Melissa Bean took the 8th Congressional District by storm when she unseated 36-year Republican incumbent Phil Crane in 2004.
She campaigned on the platform that the veteran congressman had been in office too long, and had become out of touch with voters. She publicly begged him to debate her.
Flash-forward six years, and the Barrington Democrat’s strategy has been used against her. Now Bean clings to her political life, 347 votes behind in a tight race against tea party favorite Joe Walsh.
But there are no hanging chads in this story; the district’s next congressman will be decided by a handful of absentee ballots that have yet to be counted.
As both campaigns anxiously await the final votes, many are scratching their heads and asking: How did the race get to be so close?
BANKING ON BEAN
For much of the election, it appeared widely accepted that Bean would hold onto her seat.
As late as October, the New York Times forecast that Bean had an 88.2 percent chance at winning re-election. And through most of the race, that was something political operatives on both sides of the aisle seemed to agree upon.
The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, self-described as the campaign arm for Democrats already in Congress, identified “targeted” races in Illinois. Races included the 10th, 11th, 14th and 17th Congressional Districts – but not the 8th.
And on the right, the state and national GOP wrote off the 8th District race after the primary. Walsh’s campaign received little, if any, funding from the party. Big-shot politicos weren’t flown to the district to campaign on his behalf, and right-leaning groups such as Americans for Prosperity seemed to ignore the race, too.
Political strategist Collin Corbett said Republican leadership instead identified the 10th, 11th and 14th districts as key contests. The 17th District was a second-tier priority for Republican operatives, “and then, to a lesser sense, the 8th District.”
“Many people looked at the field and were a little underwhelmed, even in the primary,” Corbett said. “Unlike other districts, where there was a clear superior challenger to the incumbent, it was more of a muddled field in the 8th District.”
Both parties put their money where their mouths were.
After a crowded primary election yielded Walsh as Bean’s challenger, the DCCC dedicated its resources elsewhere. Likewise, state and national-level Republicans – whose candidate of choice was Long Grove Village President Maria Rodriguez – shifted their dollars and attention to different races, keeping Walsh’s financial coffers low.
But while the establishment GOP seemed to be looking the other way, there was an emerging group with its eye on Walsh: the tea party.
Six Republicans ran in the primary election, lining up to compete against Bean. It was a crowded field in which Walsh seemed to be a virtual unknown.
His political résumé included a run for Congress to represent the North Shore’s 9th District in 1996, and a run for state House in 1998. But he had never served on a municipal board, in county government, or any other elected office.
In fact, when he entered the race, he didn’t even live in the 8th District; he was renting a home in Winnetka, in the 10th District.
Former Walsh campaign manager Keith Liscio said Walsh was shopping around for the right district to launch his candidacy. He said Walsh wanted badly to run in Senator-elect Mark Kirk’s old district and his own, the 10th, but other Republicans already were gaining momentum there.
“We didn’t think he could win in the 10th, so ultimately he ran in the 8th,” said Liscio, who worked with Walsh from August to December 2009.
Liscio left the campaign and then alleged in a lawsuit that he had not been paid for his work. Walsh is fighting the lawsuit, which was thrown out earlier this year. Liscio refiled the lawsuit, which is scheduled for a hearing in December.
Liscio said it didn’t concern Walsh that he had never held local elected office.
“He just had bigger aspirations than that,” Liscio said. “You could easily start out as a precinct committeeman and work your way up through the system. He was never really interested in actually doing the hard work needed to rise to that level. He wanted to be at the top.”
Nick Provenzano, Walsh’s current campaign manager, declined to comment on Liscio’s assertions, stating that it was “before his time.”
But even without a political paper trail, Walsh’s early message to voters that government was too big and too expensive proved successful.
Walsh took 34 percent of the vote in the February primary, earning the GOP nomination.
Among his chief supporters were local tea party activists who slowly but surely were building their profile.
“Joe Walsh spoke what we’re about from day one,” said Laurie Jenner, a member of the McHenry County Tea Party. “He’s been staunch on these issues since long before running for this particular office. He was always our choice.”
