CHICAGO – Democrats literally mapped out their victories in Illinois congressional races this year, winning most of the big prizes in districts that had been redrawn to squeeze out Republicans or throw them into Democrat-friendly territory.
The party picked up four congressional seats, including three held by GOP freshmen, Tuesday night as President Barack Obama scored an easy home-state victory en route to re-election.
“I knew when I got into this race, when I chose this race a year ago, that we were up against a lot,” said Congressman Joe Walsh, a tea party favorite who lost to Iraq War veteran Tammy Duckworth in one of the most closely watched races in the country. “We were up against a candidate who had a district drawn for her by very powerful people.”
New congressional districts are drawn every 10 years based on the latest census numbers. Democrats dominated Illinois’ map-making this year because they control the General Assembly and the governor’s office. Slowing population growth also cost Illinois one congressional seat, dropping from 19 to 18.
Freshman GOP Congressman Bob Dold lost to Democrat Brad Schneider, and fellow first-term Rep. Bobby Schilling, a pizzeria owner, lost to former health-care executive Cheri Bustos. Seven-term U.S. Rep. Judy Biggert also lost her seat to Democratic challenger Bill Foster, a former congressman.
“It’s a return to the normal state of order for Illinois,” Foster said.
In southern Illinois, former National Guard chief Bill Enyart kept a seat vacated by retiring Rep. Jerry Costello in Democratic hands.
U.S. Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. won another term even though he has been on a leave of absence since June to be treated for bipolar disorder and other health problems.
Republicans did score one victory in a close congressional race as Republican Rodney Davis kept the seat in the party’s hands over Democrat David Gill in a district that stretches across southwestern Illinois.
Democrats were looking to Illinois, along with California and New York, as its best chances to make significant gains in Congress. Both sides dumped tens of millions of dollars into the contested House races, but Republicans failed to maintain the same kind of momentum they enjoyed in 2010 when tea-party support helped them land five new seats.
Obama’s appearance on the ballot also may have contributed to Democratic gains in Congress as some voters linked their votes in both races.
Duckworth said Walsh was “gracious” when he called her to concede, but she said her vision as a member of Congress would be far different.
“Together we bring a new attitude to Washington,” Duckworth told supporters at a rally. “On my first day, I will remind Congress we are here to serve the people.”
With the new legislative map, all 177 seats in the Illinois General Assembly were on the ballot. That produced some fierce battles, but there was little chance Republicans would pick up enough seats to seize control of the state Senate or House.
Exit polling showed Obama carried every age group and won both men and women. But his support among white voters slipped slightly from 2008, and among white men, most favored Republican Mitt Romney.
The economy was the issue most on voters’ minds in a state where the unemployment rate is nearly 9 percent, slightly above the national average.
Randy Yorke, who cast his ballot for Obama, said the president deserves another term.
“I’m much better off now than I was four years ago,” said Yorke, 64, a lawyer from the Chicago suburb of Naperville. “The country’s better off.”
Jim Chmura, 67, of Oak Park, said he struggled with his decision right up until he punched his ticket for Romney, concluding he “could probably break through the gridlock” in Washington more easily to help improve the economy.
“It was not yes this one or yes that one,” said Chmura, a semi-retired printing company manager who voted for Obama in 2008. “But I finally decided my biggest concern was the economy.”
Some linked their votes for president with their picks for Congress.
Schaumburg resident Shelia Gummerson, 59, voted for Obama and Duckworth because she said she was looking for integrity in a candidate.
“The economy is important, but I believe that a candidate’s social views and his or her character are of the utmost importance in this election,” said Gummerson, a retired teacher.
Ken Keller, 61, of Schaumburg voted for Romney and Walsh because he’s worried about state and federal budget deficits.
“There is too much Democratic control in the state of Illinois and they are throwing money away on frivolous programs,” he said.
Democrats retained control of the Illinois Legislature, where arguably the strangest legislative race involved expelled former Rep. Derrick Smith’s bid for another term. The Chicago Democrat won his seat back despite being under indictment on federal bribery charges and being the first lawmaker in more than a century to be booted out of the House. Hoping to avoid embarrassment, party leaders were backing third-party candidate Lance Tyson.
The election season was quieter than usual in Illinois, with no statewide races on the ballot and Obama expected to easily win the state’s 20 electoral votes. Yet Cook County Clerk David Orr, who is responsible for overseeing voting in suburban communities around Chicago, described turnout as “robust.”
Illinois voters also rejected a proposed amendment to the state constitution that would have required a three-fifths vote, instead of a simple majority, for any public body to increase public pension benefits. Some voters found the proposed change confusing.
“It seemed like doubletalk to me,” said Chmura, of Oak Park, who voted against it.