With a congressional map drawn by Illinois' Democrats, national party leaders months ago proclaimed the road to a Democratic House majority in 2012 went right through Illinois.
As election day draws near, most political experts believe Republicans will maintain control of the House majority Tuesday, but Democrats still hope to make inroads. And the suburbs remain the battlegrounds for a number of those targeted seats, with Republicans fighting hard to defend their gains from 2010 despite newly drawn districts that in many cases were designed to favor Democrats.
With all that is at stake, candidates in districts stretching from Antioch to Joliet are feeling the heat.
Congressional candidates largely have focused on the economy, but social issues and outside influences -- including millions in SuperPAC cash -- have altered the landscape, making many races caustic and costly.
Here's our recap of the suburban races we've spent the past six months covering on the ground.
Incumbent Republican U.S. Rep. Peter Roskam and opponent Democrat Leslie Coolidge are light years apart on issues.
Roskam is a 51-year-old Wheaton attorney and high-ranking House conservative leader who sits on the powerful Ways and Means Committee. Coolidge, 53, is a Barrington Hills accountant who holds a degree from Harvard University and is a retired KPMG partner.
Roskam thinks the government needs to reform the tax code and reduce regulations on business to stimulate the economy. Coolidge advocates investing in infrastructure and education in order to create jobs.
Coolidge supports President Barack Obama's health care reforms, saying the bill isn't perfect but people will like it as they learn more about it. Roskam thinks "Obamacare" is unsustainable and supports U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan's budget. Although some critics say Ryan's plan will turn Medicare into a voucher system, Roskam said it gives those 54 and younger a choice.
Roskam has a big war chest ; Coolidge has loaned her campaign money.
The 6th Congress includes parts of Northwest Cook, central DuPage, east Kane, southwest Lake, and southeast McHenry counties.
After U.S. Rep. Joe Walsh's home was mapped into a district with another Republican freshman congressman, the McHenry Tea Partyer announced last December he'd make a bid for re-election two districts over, against Democratic Iraq War veteran Tammy Duckworth of Hoffman Estates.
That matchup turned into a nationally watched race drawing funding and SuperPAC backing from around the country.
Duckworth and Walsh present clear contrasts in both campaign styles and on the issues.
Walsh, nationally known for his passionate and sometimes-caustic rhetoric, doesn't mince words at his frequent town hall meetings. He campaigns as an "average Joe," driven two years ago to make a run for Congress after he sensed a "revolution" spreading across the country.
He says his own financial troubles -- past tax liens, a recently resolved child support suit with his ex-wife and another with a former campaign manager, and a home foreclosure -- connect him to the struggles of many in the district he represents.
Walsh says government should function to protect citizens' rights. He is pro-gun, anti-abortion, opposes health care reform legislation, and, in his numerous votes against raising the debt ceiling, has pledged "not to put another dollar of debt on the backs of our kids and our grandkids."
Duckworth, a former director of the Illinois VA and assistant secretary for U.S. Veterans Affairs under President Barack Obama, has made small focus groups with ethnic groups and community leaders a hallmark of her candidacy.
She favors Obama's health care legislation, but has expressed concern that it unfairly burdens small businesses with high numbers of employees, like restaurants. While she describes Medicare as a "promise," she says she would cut costs by allowing the program to negotiate for cheaper prescription drug prices and cracking down on Medicare fraud.
She advocates for the George W. Bush tax cuts to expire for the wealthiest Americans, but sets the threshold at $1 million -- above Obama's stated $250,000. She favors immigration reform, but says there should be a tough path to citizenship.
While Duckworth has highlighted Walsh's financial past, including his child support suit issue, Walsh has painted Duckworth as a Rod "Blagojevich disciple" and has heavily pushed a lawsuit filed against her when she was head of the Illinois VA, that he says contains evidence that she fired a whistle-blower. Duckworth has called that suit "common to the head of any agency."
The entry of SuperPACs -- outside entities allowed to spend unlimited amounts to support or oppose candidates -- into the race has flooded suburban mailboxes and airwaves with hard-hitting ads.
As Walsh has painted Duckworth as a "tax cheat" for claiming two homeowner exemptions for several years, she has hit back with ads and a mailer describing Walsh as a financial "deadbeat."
The new 8th District, which stretches from Barrington Hills to Oak Brook and includes parts of Kane, Cook and DuPage counties, takes in more than 55 percent of the former 6th Congressional District, where Duckworth unsuccessfully ran against Republican U.S. Rep. Peter Roskam in 2006. That bitter, costly race made headlines around the country, as has this one.
The race to represent the 9th Congressional District pitting veteran incumbent Democrat U.S. Rep. Jan Schakowsky against political newcomer Republican Timothy Wolfe has been a sparring match from the start.
