In a district where nearly one-quarter of voters are Jewish, the wild card in the nailbiter 10th Congressional race might well be Israel.
In the past, the North Shore district bucked voting trends, with Highland Park Republican Mark Kirk peeling away traditional Jewish Democratic votes by combining a socially moderate platform with efforts to strengthen Israel -- a combination that helped the now-U.S. senator win election five times.
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"I am a staunch Democrat, but I supported Kirk in 2002 and 2004," said Steve Sheffey, a Highland Park blogger and activist.
"In my opinion those Democrats weren't good enough on Israel."
This time around, it's harder for some voters to make that criticism.
For the first time since Lauren Beth Gash lost by 2 percentage points to Kirk in 2000, the Republican incumbent -- Congressman Bob Dold of Kenilworth -- faces an opponent who has deep ties to the local Jewish community. Brad Schneider, of Deerfield, boasts "more trips to Israel than he can count" and past work in a kibbutz as he challenges Dold in a newly drawn, mAore Democratic-leaning 10th District.
Dold, who has molded himself in the image of Kirk, is well-respected for his work on behalf of Israel over his 20 months in office, including pushing for tougher Iran sanctions and calling for fully funding the nation's security commitment to Israel.
Having two candidates who can claim Israel as a strength means other issues -- the economy, the environment and women's rights among them -- are in the spotlight.
Democratic organizers hope that will work to Schneider's advantage.
"For the majority of Jews there are significant issues that matter deeply," said Gash, now chairman of the 10th District Democrats, "and those issues include the environment and the social issues, and those voters will go with Brad."
The 10th Congressional District, Dold frequently tells voters on the campaign trail, has a long history of "thoughtful, independent leadership."
That leadership, however, has been in the hands of Republicans for more than three decades.
Before Dold's two years, Kirk represented the district for 10 years. Before that, former U.S. Rep. John Porter served in the 10th District for 22 years. It was Abner Mikva, leaving office in 1979, who last represented the 10th District for the Democrats.
The new 10th District -- with boundaries redrawn by Democrats during the 2010 redistricting process -- is different, though, Schneider says.
"It's not even a sibling of the old 10th," he argues. "It's a cousin."
The new district runs from the Wisconsin line as far south as Maine Township and includes the North Shore as well as parts of Libertyville, Vernon, Fremont, Avon, Grant, Warren and Lake Villa townships. Its boundaries were drawn by Democrats, the party that controls the Illinois legislature, to maximize chances of their party's victory.
Congressional representatives are not required by law to live in the districts they represent. If he wins re-election, Dold will no longer reside in his current North suburban district, but in that of Democratic U.S. Rep. Jan Schakowsky next door.
In the 2010 remap, Schakowsky absorbed some traditionally Republican voting areas -- and Dold's district, in turn, has absorbed more Democratic territory, including heavily Hispanic Waukegan, Round Lake and Round Lake Beach and heavily Jewish areas of the North Shore.
In the past, Kirk was endorsed by the Sierra Club, the League of Conservation Voters and the gay-rights group the Human Rights Campaign -- all of which have so far endorsed Schneider.
So far, To Protect Our Heritage PAC has endorsed Dold, and pro-abortion rights Jewish group Jac-Pac has endorsed Schneider. The candidates so far have not yet agreed to joint appearances before Jewish groups in the area. Schneider's supporters fault Dold for this, and Dold's fault Schneider.
Peggy Shapiro, a self-described independent and co-chairman of pro-Israel To Protect Our Heritage, says she's voted for more Democrats than Republicans in her life, but plans to vote for Dold come November.
"You can't look at a voting record with Schneider," she said. If you look at Dold's stances on Israel, she said "you have a person loyal to your issue and very strong."
But Gash says that argument is harder to make this time around.
"The feeling (among some) is that you can never be certain of how a newly elected official will perform on an issue that they talk about."
However, she said, "this particular race is significantly different in that Brad Schneider has a 20-plus-year history of working on behalf of issues that are important to Israel."
Republicans dispute that point.
In an email blast Monday, the Illinois GOP suggested Schneider's past statements supporting liberal Jewish advocacy group J-Street mean that he is "out of step with the Israeli and American Jewish mainstream."
Voters, Illinois GOP Chairman Pat Brady said, "have a clear choice between a steadfast supporter of Israel in Congressman Dold and a self-proclaimed progressive who will say and do anything to get elected."