With a primary win under his belt, Walsh began looking to November.
He continued attacking Bean for her vote in favor of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, or what has become known as ObamaCare, and – like she had done just six years earlier to Phil Crane – pressed her to debate. He remained focused on her voting record, which many described as taking a “hard turn to the left” once Barack Obama was elected.
Cap and trade. Card check. Cash for Clunkers. The stimulus act.
“She voted for so many bills that two years ago, four years ago, she would have never voted for,” Corbett said. “She felt like she was a safe incumbent.”
Bean had become widely criticized as someone who wasn’t available to her constituents, especially before and after the health care vote. Even in news media interviews, she often issued statements through her spokesmen.
Walsh set out to be the opposite, putting himself in front of voters every chance he got.
He was the first candidate to accept an invitation to the McHenry County Right to Carry Association’s inaugural meeting, which attracted more than 500 people. He showed up with his campaign trailer to events held by other political candidates, such as a Bill Brady rally in October. He shook hands at train stations, and even participated in the annual Polar Plunge in Fox Lake.
Provenzano said Walsh attended more than 15 town hall meetings during the summer, and he appealed to the many who were upset about big government and high taxes.
“The regular Joes out on the street connected with him,” Provenzano said. “He had a message that resonated.”
Walsh also built an army of volunteers whom he courted not only in person but through YouTube videos, a website and regular e-mail list, calling them “Walsh Warriors.”
These volunteers, many of whom came from the local tea party ranks, walked alongside Walsh in parades, called constituents, and showed up in droves to support Walsh at public events.
“They ran the strongest grass-roots campaign the 8th District has seen this decade,” Corbett said. “They knocked on more doors than any other campaign, they built an excitement in the community that no one else has been able to duplicate, and they worked harder than anybody else.”
Walsh supporter Sam Tumino said he called Bean’s office and vowed to vote Republican if she voted for the health care bill.
When she did, he called Joe Walsh’s campaign.
“She was quite insulting when she called herself a fiscal conservative, and she voted for all these things,” said Tumino, of Mundelein. “It’s as much of an outright lie as I’ve ever seen.”
In the months after the health care vote, Tumino said he spent every spare moment he had phone-banking and doing other campaign work for Walsh.
He had never volunteered on a campaign before.
“It was like I had a part-time job,” Tumino said.
If Walsh’s strategy was to make himself as visible as possible, many political observers said that Bean’s strategy was to stay in her “bunker.”
Multiple attempts to reach Bean’s campaign manager were unsuccessful. Spokeswoman Gabby Adler declined to comment on what type of strategy Bean employed, or what her strengths were during the campaign.
“There’s going to be plenty of time for analysis once the votes are counted, but right now the race is simply too close,” Adler said.
Adler suggested that the Northwest Herald refrain from writing about the race until Wednesday, after the final votes are counted.
“You can’t really give a post-mortem when it’s still ongoing,” she said.
McHenry County Democratic Party Chairman Michael Bissett also declined to comment on what strategies might have been employed by the Bean campaign, or offer insight as to how the race became so close.
However, he did say he anticipated a tight race.
“My personal philosophy is you’re always afraid of losing by one vote, so you’re always looking for ways to sway turnout,” Bissett said.
He said volunteers with the Democratic Party in McHenry County helped the campaign by calling voters and conducting door-to-door canvassing.
“The reception we got going door-to-door was quite good,” he said. “And we weren’t just talking to Democrats.”
On the financial front, Bean appeared to have the advantage. Her campaign fund had nearly $2 million, and among her many donors was Comcast, HBO, Nicor, the McHenry County Federation of Teachers, and former CBS 2 Chicago President Joe Ahern.
Through Oct. 13, Bean spent $1.7 million on the campaign, according to federal campaign finance reports.
She had enough money to run a series of TV ads attacking Walsh for his pro-life-without-exception stance and his support for gun rights. However, it wasn’t until fall that Bean began running these ads.
