Democrats hope for big House election gains in Illinois

CHICAGO Mon Mar 19, 2012 3:38pm EDT

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CHICAGO (Reuters) - Two Republican congressman, including a Tea Party-backed rookie, face off in the Illinois primary on Tuesday thanks to a gerrymandered political map Democrats hope will yield a gain of several seats in the state to help win back a House of Representatives majority.

Democrats are looking for a gain of as many as five Republican House seats this November in Illinois, the only Midwestern state with Democratic control of both the governor's office and the legislature.

Their drive to roll back Republican gains begins on Tuesday, when longtime Representative Don Manzullo meets Tea Party-backed freshman Adam Kinzinger in the second primary in the nation pitting two incumbents against each other.

The first of an expected total of 11 incumbent-versus-incumbent primary contests, held in Ohio earlier this month, resulted in Cleveland liberal and two-time Democratic presidential candidate Dennis Kucinich losing to Marcy Kaptur, the longest-serving woman in Congress.

To regain a House majority, Democrats need to take 25 Republican-held seats, a tall order because Republicans controlled the redrawing of maps after the 2010 Census in more states than Democrats. The Republicans won control in 2010, and currently hold 242 seats to 192 for the Democrats 192.

But in Illinois, Democrats gerrymandered the political map in a way that was "brutal for Republicans," said Kent Redfield, a political scientist at the University of Illinois at Springfield.

"They protected Democratic incumbents, and they created mischief for Republicans. It has the potential to swing the congressional delegation," Redfield said.

Republicans now hold 11 Illinois congressional seats and Democrats eight after Republicans gained five seats in 2010. Illinois loses a seat as a result of the 2010 population census.

Illinois is President Barack Obama's home state, and he won the state handily in 2008, but Republicans have made inroads including Republican Mark Kirk's election to Obama's former Senate seat. Democrats raised the state income tax last year and Illinois is deep in debt.

FOCUS ON PRESIDENTIAL PRIMARY

Most attention on Tuesday will be on the Illinois Republican presidential primary, with Mitt Romney favored to beat Rick Santorum based on a Chicago Tribune poll taken in early March.

But the two incumbent Republican congressmen are also aggressively wooing voters in a new district.

Ten-term veteran Manzullo has aired a slew of attack ads aimed at his opponent's integrity. Kinzinger, who is in his first term and was elected with backing from the conservative Tea Party, casts Manzullo as lazy and out of touch.

"This race is about a new generation of conservatives that don't have a connection to the past," Kinzinger said in a telephone interview.

"It's a close race, and it's going to come down to the wire," he said, noting that whoever wins the primary is likely to be elected in November.

Some of Kinzinger's Tea Party supporters accuse him of caving in to the party "establishment" by reversing earlier opposition and voting last August for an increase in the amount of debt the U.S. can issue.

"They're both good, conservative Republicans and it's a shame they have to run against each other," state Republican Party Chairman Pat Brady said of Kinzinger and Manzullo.

In 2010, Kinzinger defeated incumbent Democrat Debbie Halvorson. She is now challenging veteran Jesse Jackson, Jr., the son of the Chicago-based civil rights activist of the same name, in another district altered by the new political map.

Jackson has been forced to campaign harder for a ninth term than he has in years and was expected to win Tuesday's primary, despite a pair of scandals dogging him, Redfield said.

The ethics committee is looking into whether Jackson acted improperly in the scandal involving former Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich's attempt to sell Obama's vacant Senate seat.

Jackson told the committee and testified at Blagojevich's trial last year that he had no knowledge of an alleged offer of millions of dollars in fundraising in return for Blagojevich appointing Jackson to the Senate seat. Blagojevich is serving a 14-year prison sentence for political corruption.

Jackson was also investigated over plane tickets paid for by a fundraiser for a woman with whom he was having an affair a few years ago. Jackson's contrition over the affair appears to have assuaged his constituency, political analysts said.

A nonpartisan political action committee, the Campaign for Primary Accountability, has embarked on a door-to-door effort to get voters to oust both incumbents: Jackson and Manzullo.

Polling by the PAC found constituents were unhappy with both - reflecting a national frustration at the gridlock in Washington and the job being done by Congress, said Curtis Ellis, a spokesman for the Campaign PAC.

Despite the dissatisfaction with Congress, only one incumbent member of Congress other than Ohio's Kucinich has lost a primary this year. Republican Jean Schmidt of Cincinnati, Ohio, was defeated earlier this month by a little-known Tea party candidate.

(Reporting By Andrew Stern; Editing by Greg McCune and Eric Walsh)

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