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Crucial Illinois House races down to the wire

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CHICAGO – The campaigns to win Illinois' most competitive congressional races are coming down to the wire, featuring negative ads, shifting positions and millions of dollars pouring in from national organizations.

It all underlines the stakes involved as Democrats try to undo Republican gains in 2010 and help their party with a shot at winning back a majority in the U.S. House.

The Democrats are banking on a new, more favorable district map they drew last year, and both sides are counting on turnout from the contest between President Barack Obama and GOP challenger Mitt Romney.

Below is a race-by-race look at the seven most-watched campaigns:

• • • 

8TH DISTRICT: THE TEA PARTY TALKER AND THE VETERAN

CANDIDATES: Freshman U.S. Rep. Joe Walsh, an outspoken tea party favorite, is running against Democratic challenger Tammy Duckworth, an Iraq War veteran and double amputee who ran unsuccessfully for Congress in 2006.

TERRITORY: Several ethnically diverse suburbs west and northwest of Chicago including Schaumburg and Carpentersville.

SIGNIFICANCE: The matchup is one of the most watched nationwide. Duckworth is a former Obama administration official with endorsements from top Democrats in a district redrawn by Democrats to be more friendly to their party. Walsh — who built a reputation on cable TV as a fierce critic of Obama and proponent of small government — has received millions for ads from outside groups. Two years after GOP officials tried to ignore him prior to his slim, surprise victory, he has party backing for his re-election bid.

ISSUES/STRATEGY: The campaign has become one of Illinois' most volatile. Duckworth has tried to portray Walsh as too extreme for the district and played up Walsh's penchant for controversial statements, while emphasizing her immigrant and biracial background. Walsh has criticized Duckworth for talking too much about her military service and tried to link her to imprisoned Gov. Rod Blagojevich, under whom she served in the state's veteran affairs department. Abortion also has become an issue after Walsh stated in a debate that there is never a medical necessity to use the procedure to save a woman's life. He later pulled back slightly on his comments. Walsh has criticized Duckworth for running ads labeling him a "deadbeat" dad due to a tardy child support case that was settled last spring.

• • •

10TH DISTRICT: TWO "MODERATE" BUSINESSMEN

CANDIDATES: Freshman Congressman Bob Dold faces Democrat Brad Schneider, a consultant who won a four-way primary in March.

TERRITORY: Extends north of Chicago to the Wisconsin line, hugging Lake Michigan and including both wealthy and working class communities.

SIGNIFICANCE: Democrats have long coveted the Chicago area district, where most voters have supported Democratic presidential candidates but Republican congressmen. The new boundaries make the territory more Democratic-leaning. The district was won five times by Mark Kirk, a moderate Republican who is now a U.S. senator, and both candidates portray themselves as moderates and link themselves to him. Each has raised big money, though Dold has the edge, taking in nearly $1 million in the last quarter alone. He also expected help from New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg's new super PAC.

ISSUES/STRATEGY: Dold, who calls himself a "pro-choice Republican," has played up his bipartisanship, stressing his support for federal funding for Planned Parenthood. Schneider has tried to portray Dold, especially in television ads, as a tea party candidate with extreme views. Schneider supports gay marriage and abortion rights, while Dold supports civil unions. Both candidates have mounted aggressive outreach campaigns, making hundreds of thousands of voter calls. Dold, the former head of a pest control company, also has questioned Schneider's recent business experience; he founded a one-person consultant firm and has since set aside his work to run for Congress.

• • •

11TH DISTRICT: STAKING OUT THE CENTER

CANDIDATES: Seven-term incumbent Rep. Judy Biggert, a Republican, faces Democrat Bill Foster, a former one-term congressman and physicist.

TERRITORY: A district southwest of Chicago including several suburbs with large Hispanic populations, and including Aurora, Illinois' second-largest city.

SIGNFICANCE: The race has shaped up as the most tame of the competitive campaigns. Both candidates are mild-mannered and don't always appear at ease promoting themselves, despite their experience with close elections. Biggert has been especially targeted by Democrats and has called it the toughest campaign of her career. The new district contains less than half of her old territory and much of Foster's former district, forcing Biggert to introduce herself to new voters.

ISSUES/STRATEGY: Biggert has spent time portraying herself as a centrist while Foster says he's not afraid to break with his party, citing how he voted against Democratic budgets when in Washington. Foster has labeled Biggert a "career politician" and a millionaire when he is looking for his own return to Congress and has earned millions himself as an entrepreneur. The two have raised about the same amount of money, but Foster had a slight edge in the last quarter. Gay marriage became an issue at a recent debate. Foster, who at one time indicated he was against gay marriage, says he supports single-sex marriages. Biggert says she supports civil unions, but is still deciding on gay marriage.

• • •

17TH DISTRICT: THE PIZZERIA OWNER AND THE SENATOR'S PROTEGE

CANDIDATES: Freshman Rep. Bobby Schilling, a Republican whose family runs a pizzeria, faces Democrat Cheri Bustos, a former city council member, journalist and health care executive

TERRITORY: A swath of west central Illinois touching both the Iowa and Wisconsin borders and including parts of Rockford and Peoria.

