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Congress, for once, is big prize in Ill. election

SPRINGFIELD – No statewide offices are up for grabs in Illinois this fall, and President Barack Obama is almost certain to carry his home state again. That makes for an unusual election next month in which the big prizes are a handful of congressional races that have the potential to help change the balance of power in Washington.

Democrats dream of picking up five seats now held by Republicans, which could go a long way toward the Democratic goal of winning back control of the U.S. House. A swing of that size would be unusual in most years, but the candidates are running in new districts drawn by Democrats in ways that help their party.

Even so, the races are tight and Republicans hope they can hold most of the seats and perhaps pick up one in southwestern Illinois where the Democratic incumbent is retiring.

In the presidential race, Obama's camp is so sure of the outcome here that his Illinois campaign page is almost entirely dedicated to recruiting help for Iowa. Republican challenger Mitt Romney isn't advertising significantly in Illinois or making campaign stops.

Still, Romney's Illinois chairman, state Treasurer Dan Rutherford, isn't conceding anything.

"I know it will be difficult to beat the president in his home state, but we are not giving up an inch," Rutherford said, noting Illinois' high unemployment rate.

Not being a presidential battleground means Illinois television shows aren't stuffed full of campaign ads.

"I personally am relieved that we don't have to endure or be bombarded by the negative ads," said Karen Mollett, a Springfield resident who has taught college courses on communication. "I am really tired of being sold or being hawked to buy a bad product. The more bells and whistles that are necessary to sell a product, in my opinion the worse the product is."

Others have mixed feelings about how, at times, Illinois is being left on the sidelines of the neck-and-neck race.

"The political nerd in me wishes we had more of those ads, I guess," said Despina Batson, a senior at the University of Illinois and president of the school's College Republicans. "I do like to critique them and see what's going on."

With the new political map, all 177 seats in the Illinois General Assembly are on the ballot. That has produced some fierce battles, but there's little chance that Republicans will pick up enough seats to seize control of the state Senate or House.

The strangest legislative race may be Rep. Derrick Smith's bid for another term.

The Chicago Democrat was booted out of the House in August after he was indicted on federal bribery charges, but he remains on the ballot in a safely Democratic district. Unhappy Democratic leaders recruited someone to challenge Smith under the "Unity Party" banner. If Smith wins, he gets to reclaim the House seat that was taken away from him.

That would be an embarrassment for a Democratic Party already carrying plenty of corruption baggage.

"If they let this happen, it's going to be a black eye and they know it," said Christopher Mooney, who teaches political science at the University of Illinois at Springfield.

Illinois already faced some big congressional contests this year. Then two incumbents raised the stakes with surprise announcements that they were stepping down. That meant the eastern Illinois district represented by Republican Tim Johnson and the southwestern Illinois district of Democrat Jerry Costello were suddenly up for grabs.

Republicans hope to wrest Costello's seat away from the Democrats, arguing that the region has been turning more conservative for years.

The incumbent facing the biggest challenge may be Joe Walsh, a tea party favorite with a history of headline-grabbing comments. The first-term Republican from the McHenry County area has shouted at constituents during a town meeting and once said his opponent, Iraq veteran and former helicopter pilot Tammy Duckworth, talks too much about losing her legs in combat. The two have engaged in a series of contentious debates.

Another Republican freshman facing a tough challenge is Bobby Schilling of Colona. Facing Democrat Cheri Bustos, a former East Moline city council member, Schilling has moderated some of the views that earned him strong tea party support two years ago.

Democrats also redrew a district in Chicago's northern suburbs to make winning a second term more difficult for Republican Rep. Robert Dold. He faces Democrat Brad Schneider.

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