Illinois Democratic candidates set sights on House majority
(Paul Kane, WashingtonPost.com, March 22, 2012)
The uphill Democratic effort to reclaim the House majority began in earnest Tuesday with the nomination of several key recruits in Illinois, led by a legless Iraq war veteran who barrels around Chicago’s western suburbs in her Ford F-150 truck trumpeting an economic-fairness agenda.
Tammy Duckworth, whose near-miss campaign for Congress in 2006 made her an icon in the antiwar movement, secured the Democratic nomination for a new congressional district that some argue was drawn specifically for her, part of an aggressive effort by Illinois Democrats to net as many as five seats with the new lines. With a hometown hero, President Obama, at the top of the ticket, Democrats hope that their down-ballot candidates in the Land of Lincoln can draft off of him and collect up to 20 percent of the 25 seats they needed to return the speaker’s gavel to Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.).
The key battleground will be in suburban Chicago, where Duckworth is squaring off in a high-profile race against a tea party favorite, Rep. Joe Walsh (R), and where two other GOP incumbents, moderate freshman Rep. Bob Dold and seven-term Rep. Judy Biggert, are facing tough challenges in districts that have been redrawn and tilted toward the Democrats.
Republicans are paying the price for a narrow defeat in the 2010 governor’s race that left them powerless in the state capital and gave Democrats the chance to control the redistricting process.
“Their road to Pelosi as speaker is through Illinois redistricting,” Walsh said last week while campaigning in Elgin, a suburb 45 miles from Chicago.
Across the nation, the complicated calculus of redistricting has mostly ended without dramatic gains by either party — “something of a wash,” independent analyst Stuart Rothenberg said this week. That was a moral victory for Democrats, who initially feared their national wipeout in 2010 would shift many districts toward Republicans.
However, GOP strategists are quick to note that many of the 89 freshman Republicans will now be running in shored-up districts, making the Democratic “drive for 25” a bit steeper of a climb because first-term lawmakers are usually the ripest targets. Rep. Peter Roskam (R-Ill.), who defeated Duckworth in 2006 and is being relocated into a very safe GOP seat next to the Walsh-Duckworth district, called the Illinois Democrats “petty” for a redistricting process that is part of an unpopular political culture in the state capital. He predicted the endangered Republicans have “a real opportunity” to run against a stalled national economy and a corrupt culture in Springfield.
“I’m running to repay some small part of a debt I can never completely repay, a gift given to me on a dusty field in Iraq by the men who saved my life,” Duckworth said Tuesday night in her acceptance speech.
A few days earlier Duckworth pulled up to a home in Lombard, a small town 25 miles west of downtown Chicago, next door to Roskam’s home town. Here to talk to a group of women in a supporter’s home, Duckworth hopped out of her truck with the aid of a cane, wearing a dark dress suit. Her right prosthetic is painted over with the colors of the U.S. flag, her left prosthetic sporting military camouflage colors.
In 2004, while she was piloting a Blackhawk helicopter in Iraq, insurgents hit the chopper with a rocket-propelled grenade. “I should have died in Iraq,” she told the women, saying she was presumed dead by the soldiers who scooped up her body. Instead, she was alive and went to Walter Reed Army Medical Center for rehabilitation. Soon after, she began a career in politics.
Almost six years after losing to Roskam, she is framing this race beyond her military biography. The key issue six years ago was the war; now her focus is Walsh and his tea party agenda. She wants to cut the defense budget, not to bring troops home but to carve out more funds for federal programs that benefit her constituents — the sort of programs that have been on the chopping block this Congress.
“It’s a referendum on just extreme partisanship. When I talk to people here, they are just sick and tired of the yelling and the lack of getting things done,” she said.
Almost no one in Congress has yelled louder than Walsh, a onetime American history teacher who is conducting a one-man political science experiment: He vows that he will do nothing to help his constituents and instead focus entirely on his “mission to sorta scream from the mountaintop” to tackle the nearly $16 trillion federal debt.
“I made that promise when I got elected: I’m not bringing anything back, you’re not gonna get squat from me. That’s not my job,” he said, tapping a coffee shop table for emphasis as he pledged to focus exclusively on the national issue of the nearly $16 trillion debt. He mocked Duckworth for making such promises and said that old adage of “all politics is local” has been “flipped upside down” by outrage over federal red ink.
“I think people are growing up,” he declared.
This sets Walsh apart from other Illinois GOP incumbents, especially Dold, who raced from his northern suburban district to Chicago’s waterfront last Wednesday to get media attention for his effort to save a suburban Coast Guard station.
“My constituents are looking for thoughtful, independent leadership, they are looking to get things done. They want Congress to work,” Dold said at the Shedd Aquarium, overlooking Lake Michigan.
Dold will face business consultant Brad Schneider, who won a heated Democratic primary against a community activist who had support among liberal grass roots. Dold is prepared to run a campaign along the same lines as Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.), a centrist who previously held the seat despite constant targeting by Democrats.
However, the redistricting math makes it a steeper climb. Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), the GOP nominee in 2008, won just 36 percent of the vote in Dold’s new district, a 2.5-point drop from his old district. That small movement could be the difference between winning and losing. In Walsh’s new district, just 37 percent supported McCain, down from more than 42 percent in the old district.
Despite that shift, Walsh is not changing his message.
“I could be wrong, and I could get my butt handed to me in November. But yes, I went there to sorta scream from the mountaintop that our country is falling off a cliff,” Walsh said.