SIGNIFICANCE: Until 2010, the district had gone Democratic for nearly three decades. But Schilling won office with heavy tea party support and an aggressive campaign against former Congressman Phil Hare. Democrats are confident the new district map will allow them to reverse Schilling's advantage, which they labeled an anomaly. Among the Democratic backing for Bustos was an early endorsement from U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, who called her a close family friend who he watched grow up.

ISSUES/STRATEGY: Schilling's shift in tone is a reflection of the challenge for him. The congressman once headlined partisan tea party rallies, but is now calling for unity and nonpartisan collaboration. He's said Bustos was "hand-picked" by Democratic leaders to run, while Bustos has highlighted Schilling's tea party ties. Manufacturing jobs have been a big issue in the district and both have focused on protesting workers whose jobs are moving to China. Bustos blamed the decision on loopholes created by Congress; Schilling said bringing companies back to the U.S. requires simplifying the tax code and not overregulating. The campaign has been negative, with Schilling referring to Bustos as "one of the meanest congressional candidates in Illinois history" and Bustos calling Schilling "misguided."

• • •

13TH DISTRICT: THE PHYSICIAN AND THE FORMER CONGRESSMAN'S AIDE

CANDIDATES: Republican Rodney Davis of Taylorville, a former member of Rep. John Shimkus' staff, faces Bloomington physician David Gill, a Democrat. Also running is independent John Hartman, an executive with an Edwardsville medical firm.

TERRITORY: From Urbana southwest to Decatur and Springfield and on to the eastern outskirts of St. Louis' Illinois suburbs including Edwardsville.

SIGNIFICANCE: U.S. Rep. Tim Johnson, a Republican, made the race competitive when he retired soon after winning his March primary. Davis was chosen by party leaders from a list of GOP candidates to replace him. Democrats believe the new district is more winnable than Johnson's old district, which he won six times. Gill had lost three previous congressional races, all to Johnson, but in the old district.

ISSUES/STRATEGY: The candidates have made clear their differences on health care, the federal budget and other issues, but the tone of the race has been notably ugly. Both Davis and Gill are backed by large doses of negative advertising paid for by national organizations. Many of the ad claims — that Davis, for example, was at the center of the scandal that sent former Gov. George Ryan to prison, or that Gill hopes to kill Medicare — have been inaccurate. Johnson himself has complained about the mudslinging and said he'd have a difficult time endorsing either Davis or Gill. Some polls have shown support for Hartman running in the high single digits despite his low-budget, low-key campaign.

• • •

12TH DISTRICT: THE LUMBER EXECUTIVE AND THE GENERAL

CANDIDATES: Republican lumber company executive Jason Plummer faces Democrat Bill Enyart, a Belleville attorney who most recently served as chief of the Illinois National Guard. Also in the race is the Green Party's Paula Bradshaw, a Carbondale emergency room nurse.

TERRITORY: The Illinois suburbs of St. Louis to the state's southernmost tip, an area traditionally facing chronic economic stress

SIGNIFICANCE: Democratic Rep. Jerry Costello is retiring after more than two decades in office. Only two men, both Democrats, have represented the 12th District since World War II, but Republicans hope to wrest away the seat based on the area's conservative leanings, angst over environmental regulations relating to coal and signs of frustration with Washington and Illinois' Democratic leadership. Democrats consider it a critical seat to hold.

ISSUES/STRATEGY: The Democratic political apparatus has run ads accusing Plummer of wanting to end Medicare — the health insurance program for the elderly — while casting him as an "unexplained millionaire" whose only full-time job has been with his father's company. Plummer disputes that. Meanwhile, Republicans repeatedly link Enyart to disgraced former Gov. Rod Blagojevich, who picked the former Air Force officer to run the Illinois National Guard in 2007. They refer to Enyart, a former National Guard major general, as "Blagojevich's general." Bradshaw calls for a "Green New Deal," putting the federal government in control of creating jobs involving national infrastructure upgrades, notably addressing renewable energy and light-rail transportation.

• • •

2ND DISTRICT: MISSING CONGRESSMAN

CANDIDATES: Incumbent U.S. Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. is being challenged by professor Brian Woodworth, a Bourbonnais Republican; postal worker Marcus Lewis of Matteson, an independent; and Rev. Anthony Williams, a write-in candidate who hosts his own gospel radio show.

TERRITORY: Chicago's South Side, south suburbs and new areas reaching beyond Kankakee, hugging the Indiana line.

SIGNIFICANCE: Jackson, an eight-term incumbent, is expected to win re-election against his little known challengers, though he hasn't actively campaigned since quietly taking medical leave in June and remains under a House Ethics Committee investigation. Last spring, the son of Rev. Jesse Jackson won handily in the most difficult election of his career, a primary challenge by former U.S. Rep. Debbie Halvorson. But months later he took a secretive medical leave and was treated at Minnesota's Mayo Clinic for bipolar disorder. He's since checked back in with no sign of when he'll return to work.

ISSUES/STRATEGY: Jackson counts on a safe district that's still largely urban, black and Democratic. His only communication with voters has been a recent robocall where he asked for patience. Woodworth, who teaches criminal justice at Olivet Nazarene University, claims the district has no voice and Lewis calls Jackson "a ghost." Still, Jackson and his family engender loyalty and respect in the district, and mayors who support Jackson praise his dedication to local projects and ability to bring in federal money.

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Associated Press writers David Mercer in Champaign and Jim Suhr in St. Louis contributed to this report.

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Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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