Handful of hot congressional races on Ill. ballot

CHICAGO – The economy was a priority Tuesday as Illinois voters decided hotly contested U.S. House races and whether to re-elect Chicagoan Barack Obama as president. And nothing could hold back one woman from casting her first ballot in a presidential poll — not even going into labor.

Obama spent the day in Chicago and was expected to deliver either a victory or concession speech at his campaign's election-night party at the McCormick Place convention center.

With the state's 20 electoral votes expected to go to Obama and no statewide races on the ballot, the election season was quieter than usual in Illinois compared to the neighboring battleground states of Wisconsin and Iowa. Still, voters arrived at polling places in droves and waited in sometimes long lines to cast their votes.

Will Murphy, 60, a teacher from Winnetka, turned out to vote at a northern suburban high school as polls opened at 6 a.m. He said he cast his ballot for Obama because the Democrat inherited a disastrous economy and deserved more time to fix it.

"We don't need massive change now," he said.

Erika Miner, after voting for Obama in central Illinois, echoed that sentiment. "Rome wasn't built in a day," the 34-year-old Champaign woman said, arguing Obama deserved more time.

But businessman Charles Hoffman, also 60 and from Winnetka, said what the country needs most as the economy still limps along is someone who understands how business works — and that Republican Mitt Romney fits the bill.

"Obama's a fine gentleman, but he hasn't been effective," he said of Obama. "All of this is a management issue."

Voters also let social issues be their guide. Linda Sherwood, 50, of Springfield, is a self-employed house remodeler in a domestic, same-sex partnership. She voted for Obama.

"I'm shocked that a sitting president would come out and say he supports gay marriage," she said. "I was hoping he was going that way ... he never ceases to amaze me."

For others, American participation in wars overseas was paramount.

Matthew Jones, 50, also of Springfield, said he has two sons who have served in the military and that partially influenced his vote for Obama. "Ending that war (in Afghanistan) as well as taking out Osama Bin Laden and other terrorists, I think (Obama) is doing really well with military concerns."

A 21-year-old Chicagoan wouldn't let anything stop her from casting a ballot — not even having a baby. Galicia Malone voted in her first presidential election even though her water had broken. Her contractions were about five minutes apart as she made a detour en route to the hospital to vote, Cook County Clerk David Orr reported.

"My hat goes off to Galicia for not letting anything get in the way of voting," Orr said.

With no race for governor or U.S. Senate, both state parties focused on the Illinois congressional races, including three involving endangered Republican freshmen. Democrats aimed to pick up four to five seats and reverse the GOP's substantial gains in 2010. They also were trying to curb Republican efforts to chip into the party's legislative majorities.

Some voters, like Osman, said she didn't paid much attention to state level races. She, did however, note the bitter tone of political TV ads.

"We're kind of getting used to it, which is sad," she said.

A big advantage for the state's Democratic congressional candidates is that they're running in districts drawn to help them as much as possible. Illinois congressional and legislative districts were redrawn after the 2010 census to reflect population changes, and the Democratic majority in Springfield controlled the process.

That has created an extra challenge for Republican Reps. Judy Biggert, Robert Dold and Joe Walsh, all of whom live in the Chicago suburbs, and Rep. Bobby Schilling in the Quad-Cities area. New districts also give Democrats a shot at picking up an empty seat in eastern Illinois.

Last week, Obama officially endorsed the three Democratic candidates running in the Chicago suburbs: Tammy Duckworth, Brad Schneider and Bill Foster.

While some of their members, including tea party Congressman Walsh, are in tight races, Republicans believe they can hold most of the seats and perhaps pick up one in southwestern Illinois where the Democratic incumbent, Rep. Jerry Costello, is retiring.

U.S. Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. is expected to win another term despite taking a leave of absence — and not campaigning — since June to be treated for bipolar disorder and other health problems.

Illinois Republican Party Chairman Pat Brady predicted the state's financial problems under a Democratic governor and Democrat-controlled General Assembly could cause voters to opt for Republicans in the congressional races.

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 Republicans will pick up enough seats to seize control of the state Senate or House.

The strangest legislative race may be former 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. Hoping to avoid embarrassment, party leaders were backing third-party candidate Lance Tyson.

Illinois voters also get to decide whether to amend the state constitution. The proposed change — which some voters found confusing — would require a three-fifths vote, instead of a simple majority, for any public body to increase pension benefits.

Associated Press writers Sophia Tareen and Michael Tarm contributed to this report.

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