Too late, Corbett said.
“The fact she waited so long to run her campaign really was her undoing,” Corbett said. “In a wave year, when Democrats who are typically safe are running direct mailers, there’s no excuse for that.”
Walsh, on the other hand, came to the race with no money. His campaign raised just $479,864. His donors included former Secretary of Defense and Illinois Congressman Donald Rumsfeld, state Rep. Mark Beaubien, R-Wauconda, and Sage Products CEO Vince Foglia.
As of mid-October, he spent nearly all of his campaign fund, a relatively low sum for a major-party candidate in a congressional race. But on the heel of a recession, that too might have played to Walsh’s advantage.
“This was not the cycle to be talking about who had more money in their war chest,” Provenzano said.
On election night, Walsh’s numbers were impressive.
In almost every precinct in McHenry and Lake counties, he received more votes than Bean’s 2008 Republican challenger, Steve Greenberg, received – showing gains as high as 17 percent in some precincts.
He ultimately won the race in those two counties.
In Cook County, it’s difficult to measure either candidate’s performance against past elections. Some precincts have been altered since 2008, so side-by-side comparisons are not possible. However, Bean was expected to win Cook County since it historically has a higher concentration of Democratic voters.
In McHenry County, Walsh made the most significant gains in McHenry Precinct 25, where he took 53.6 percent of the vote. The polling place for this precinct is in the Lakemoor Village Hall, 234 W. Rand Road, in Lakemoor. In that same precinct in 2008, Bean received 62.5 percent of the vote against Greenberg.
Also notable this time around was McHenry Precinct 33, where Walsh received nearly 15 percent more votes this election than Greenberg received. The polling place for this precinct is Wonder Lake Bible Church, at 7511 Howe Road, in Wonder Lake.
The Republican precinct captain for McHenry 33, John Hammerand, said he didn’t think it was campaign signs that swayed the vote.
“Signs are more of a matter of pride in an individual than a beacon for convincing your neighbor,” Hammerand said. “I think people are disturbed with the economy. People are getting tired of government bureaucracy and excessive taxation.”
Former 8th District primary candidate Maria Rodriguez said she thought some of Walsh’s votes came from tea party and small government-oriented voters, while other votes might have been triggered by an anybody-but-Bean mentality.
“I think you had as many people voting her out of office as voting [Walsh] in,” Rodriguez said.
Corbett said he thought Walsh’s performance was a combination of his own campaign strategy and Bean’s missteps in waiting until late in the race to put up a fight.
“She didn’t run a race. She got complacent,” Corbett said.
Corbett also thinks Walsh benefited by the state and national GOP staying out of the race. Had the state and national party become more involved, Walsh would not have been kept so under the radar, and their involvement likely would have triggered a tougher campaign much earlier from Bean.
Meanwhile, RealClearPolitics.com Co-founder and Executive Editor Tom Bevan said that to some degree, Walsh was in the right election at the right time.
“He rode the Republican wave,” Bevan said. “It is a Republican district and her votes on health care and the like, and just being a Democrat, this year really lifted him up to her level and made it basically a tie.”
Walsh will head to Washington, D.C., today for freshman orientation in Congress.
Walsh remains ahead in the race by 347 votes. The last day to count absentee ballots is Tuesday, and the results of these ballots could be made public as late as Wednesday.
Bean said in a conference call to reporters Friday that about 1,500 absentee and provisional ballots hadn’t been counted.
Most of these ballots will come from Lake County. Bean is counting on these and the other outstanding votes to carry her to victory, and has refused to concede the race. She, too, is headed for the capital this week.
Both campaigns have secured an army of lawyers to oversee the final tabulations.
In the meantime, Provenzano said those who voted for Walsh can expect to have a congressman who will remain faithful to the issues on which he campaigned: de-funding and repealing ObamaCare, developing and sponsoring health care reform, and limiting the growth of government.
“He’s had a message all through the campaign of limited growth in government, less spending,” Provenzano said. “He has no intention of changing those positions.”