It's not often that voters get a chance to pick between two candidates for Congress who have both voted on the same legislation.
But as Democrats and Republicans fight over control of the U.S. House in the suburbs this year, the 11th District contest between Democrat Bill Foster of Naperville and U.S. Rep. Judy Biggert of Hinsdale offers exactly that -- a rare battle between an incumbent lawmaker and a challenger who served in Congress just two years before.
"It's a very clean test," Foster said.
As Democrats gather in Charlotte, N.C., this week, beating Biggert will be toward the top of their priority list. Foster is expected to address Illinois delegates at their daily breakfast today.
The 11th Congressional District -- which stretches from Aurora in the west, runs east through DuPage County and dips south toward Joliet -- is the only suburban one rated as a "toss up" by political handicapper Charlie Cook, political analyst for the National Journal and publisher of The Cook Political Report. While the 11th District contains 50 percent of Biggert's old 13th Congressional District, it is also 25 percent Hispanic, a statistic that could work to Foster's advantage.
A scientist and businessman, Foster spent 22 years working as a physicist at Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory in Batavia.
"We need a little more science in the United States Congress," Democratic U.S. Rep. Jan Schakowsky of Evanston told Illinois delegates at their Tuesday breakfast. Foster sometimes downplays his two years in office, trying to portray himself as a Washington, D.C., outsider running against the longtime lawmaker Biggert, who has served since 1999.
Biggert, in turn, paints herself as a moderate known for reaching across the aisle for bipartisan solutions. "I have been known to work with the other side of the aisle, and the independent voters and some of the soft Democrats and the Republicans," she remarked in an Aug. 26 At Issue Interview with WBBM Newsradio 780 AM. "I have an opportunity here to be a voice of reason, to listen to my constituents."
Foster was swept into office in 2008 on the Obama Democratic wave in a district that was far more rural than the one he's vying for now. Foster's win, initially in a 2008 special election for a seat being vacated by Republican House Speaker Dennis Hastert of Plano, was a major point of pride for Democrats nationally.
But the GOP got the district back when Foster lost a race for re-election in 2010 on the midterm Republican wave to U.S. Rep. Randy Hultgren of Winfield.
Now, Foster will again be on the same ballot as Obama, looking to get a seat back in Congress.
He points to votes both he and Biggert took over legislation like the federal DREAM Act on illegal immigration, which he favors.
"Here's a clear case of when you have one person who voted for it and one who voted against it," he said.
Despite that, Biggert says she believes suburban Hispanics could be swayed to vote for her,
"I've been out meeting with them. ... I think the Latinos are a group that's very close to Republicans in their family values. It's been a shame they really haven't been talking to Republicans as much as I plan to do," she said. Both Biggert and Foster voted on other controversial legislation, too -- Foster for Obama's health care reform plan and Biggert against, for example.
The race could be a sort of bellwether for the other suburban races that both political parties consider must-wins: Democrat Tammy Duckworth of Hoffman Estates versus Republican U.S. Rep. Joe Walsh of McHenry in the 8th District and Democrat Brad Schneider of Deerfield versus Republican U.S. Rep. Robert Dold of Kenilworth in the 10th District.
Foster will be in Charlotte this week, as Biggert was at the Republican National Convention in Tampa last week, telling delegates she was taking every possible precaution to make sure the seat stayed red.
Although a handful of candidates on both sides have skipped their conventions to stay home to campaign instead, both Biggert and Foster say they don't see any harm in the political parties getting together for a few days once every four years.
Last week in Tampa, Biggert addressed the Illinois Republican delegation one morning, acknowledging that a new "cockeyed map" drawn by Democrats -- the party in control of redistricting in Illinois -- has dealt her a tough hand. But the self-described "tough Swede" wasn't shying away from the fight.
"We're not going to let that happen," Biggert told delegates.