Illinois Primary Reveals a Weakened Tea Party
(Alex Altman, Time.com, March 22, 2012)
Mitt Romney vs. Rick Santorum was the heavyweight bout in Illinois on Tuesday night, but one of the undercards was much more interesting. Democratic redistricting forced Republicans into their first intra-party primary skirmish of 2012, a bout that laid bare divisions between the GOP’s past and future.
The race pitted Don Manzullo, a conservative 10-term congressman nicknamed ‘Mad Dog,’ against Adam Kinzinger, a telegenic 34-year-old freshman who swept into Congress as part of the 2010 wave. Like many in the 87-member freshman class, Kinzinger was elected with Tea Party support amid promises to return the party to the conservative principles abandoned by get-along, go-along Washington veterans. The twist is that in Tuesday night’s primary, the roles were reversed. Manzullo, the vet, was backed by a battery of conservative organizations, including the Tea Party primary battalion FreedomWorks and the Illinois Tea Party. Kinzinger, meanwhile, got a critical boost from House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, who bucked convention by endorsing the Air National Guard pilot while his allied super PAC dropped $50,000 on a pro-Kinzinger ad.
Cantor’s role in the internecine battle sparked much of the media interest, but the race was also a useful signpost of the party’s evolution in the Tea Party era. Last year, I wrote a dead-tree dual profile of two Illinois Republican freshman to illustrate the impending collision between pragmatism and purity. Joe Walsh was the Tea Party purist, and Kinzinger was the pragmatist, someone who believed in a role for government (his backing of unemployment insurance put him at odds with much of his party), eschewed polarizing rhetoric and spoke of the need to find common ground. He clearly had mixed feelings about the movement that put him in power. When I asked him why he hadn’t joined the Congressional Tea Party caucus, he replied: “I’m representing a big district. I’m a conservative, but at the same time I don’t want to pigeonhole myself. I think the Tea Party has some great ideas. Limiting government is a great thing, but I don’t necessarily want to be part of the caucus. But I’m definitely supported by them in comparison to who I ran against.”
Though Manzullo argued otherwise — in one ad he likened the freshman’s record to Nancy Pelosi’s — Kinzinger largely toed the party’s increasingly conservative line, backing fantasy legislation like Cut, Cap and Balance and railing against a debt-limit hike. Still, he took his lumps for not being pure enough. Early on he was cited by Heritage Action for America as one of the GOP freshmen least committed to cutting spending. “This is a guy who definitely strayed,” a FreedomWorks staffer told Politico. Last year was a scary time for Republicans to run afoul of conservative outside groups itching to primary transgressors as proof of their clout, and Kinzinger’s spokeswoman complained more than once when I suggested he was anything less than arch-conservative.
But with the economy slowly improving and the GOP bruising by the battles of the past year, the dynamic has shifted. On Tuesday night, Kinzinger beat Manzullo by double digits in a new district. You could view the victory as the Establishment fending off the Tea Party, or through the prism of youth over seniority. Tea Party-affiliated groups will likely again be a force in 2012, particularly in the smaller states where they thrived two years ago. But their power has attenuated as the movement’s popular support has waned. Of course, as Kinzinger knows, it helps to have the party’s heavy hitters on your side.
Election 'chickens' coming home to roost for farm bill debate
(Forrest Laws, Farm Press Blog, March 23, 2012)
It must have been a lot of fun to show up at meetings in the summer of 2010 and bash your sitting congressman or senator. No one knows how many video clips were shot of Tea Party members shouting down members of the U.S. House and Senate, some of whom had put their careers on the line for farmers.
Now the chickens are coming home to roost, so to speak, and, for the first time in decades farmers are faced with the very real possibility of not having a new farm bill or much chance of an extension of the current legislation when the 2008 law expires later this year.
By now, most of you have seen reports of the new federal budget proposed by Wisconsin Republican Paul Ryan, chairman of the House Budget Committee. The proposal would cut $33 billion from federal farm programs or about $10 billion more than the House and Senate Agriculture Committees proposed last fall.
Unlike previous years, this time the House of Representatives is filled with freshman members who have little or no sense of the purpose of farm programs or the stability they provide to agriculture. All most of them know is they think they have a mandate to cut federal spending.
House and Senate Democrats have tried to point this out in their statements about the Ryan budget. Rep. Colin Peterson, D-Minn., and ranking member of the House Ag Committee, said farmers could pretty much kiss any chance of a new farm bill goodbye for this year.
Sen. Kent Conrad, chairman of the Senate Budget Committee and one of the principal authors of the 2008 farm bill, said the Ryan budget poses real threats to programs such as health care and farm programs for residents of his state of North Dakota and the nation.
“The cuts to agriculture programs will especially hurt North Dakota, and would pull the rug out from under thousands of hard working farm and ranch families,” he said in a statement released by his office.
Conrad said the Ryan plan “is a mix of deep reductions in federal spending and tax cuts for corporations and the wealthiest Americans. It calls for cutting federal support for education and job training programs, energy and infrastructure programs, Pell grants for college students, and health care programs, including Medicare.
“The House Republican proposal also upends a bipartisan agreement on the amount of federal support for agriculture programs and will make it extremely difficult to craft a new farm bill this year.”
As Conrad notes, the Ryan budget calls for about $180 billion in cuts in the USDA budget, including $31 billion to commodity and crop insurance programs, $133.5 billion to nutrition assistance programs, and about $16 billion to conservation programs. That’s in contrast to last fall’s House and Senate agriculture committee proposal to cut $23 billion in agriculture, conservation and nutrition program funding.
"We had an agreement on what the savings would be out of agriculture and then Congressman Ryan comes along and throws that agreement out the window," Conrad said. "In order to get this farm bill done now, it's going to require House Republicans to tell Congressman Ryan that his plan goes way too far and that they're not going to go for it."