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updated: 11/5/2010 3:53 PM

Why Harris won the 66th House District

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  • David Harris was the only suburban Republican to unseat a Democratic incumbent in the Illinois House.

      David Harris was the only suburban Republican to unseat a Democratic incumbent in the Illinois House.
    George LeClaire | Staff Photographer


Was it David Harris' strength as a candidate, Republican demographics in Illinois House District 66 or the turnoff caused by negative Democratic campaigning that brought victory?

Harris was the only suburban Republican to overcome massive funding from the Democratic Party and unseat an incumbent in the Illinois House.

As of Oct. 28 Democratic organizations had given Rep. Mark Walker's campaign $347,495, while Republicans put $198,023 into Harris' coffers, according to the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform. Walker declared $670,853 in itemized contributions through Oct. 31, while Harris reported $330,050, the ICPR said.

Paul M. Green, director of the Roosevelt University School of Policy Studies, said David Harris had several unique qualities that helped him overcome the money gap. He is a former state legislator, and was the general in charge of the Illinois National Guard; he was better known in his district than other GOP candidates were in theirs and has a more distinguished pedigree.

"Harris was not a fringe candidate," said Green. "He was a legitimate opponent who could deal with suburban women. For Democrats in the suburbs, women are key."

Green added the 66th House district Arlington Heights, Mount Prospect, Elk Grove Village, Rolling Meadows and a little Schaumburg and Des Plaines can still be identified as Republican, even given Mark Walker's victory in 2008.

"I know that district it's fairly conservative, basically a Republican district," Green said.

Green added, that despite popular opinion among Northwest suburban Republicans, the Democrats' negative campaign against Harris probably didn't work to their disadvantage. As a rule, negative campaigning never hurts, he said.

Kent Redfield, professor of political science at the University of Illinois at Springfield, did not disagree with Green, but added that the negative ads in this case probably had less effect than usual.

"Negative advertising works better if you don't know anything about the opposition," said Redfield. "If people have already got the idea the person is a reasonable person, that doesn't ring true with voters.

"It's hard to sell negatives if somebody's already defined themselves. Filling in the blank spaces is easier."

On paper, Redfield added, this always looked like a very tough district for the Democrats to hold this year.

"This is still a pretty Republican district," he said, echoing Green. "Suburban districts swing more than downstate. They are becoming more Democratic, more diverse.

"This is one that the Democrats thought would be the toughest. A former state legislator running has baggage, but he wasn't a newbie making first-time mistakes. This was too big a hill to climb considering who came out and what the district looks like."

Harris agreed the district leans Republican but said the demographics are changing, and it's not hard-core GOP. He thinks the Democrats' negative fliers and mailers really hurt Walker.

"I've been in the legislature, I'm retired as a two-star general," Harris, of Arlington Heights said. I'm known in this area. Maybe in other districts some of the other folks running were not such a known quantity."

He also thinks that the relentless number of attack fliers started to irritate people.

"You can call a guy a dirtball and after a while people say 'You think he's a dirtball, give it a rest; we got the message.'"

Walker, also of Arlington Heights, said he didn't want to fight the battle over again, but said Harris put out as many negative pieces as he did.

However, he said Harris himself was the difference in District 66.

"I had a very strong opponent," said Walker. "A lot of people were running against newcomers without a background."

He thinks the real reason he lost is the Republican base came out very strong, while Democrats, especially young voters, didn't seem to come out.

"People said they like me but they were voting against Obama or Obama Care or (Michael) Madigan. Many, many people told me that to my face."

Rob Nesvacil, a friend of Walker's who serves on the Arlington Heights Park District Board, said Harris is well known in the area.

"He grew up in the area, raised his family here, and they're very involved. A lot of people know him. They like him. I like David Harris, too."

Steve Brown, spokesman for Madigan, agreed the 66th House leans Republican, but said all the state races were tough this year, with an abundance of personal attacks and smears on Madigan "totally ignoring what his leadership has meant."

"I don't think they (Walker's ads) were any nastier than things the Republicans said about Mark Walker for two years," Brown added. "Fliers and advertising are the only place candidates can go to defend themselves against charges funded by unknown groups."

Paul Caprio, director of Family-PAC, which contributed to Harris, said in marginal districts this year it was more difficult for a Democratic incumbent to defend the party's record than for a newcomer. He described Family-PAC as a pro-family, low-tax political action committee.

"To some degree these lawmakers can be protected by the Democratic leadership, but still they had a record and must assume some of the responsibility for the fact that there's one-party government in Springfield, and the finances of the state have fallen off the tracks."