CHICAGO (AP) — Pizzeria owner Bobby Schilling catapulted to Congress two years ago with robust tea party support, the endorsement of "Joe the Plumber" and a sharply partisan campaign, making him one of five new Republican congressmen in Illinois who helped the GOP win control of the U.S. House.
This year, the energetic businessman has taken a different tack, making unity a priority in his formerly Democratic district. He now refers to himself as "center right," and his first one-minute television ad mentioned — three separate times — that being a congressman is not a "Democrat or Republican issue."
"You have to have more compromise," Schilling told The Associated Press.
Republicans across Illinois are echoing that tone as Democrats mount a fierce campaign to reverse the GOP's gains in 2010 and win five competitive U.S. House districts. Democrats are counting on a big turnout in President Barack Obama's home state, new congressional boundaries that forced some Republican lawmakers into more Democratic-leaning districts and big advertising dollars.
Republicans surged in Illinois in 2010 when only 50.5 percent of Illinois voters went to the polls, in contrast to the 71 percent who voted when Obama was elected in 2008.
"If there were any state where he should have coattails, it should be in Illinois," said Doug House, Democratic Party chairman in Rock Island County, where Schilling is facing Cheri Bustos, a former health care executive and alderman. "We should be able to expect some assistance from the top of the ticket."
The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee ranks Illinois, along with California and New York, among their top priorities in the fight to retake the House. The committee has opened more voter outreach offices in Illinois and poured $6 million into television advertising buys in the state. More than half the money went to the Chicago area, where U.S. Rep. Judy Biggert faces a tough challenge from Democratic former Rep. Bill Foster and tea party favorite Joe Walsh is running opposite Iraq war veteran Tammy Duckworth.
At the same time, two little-known challengers are getting attention in the Chicago-area district Democratic Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. has held since 1995. While Jackson is widely expected to win in November, his mysterious, months-long medical leave and ongoing House Ethics Committee investigation of ties to imprisoned former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich have been an embarrassment to the party.
In downstate Illinois, Democrats say the sudden retirement of longtime Republican U.S. Rep. Tim Johnson leaves an opening for Democrat David Gill, a Democrat, over Rodney Davis, a former aide to Republican Rep. John Shimkus.
Republicans are mounting equally determined campaigns.
The National Republican Congressional Committee has matched the Democrats in spending $6 million on ads, especially in Schilling's district. They hope to pick up a southern Illinois district left open by retiring Democratic Rep. Jerry Costello, claiming it has been trending Republican for years. Jason Plummer, a Republican businessman and former lieutenant governor candidate, faces Bill Enyart, the former chief of the Illinois National Guard.
Just this past weekend, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce bought more than $1 million in television ads against two Democrats — $500,000 against Gill and $550,000 against Brad Schneider, the Democratic challenger in Chicago's northern suburbs.
"The Democrats' road to the majority has obviously hit a dead end," said Katie Prill, a Midwest spokeswoman for the NRCC.
By all accounts, the five races will be close. The difference likely could be in the new map, which Democrats crafted because they control both the General Assembly and the governor's office.
It already cost the Republicans one seat. Rep. Don Manzullo, a House veteran of nearly 20 years, lost a tight primary battle to freshman Republican Adam Kinzinger, who had moved to a new district to avoid running against Jackson when the new map pitted them against each other.
The unusually outspoken Walsh, a regular commentator on conservative national TV shows, also considered challenging one of his GOP colleagues after his district was altered to favor Democrats. He ultimately chose to stay put and battle Duckworth, a former combat helicopter pilot who lost both legs when she was shot down in Iraq.
Duckworth has raised $2.5 million so far, and more money than any other Illinois candidate in the second quarter. Polls put her ahead of Walsh, who is repeatedly in the headlines with unorthodox remarks in one of the most diverse congressional districts in the state.
For Schilling, about half of his 17th District is new territory. It now extends from the Iowa state line to parts of the Rockford and Peoria areas in central Illinois, both historically friendly areas for Democrats with manufacturing bases and strong union presence. He says his biggest achievements include advocating for the Rock Island Arsenal in conjunction with a Democrat.
Before Schilling, the district had been held by a Democrat since the early 1980s. Bustos, the Democrat, received an early endorsement from Illinois' senior U.S. senator, Dick Durbin, the No. 2 Democrat in the Senate. Now it's Bustos criticizing Schilling for being the incumbent.
"We have a congressman who is misguided on his priorities," Bustos said in an interview. "What has (resonated with voters) is the absolute disgust with this current Congress and the gridlock over getting things done."
Schilling had a slight edge in fundraising, but the gap has been closing. In the most recent quarter, Bustos raised $470,000, compared with Schilling's $360,000. Before that, the incumbent had $945,000 on hand, compared with Bustos' $820,000, according to recent campaign finance reports.
The pizzeria owner isn't the only GOP incumbent shifting tactics.
Biggert, who first took office in 1999 and has built a reputation as a centrist, admits this is her toughest campaign ever. The new 11th Congressional District contains less than half of her old district. While it used to be mostly Republican-leaning Chicago suburbs, it now includes Aurora, the state's second-largest city, with a more than 40 percent Hispanic population.
Biggert has added a translator to her staff for her neighborhood meet-and-greets. "I want them to know that I'm a person that really listens to what they have to say," said Biggert, who touts her work to extend a flood insurance program and expand services to homeless children.
Her opponent, Foster, is a former physicist who lost in another district in 2010. He has been closing the fundraising gap and outraised her in the most recent quarter, finishing with about $1.27 million cash on hand, compared with her $1.5 million, according to the most recent campaign finance data.
The other close race will be in Chicago's northern suburbs, a district of upscale and working-class communities once represented by Mark Kirk, a moderate Republican who is now a U.S. senator.
Both candidates liken themselves to Kirk. They've pushed their business experience and tried to portray themselves as independents. Bob Dold, the Republican incumbent, is emphasizing his pro-abortion rights stance, while Schneider, the Democrat, touts his campaign contributions to Kirk in the past. Each claims to have made more than 200,000 calls to voters over the summer.
However, Dold has outraised Schneider by far, with $2.9 million during the election cycle, the most of any Illinois candidate. He has more than $2.1 million on hand, compared with Schneider's nearly $570,000. He said he isn't rattled by the Democrats targeting his swing district.
"They always have," Dold said.
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