For seven straight terms, Democratic Congresswoman Jan Schakowsky has been elected to represent a liberal-leaning North Shore district by wide margins, beating each of her Republican opponents by at least 35 percentage points.
Thanks to a new congressional map, that ratio is expected to change this year. The new 9th District, which stretches further into the Northwest suburbs than ever before, picks up about 100,000 new registered voters, many of them considered independent swing voters who pull Democratic and Republican ballots in different election years.
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Schakowsky faces a March 20 primary election bid against Evanston Democrat Simon Ribeiro. If she wins in the primary, Schakowsky said she'd hope to net independent swing votes in the November general election by outlining Democrats' work, but not necessarily finessing or recasting the party line in a different light.
"I want to be responsive to what the concerns are and obviously meet people where they're at," Schakowsky said, "but I think I and the Democrats have a great story to tell. I don't feel like I need to back away from that."
A new congressional map, passed by the Illinois legislature and signed by Gov. Pat Quinn last summer, was drawn to reflect 2010 census figures and help the Democratic Party gain seats in Congress. As the party in charge of the Illinois House, Senate, and governor's office, the Democrats guided the once-a-decade process, molding many of the districts to their political advantage.
By grouping strong Democratic areas in Chicago with moderate suburbs where both parties are more equally represented among voters, Illinois Democrats stand to boost their number of seats in Congress from the current eight to an expected 12. This comes even as the state loses a seat because of slow population growth.
The new 9th District, however, is more Republican than in past years. It extends from the North Shore in the shape of a flexed arm, containing almost all of Arlington Heights, along with portions of Mount Prospect, Prospect Heights, Glenview and Northbrook. It loses Norridge, Harwood Heights, and portions of Des Plaines, unincorporated Maine Township and Rosemont.
Schakowsky's political director, Alex Armour, said the old 9th District had a population of 628,859 residents, compared to 712,813 in the new district.
Experts say Democrats calculate they'll be able to win in the 9th District even with a bit more of a Republican voter base, and the new boundaries help dilute other solidly Republican areas. For instance, Republican Congressman Robert Dold no longer lives in his current North suburban 10th District, but in the next-door 9th District. With no requirement that a congressman must live in the district he or she represents, Dold, of Kenilworth, is running in the new 10th District, where four candidates are vying in the Democratic primary for the chance to beat him in the general election.
Schakowsky says she hopes to attract moderate and swing votes by emphasizing her stances on women's access to contraception and abortion rights, a hotbed of controversy in recent Republican presidential debates. Ribeiro also supports abortion rights and contraceptive access, but says he would work to ban partial-birth abortions if elected.
He also opposes government funding of abortions, except in the cases of rape or incest or to save the life or health of the mother, because, he said, "abortion is such a divisive issue."
"The culture wars are not appealing, particularly to independent women and independent men," Schakowsky said. "There is definitely some concern about the shift on the social issues to many conservative independents and swing voters."
Eighth District Democratic Congresswoman Melissa Bean, running for a fourth term against a Republican tide in 2010, chose not to publicize her work on health care reform in many of her mailings and media buys. She lost to Republican Joe Walsh, of McHenry, by less than 550 votes.
"You know, there was this larger wave going on in 2010," Schakowsky said. "Let's face it. It's hard to really know how much this whole national wave affected and swamped wonderful representatives like Melissa (Bean)."
Both Schakowsky and Ribeiro promote access to health care for all Americans as campaign platforms.
Schakowsky said she doesn't plan to recast the issue in a different light as she courts a new constituency.
"Part of it in 2010 was Republicans hammered away that the Democrats cut Medicare by half a trillion dollars. We're seeing it again in some House races," she said. " ... But not one benefit was cut. A lot of it is, and I think we're going to have to make a special effort to make it very clear, that the Republicans actually voted in the (Paul) Ryan Republican budget to end Medicare as we know it."