ARLINGTON HEIGHTS – Illinois' most hotly contested congressional territory could scarcely have been designed better for Tammy Duckworth.
Her fellow Democrats in the Legislature had someone like her in mind when they drew up her suburban Chicago district to be majority Democrat. The district includes some heavily immigrant, Latino and Asian communities where her life story should play well: Biracial, grew up in Thailand in a military family, served and badly wounded in Iraq, and worked for the state and federal veterans affairs departments.
But with less than a week before Election Day, Duckworth is still battling it out with incumbent U.S. Rep. Joe Walsh, an outspoken tea party hero who only reluctantly decided he should seek re-election in his radically different district. Polls show her leading, but Walsh still has the backing of loyal admirers who appreciate his unapologetically brash style, which contrasts sharply with Duckworth's low-key approach.
Voter Gustavo Soto, whose restaurant is in a heavily Latino community that became a flashpoint for the national English-only immigration debate, voted Democratic for president and congress in 2008, but backed Walsh in 2010 and will do so again this year. He said he just doesn't know Duckworth beyond what he's heard about her military service.
"If you see him on a personal level, he probably is the best suitable to represent our community," Soto said. "We need somebody with guts like that."
Though Duckworth appears to have an edge, many here say Walsh shouldn't be underestimated: He isn't a stranger to close elections, having beaten three-term Democratic Rep. Melissa Bean by just 300 votes in 2010 without any help from the GOP. This time around he has the support of his party and a big-spending super PAC that decided in recent days to spend even more to help him buy ads.
"He came out of nowhere to win [against Bean]," said Matt Streb, a Northern Illinois University political science professor. "You always have to wait and see."
The contest is one of six intense House races in Illinois, a state both parties say could be instrumental whether Republicans maintain their majority in the chamber. It's also become one of the nastiest and has played out in surprising ways throughout the district.
Duckworth, 44, left her Obama administration job more than a year ago to make a second run for Congress after narrowly losing to Republican Rep. Peter Roskam in 2006. With endorsements from the White House to Chicago's City Hall, she walked into a new political district that was drawn by Democrats last year, an area where she already had some name recognition and where most voters supported Obama.
Walsh, 50, has made a name for himself during his time in Washington as a cable news fixture who was highly critical of President Barack Obama, and for persistent headlines about Walsh's controversial statements and personal dilemmas. Because of the new, Democratic-drawn map, he briefly considered challenging another GOP incumbent elsewhere, but ultimately decided to run in his old district, despite the challenge.
While Duckworth outraised Walsh, taking in about $1.5 million in the last quarter compared with his roughly $250,000, outside groups funneled millions into ads against her. The Now or Never super PAC put in nearly $2 million, and just announced another $1 million this week. Another super PAC founded by an Indian businessman has blitzed the ethnic press in the Chicago area with ads favorable to him.
Duckworth says she would be further ahead in the polls if it weren't for the outside money.
"Anytime a challenger is within striking distance, let alone ahead of an incumbent, that's a position of strength," she told The Associated Press while greeting voters at a lunch this week. "He wouldn't be anywhere near close ... if it was just me against Joe Walsh. We have out-messaged him, we have out-fundraised him and we have out voter-contacted him."
A Chicago Tribune/WGN-TV poll released last week showed Duckworth had a 50 percent to 40 percent lead over Walsh, with 9 percent of the 600 likely voters still undecided. Other polls have showed the race closer.
A quarter of the district is Hispanic and 12 percent of residents are of Asian descent. The district features Motorola's headquarters, but also immigrant-heavy communities west and northwest of Chicago where strip malls are peppered with ethnic stores and mosques, making parking for Friday prayers hard to find.
It's also a place where some of Walsh's controversial statements have turned off some voters. In recent months he's been criticized for saying that the Democratic Party's "game" is to make Latinos dependent on government just like "they got African-Americans dependent upon government." At another point, he said radical Muslims are in the U.S. "trying to kill Americans every week," including in Chicago's suburbs.
It was those comments that prompted 74-year-old Azhar Habib, a Pakistani immigrant in Rolling Meadows, to begin rallying support for Duckworth. Most registered Asian voters are Pakistani or Indian, according to an advocacy group's estimates.
"There are good people and bad people in every community," said Habib. "I'm sure we're not 100 percent clean. But he picked up one particular community and he was pinpointing us. He is not good for us."
Others also accuse Walsh of trying to divide Hindus and Muslims, pointing to his efforts to secure a diplomatic visa for Narendra Modi, a right-wing Hindu leader in India who has been criticized for not doing more to stop religious rioting. The Indian Americans For Freedom super PAC has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars against Duckworth recently on an ad in an Indian newspaper that reads: "If you love Modi, send Walsh back to Congress."
Walsh's supporters praise him for reaching out and say he's building on his tea party support. His aggressive last-minute campaign, dubbed a "sprint to freedom," boasts of 15-hour days.
"I don't want a career in politics – I want to fix our problems and get government off our backs. That's why I've focused on meeting with the people I work to serve," Walsh said in an email to supporters.
Duckworth's challenge, however, has also been fending off critiques of her campaign style as lackluster, despite the engaging story she has to tell about being a helicopter pilot who lost both her legs in a rocket-propelled grenade attack in 2004 and now using prosthetic limbs and a wheelchair.
"No matter how she looks on paper, Tammy Duckworth has not exactly set the world on fire," said Illinois Republican strategist Doug O'Brien, a veteran of congressional campaigns.
The race has been unusually spirited. The crowd at one debate was so loud at times that the questions couldn't be heard. When Duckworth called out Walsh for family problems, criticizing him as a "deadbeat" for a child support problem that was settled last spring, he in turn attacked her for stooping low.
"If I [only] watch TV and see those ads, I wouldn't vote for either one of them," Soto said.
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