CHICAGO – Illinois Republicans emerged Wednesday from a combative primary in which a freshman congressman ousted a 20-year veteran and pledged to aggressively defend the party’s recent gains, despite a new congressional map that whittles the state into districts favoring Democrats.
While GOP leaders expressed confidence they could hold onto most of the seats they won in 2010 during a tea party-backed surge, Democrats eyed Illinois as a prime opportunity to inch closer to control of the U.S. House.
“Illinois is going to be absolutely pivotal to what happens in November,” said New York Rep. Steve Israel, chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.
Longtime U.S. Rep. Don Manzullo was the biggest-name casualty of Tuesday’s primary races, but his seat is almost certain to stay in Republican hands because no Democrat has declared a run in the north central Illinois district that contains portions of DeKalb County.
U.S. Rep. Adam Kinzinger, a former Air Force pilot who received an endorsement from House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, defeated Manzullo in a nasty incumbent versus incumbent battle.
The most high-profile fall races solidified during the primary include matchups between tea party firebrand U.S. Rep. Joe Walsh and Iraq War veteran Tammy Duckworth; and longtime GOP U.S. Rep. Judy Biggert and former one-term U.S. Rep. Bill Foster will tussle in a contest for the state’s only open congressional seat.
Israel calls the election between Walsh – who has been in the national spotlight for criticizing President Barack Obama – and Duckworth “one of the most glaring contrasts” among U.S. House races.
Duckworth received early endorsements from U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin and Obama adviser David Axelrod. She has painted Walsh as extreme and out of touch with the Democratic-friendly territory in Chicago’s northwest suburbs. Walsh won a surprisingly close contest over three-term incumbent U.S. Rep. Melissa Bean in 2010, when four other newcomer Republicans won congressional seats.
But Walsh said Duckworth is already a Washington insider and thinks voters in the northwest Chicago suburban district will resent it. He has challenged Duckworth to monthly debates until November.
“I am extreme and these are extreme times,” Walsh said. “The Democrats are out of touch.”
Democrats say another congressional race, forming in far-flung suburbs southwest of Chicago, is a shot at a pickup. Biggert, who first took office in 1999, has to run in expanded territory that’s more Democratic friendly in the contest against Foster, a scientist.
But Republicans believe they can defend the other seats and are banking on an anti-incumbency mood.
“We are not sitting back and saying, ‘Well this might be difficult,’” said Mike Shields, political director for the National Republican Congressional Committee. “We feel very confident.”
He said that even with the map, there was only one Republican incumbent versus incumbent race and that Democrats lost the longest-serving Democrat in the state’s congressional delegation. U.S. Rep. Jerry Costello abruptly announced his retirement in October, leaving the state’s only open seat.
Republicans are convinced the area has been culturally conservative and is trending Republican.
Jason Plummer, a lumber company executive, and Brad Harriman, a Democratic former regional education administrator, are the general election rivals in what observers expect to be a pricey race.
Plummer and Harriman are courting votes in a district encompassing a large swath of a chronically economically stressed territory. And Harriman, even weeks before winning the Democratic primary, has hounded Plummer about the lumberman’s failure to make his tax returns public.
Plummer has said he’s not going to campaign on Harriman’s schedule.