of a coalition of Democrats who joined with Republicans in a successful campaign to get the administration to defer cuts to Medicare Advantage, a federally subsidized program that allows millions of seniors to obtain their Medicare benefits through private insurers.
Beyond issues, Bost's viability may depend on how voters view an angry fit he pitched on the state House floor in 2012 over the Democratic majority's handling of concealed-carry gun legislation. The tirade, which included his flinging a pile of papers in the air, drew the attention of TV news and comedy shows. Bost contends that his actions reflect populist anger over heavy-handed political rule, and will win him votes. Democrats are working hard, though, to brand him as a hothead.
Enyart by the end of March had raised close to $1 million, compared to Bost's $353,000. But because Bost did not face opposition in the March 18 primary, he was able to hold onto most of that money: Enyart's edge in cash on hand was $555,000 to Bost's $201,000.
13th District (Central Illinois)
Rodney Davis (R-incumbent) vs. Ann Callis (D)
Davis, bidding for a second House term, was destined to end up this year as the Democrats' biggest target among Illinois' six Republican incumbents.
While his colleagues all won easily in 2012, Davis eked out his victory over Democratic physician David Gill in the 13th District open-seat race by just 1,002 votes, a margin of four-tenths of 1 percentage point. Davis may have been aided by the presence of independent John Hartman, a liberal-leaning independent who received more than 21,000 votes, or 7 percent of the total.
The overall partisan leanings of the 13th District are up for grabs. Created out of bits and pieces of various districts during the last remap, it angles from Champaign, Decatur, Bloomington and Springfield - where Democratic voters are numerous - southwest to the edges of metro St. Louis, taking in mostly rural, strongly Republican areas along the way. Romney's advantage over Obama in the 2012 district's presidential vote was nearly identically tiny to Davis' in the House race.
Democrat Ann Callis, who resigned as chief judge of Madison County near St. Louis to run for Congress, is expected to run a serious challenge to Davis this fall.
Despite the "swing district" characteristics that the 13th showed in the first elections under the new map, Davis has for the most part taken a strongly conservative line as a House freshman. His CQ party unity score in 2013 was 91 percent.
A claim that Davis is too far to the right is the core of Callis' campaign. The challenger is emphasizing Davis' votes for the most recent budget proposals, containing numerous program spending cuts, which were drafted by Paul Ryan and pushed through the House by the Republican majority.
It is no coincidence that Callis has hammered one particular line item in the Ryan budget: cuts to Pell Grants for college students. With University of Illinois' flagship Champaign campus and Springfield campus, Illinois State University, and Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville all in the district, higher education is a mainstay. And Callis' hopes of winning may be contingent on her generating turnout among younger voters, which tends to drop off in midterm election years.
Republicans counter that Callis is too far to the left, claiming that she is the hand-picked candidate of Democratic leaders in Washington, including liberal House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi. They also are casting Callis' performance as a county judge in a negative light.
Neither candidate is likely to lack for funds. Davis, as of March 31, had total receipts of a bit more than $2 million, while Callis had edged over the $1 million mark. Both had to spend on contested primary campaigns, leaving Davis with a still hefty $952,000 and Callis with $514,000.
Davis was, in fact, the only Illinois incumbent to face a potent challenge in the March 18 primary. But the contest was more a matter of how Davis received the GOP nomination in 2012 than about fundamental policy differences.
Tim Johnson, a six-term Republican incumbent, was nominated in the 2012 primary. But the new 13th contained just a remnant of the old 15th District Johnson had represented in eastern Illinois, and he decided instead to retire. This allowed the 13th District's county Republican leaders to choose a replacement candidate. They opted for the well-connected Davis, a former aide to longtime southern Illinois congressman John Shimkus.
This produced grumbling among other Republicans who had sought consideration, including Erika Harold, a Harvard-educated lawyer whose challenge drew national attention largely because she had been Miss America 2003. But Davis, bolstered by a big financial advantage, fended Harold off by a 55 percent to 41 percent vote.
17th District (Northwestern Illinois)
Cheri Bustos (D-incumbent) vs. Bobby Schilling (R-former incumbent)
Like the Schneider-Dold race across the state, the 17th District race features a rematch of a 2012 race in which the Democratic candidate unseated a one-term Republican. But incumbent Bustos, thus far at least, is considered a bit more strongly favored (though hardly a shoo-in).
Bustos ousted Schilling by more than 18,000 votes and a nearly 7-point edge. And while the foes in the 10th District showdown have both been raising money hand over fist for this year's race, Bustos jumped out to a big early lead over Schilling. She reported nearly $1.5 million in total receipts and $1.1 million in cash on hand as of March 31; both figures were more than three times higher than those reported by Schilling ($425,000 total, $332,000 cash on hand).
Schilling faces one particularly big challenge as he seeks a comeback in this normally Democratic-leaning district, which gave Obama 58 percent of its presidential vote while electing Bustos. He needs to distance himself from a reputation, stemming from his successful 2010 campaign, as a "tea party candidate."
Schilling, the owner of a popular pizzeria in Moline, certainly benefited from the conservative backlash that arose early in Obama's first term as president. When Phil Hare, then the Democratic incumbent, was challenged at an April 2010 town hall meeting by a tea party activist over the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act, he was recorded on video saying, "I don't worry about the Constitution on this, to be honest." Though Hare contended that his remark was misconstrued, it was considered a gaffe that contributed to his 11 percentage-point defeat by Schilling.
Schilling proceeded to go with the strongly conservative House Republican Conference on 93 percent of CQ party unity votes in 2011. Although he joined the bipartisan group No Labels, his voting record left him vulnerable to Bustos' charge that he was too far to the right when the tide shifted to the Democrats' favor during Obama's re-election campaign.
Bustos - a former journalist and health care business communications director - has sought to position herself as a moderate. She also has joined the No Labels group since her election, and her 82 percent CQ party unity score in 2013 was the lowest among Illinois Democratic incumbents who face serious challenges this year. And while Schilling is seeking to nationalize the campaign by tying Bustos to unpopular aspects of Obama's presidency, including the health care law, Bustos is touting her emphasis on local economic development.
Schilling in 2010 did overcome a Democratic lean in the 17th as it was drawn then. But redistricting prior to 2012 bumped up the party's edge by adding strongly Democratic parts of Rockford and Peoria to a district that already included urban areas such as Rock Island and Moline.
Bob Benenson is a veteran political journalist. He spent 30 years covering national elections and politics - and closely following Illinois campaigns - for Congressional Quarterly in Washington, D.C., including 11 years as politics editor (1998-2009). Follow him on Twitter at @bbenenson.