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updated: 7/28/2011 11:52 AM

8th Congressional race presents tough choices for Dems

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  • Tammy Duckworth

    Tammy Duckworth

  • Raja Krishnamoorthi

    Raja Krishnamoorthi

  • 8th Congressional District

    Graphic: 8th Congressional District (click image to open)


The new 8th Congressional District, drawn without an incumbent living in it, contains some of the most independent voters in the Northwest and West suburbs in a swath that runs from Wheeling to Elgin to Addison.

So, it's of little surprise that the 8th District, whose new territory was carried by Democratic presidential candidates in both 2004 and 2008, is shaping up as a 2012 Democratic battleground.

Two strong contenders, both from Hoffman Estates, are facing off for a primary -- former Illinois Deputy Treasurer Raja Krishnamoorthi and Iraq War veteran and former Obama administration member Tammy Duckworth.

Each brings to the table charisma, diversity and the battle scars of a tough previous campaign. Duckworth narrowly lost a bitter, costly congressional race to Wheaton Republican Peter Roskam in 2006; Krishnamoorthi was defeated in the 2010 Democratic primary for state comptroller.

Such concentrated strength presents challenges not only for Duckworth and Krishnamoorthi, but for the Democratic Party, as both candidates spend early energy and resources vying to be top dog.

The next few months, analysts say, likely will bring a costly and negative race of political chicken in the attempt to avoid an 8th District Democratic primary bloodbath.

"I don't think anyone thinks it's a good idea to spend what's going to have to be spent on this kind of a race in a primary, when we really need to save that money for the general election," Chicago political consultant Kitty Kurth said.

So far, it's not clear who that opponent in the general election will be. Incumbent Republican Joe Walsh of McHenry has not said whether he'll seek re-election in the newly drawn 8th District. His home and his strongest base of support now fall in the 14th District, a seat held by Winfield Republican Randy Hultgren.

Among the Democrats, Duckworth is relying on name recognition and the support of national party figures as key campaign strategies, while Krishnamoorthi is building on ties in the area's large Indian and Pakistani communities and the early support of local party officials. At the same time, each is touting the selling point of being the one connecting with voters.

The right time

Within hours of state lawmakers' release of new Congressional district boundaries in May, rumors began swirling that Duckworth was contemplating another bid.

But the Iraq War veteran's position with the Obama administration's Department of Veterans Affairs prevented her from engaging in any sort of political activity.

When Duckworth stepped down from that position last month and formally announced her 8th District candidacy weeks later, Krishnamoorthi already had more than two months of active campaigning and fundraising under his belt.

"I think it was important for me to get out in front, introduce myself. I am not someone who is accustomed to waiting for people to come meet me," he said.

By June, Krishnamoorthi had announced endorsements from local Democrats, including Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, DuPage County's and Kane County's Democratic chairs, three state central committeemen and a majority of Cook County's Democratic committeemen.

His second-quarter financial reports displayed a war chest of more than $400,000, with money coming primarily from members of the suburban Asian community.

Duckworth doesn't consider herself behind the gun in terms of fundraising or campaigning.

"Tammy has never had a problem raising money," said Democratic strategist Pete Giangreco, who is working with Duckworth, a veteran who lost both legs in Iraq when a rocket-propelled grenade struck the helicopter she was flying.

"She raised $4.5 million the last time she ran. Her story is a compelling one," Giangreco said.

Duckworth Wednesday announced she'd gained the support of Emily's List, an organization dedicated to electing pro-choice Democratic women, that will highlight Duckworth as one of the top races in the country on its website and in other communications.

It's a long time between now and November, Duckworth said in an interview -- noting her stamina has been proven by her strong 2006 race.

"What I'm spending my days doing now is talking to friends and neighbors. What they're worried about is the debt ceiling and the economy and the current congressman going on YouTube and blasting the president."

The name game

While Duckworth says she has a number of volunteers and campaign officials from her 2006 campaign that have returned to work for her, she declined to discuss names or approach in detail.

"I don't think (voters) really care about who's doing what on my campaign," she said.

On July 14, her campaign released a poll of 400 Democrats in the new district indicating that she led voters in name recognition by 76 percent, compared to 15 percent for Krishnamoorthi, and performed particularly well among "frequent primary voters, women, older voters and liberals." While the Krishnamoorthi campaign branded the information as biased, Giangreco said those results show people "remember the kind of campaign she ran six years ago and have been inspired by the fact that she came back."

More than half of the 8th Congressional district is composed of the Cook and DuPage county areas Duckworth won over Roskam in 2006.

Yet, the new district carries other features that Krishnamoorthi hopes will work to his advantage.

According to 2010 census figures, the district features a 13-percent Asian-American population, which the Krishnamoorthi campaign calls one of the most predominately Asian districts in the Midwest.

"There's not a single member of the General Assembly or any elected official at the state level who's of Asian-American descent. But this community is definitely looking for representation," Krishnamoorthi, born in India and raised in Peoria, said.

Still, challenges remain in getting members of the Indian and Pakistani suburban community to the voting booth, Krishnamoorthi acknowledges.

"Until now they have not voted their numbers. Unfortunately, they haven't registered to vote in the way that they should and they don't vote even if they registered. That's a big source of concern and something that has to be addressed," Krishnamoorthi said.

Bowing out

As the months wear on, Kurth said "a lot of discussions among both party leaders and also among big Democratic contributors" will likely be in store, and one of the Democrats might face pressure to step down.

If any of those talks are occurring, however preliminary they are, party leaders and insiders are hesitant to disclose them at this point.

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee does not typically get involved in primary races and noted, in a statement, only that the 8th District features "two strong Democrats."

Steve Brown, spokesman for Democratic Party Chair Michael Madigan, noted "typically the state party doesn't play any role in these primary races."

Cook County Democratic Chairman Joe Berrios did not return calls seeking comment.

"I think it's a bad idea for both of them to be running," Kurth said. "If the two of them are going at it I would not be surprised if other people get in the race and sneak right in between the two."