Ever since veteran Republican representative Henry Hyde announced last year that he would not be seeking another term in Congress, Democrats have viewed his suburban Chicago district as one of the key battlegrounds in their effort to take back the House in 2006. Almost immediately party heavyweights like Senators Barack Obama of Illinois and Hillary Clinton of New York and House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi started lending their support and helping raise loads of cash for one of the nation's most closely watched races. And with the Iraq War increasingly seen as a winning issue for the Dems, they recruited wounded Iraq War veteran Tammy Duckworth to run for the seat.
On Tuesday, their strategy began to pay off. Duckworth, a 38-year-old former major with the Illinois National Guard who lost both legs during a grenade attack on her helicopter, appeared to have eked out a primary victory over her challenger, tech entrepreneur and two-time candidate Christine Cegelis, by garnering 44% of the vote to Cegelis's 40%. Duckworth will now face a high-stakes fall race against conservative state Sen. Peter Roskam, who himself has had big names like Vice President Dick Cheney helping him amass a war chest topping $1 million.
For his three decades in Congress Hyde, who brought clout and many political goodies to his District, had been an unbeatable incumbent. So when he decided to end his storied career on Capitol Hill, Dems viewed it as an especially promising opening. And with a greater mix of young people and minorities, especially Hispanics, moving to the area, Dems believe the district is trending in their favor.
Republicans are confident that Hyde's conservative legacy remains very much alive in the west suburban District. And they note that Roskam, while criticized as too far right for a district becoming more diverse, is a loyal Bush supporter running in a district that voted for him in 2004, even as the President handily lost the state as a whole.
Duckworth is one of several veterans of the war in Iraq to enter the political fray this election, and some have questioned whether Democratsnamely Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Rahm Emanuel, the Illinois representative who is thought to have personally recruited Duckworthwere exploiting a veteran wracked with emotional and physical scars. Duckworth dismisses such talk, as well as the notion that the race is about national issues like the war. "I've been under much more stress when people's lives are on the line," she said. "This I can handle."
That may be, but whether she can actually deliver the district to the Democrats will depend on how well she can translate her combat experience into political know-how. "My service gives me an insight that other candidates won't have, and my injuries give me a platform," she said. "But that's all it is, a platform. If there was no substance to me[issues] like education, the health care, the jobsI'd fall off that platform very quickly."