During the campaign, the candidates starkly differed on issues such as immigration, health care, and entitlement programs like Social Security and Medicare.
Schakowsky, 68, of Evanston, has held the 9th District seat for 14 years. Wolfe, 59, of Arlington Heights, runs his own tax and accounting practice.
Wolfe has called for the repeal of Obama's federal health care law, while Schakowsky is its strongest proponent.
Wolfe believes in reining in entitlement programs and raising the retirement age for Social Security to make it the same as the age for Medicare eligibility. Schakowsky is against cutting Medicare or raising the Social Security retirement age, though she believes Democrats would be willing to discuss Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security spending.
The candidates also have disagreed on the DREAM Act, which Schakowsky supports to provide a pathway to residency for some undocumented immigrants and Wolfe opposes because it would reward illegal immigration. Wolfe also called for not extending citizenship as a birthright to children born in the United States whose parents entered the country illegally, an idea Schakowsky said is unconstitutional and would undo hundreds of years of U.S. policy granting citizenship to those born here.
The newly drawn 9th District includes parts of Arlington Heights, Des Plaines, Glenview, Mount Prospect, Niles, Palatine, Park Ridge, Prospect Heights, Rolling Meadows, Rosemont and Wheeling, as well as areas east of the Tri-State Tollway.
Republican incumbent U.S. Rep. Robert Dold is being challenged by Democrat Brad Schneider in the 10th District, which includes parts of Lake and Cook counties. The district -- under the new congressional map, loses traditional Republican voting strongholds in the North Shore, has been labeled the most Democratic leaning district currently held by a Republican.
Dold, a freshman lawmaker from Kenilworth, has campaigned as a moderate who supports abortion rights, the environment and bipartisanship. Schneider, of Deerfield, echoes those views and criticizes Republicans in Congress as obstructing movement on key issues.
Schneider angered Dold by trying to tie him to the Tea Party, saying Dold has voted with conservatives on a number of key issues.
In a contest where the business backgrounds of both candidates has been an issue, Schneider has refused to release his tax returns, saying he files jointly with his wife and that she deserves her privacy. Dold released his to reporters.
Dold and Schneider have agreed on other issues, as well. In the heavily Jewish 10th District, both support a strong Israel-U.S. relationship, and both favor immigration reform.
For the first time since Highland Park Democrat Lauren Beth Gash lost by 2 percentage points to now U.S. Sen. Mark Kirk in 2000, the Republican incumbent faces an opponent who has deep ties to the local Jewish community. Schneider boasts "more trips to Israel than he can count" and past work in a kibbutz as he challenges Dold in a newly drawn, more 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.
Republican U.S. Rep. Judy Biggert and Democratic former U.S. Rep. Bill Foster take opposing views on most of the major issues facing the nation.
The two are competing for the 11th Congressional District, which includes parts of DuPage, Kane, Kendall and Will counties.
On job creation and taxes, Biggert, of Hinsdale, favors extending the George W. Bush tax cuts for all income earners, saying it will keep small businesses from getting hit with a tax increase. Foster, of Naperville, favors extending the tax cuts only for incomes less than $250,000. Foster voted for the Affordable Care Act, while Biggert favors repealing the law but keeping coverage for pre-existing conditions and for children on parents' policies up to age 26.
The two also differ on Social Security and social issues. Biggert favors creating private retirement accounts where individuals can choose to invest a small portion of their Social Security contributions in the stock market. Foster believes any privatization risks seniors losing everything in another Wall Street collapse. He favors annual "means testing" of a person's wealth to determine if he or she should receive Social Security benefits.
Foster supports and voted for the DREAM Act, which would have provided a path to citizenship for young, undocumented immigrants. Biggert voted against the DREAM Act. Both candidates favor comprehensive immigration reform and enhanced border security.
Foster favors legalizing gay marriage. Biggert supports civil unions, but recently said her views are trending toward favoring gay marriage if legal concerns such as estate planning can be sorted out.
In the race for the 14th Congressional District, Republican incumbent U.S. Rep. Randy Hultgren of Winfield and challenger Dennis Anderson, a Democrat from Gurnee, have different ideas on the nation's economic recovery.
The 14th Congressional District stretches from Wadsworth in the northeast to Minooka in the south, covering all or parts of Kane, DuPage, Lake, McHenry, Will, DeKalb and Kendall counties.
Hultgren, who was first elected to the seat in 2010, said small-business owners have expressed their inability to grow their business and hire new employees because of government restrictions and regulations. Hultgren said small-business owners often complain about the complicated tax system that is constantly changing.
Anderson, a retired medical researcher, said small businesses need easier access to cash and customers to help them grow. While it has become increasingly difficult for a small business to get approved for a loan, banks are sitting on $1.5 trillion in profits, Anderson said.
Tax breaks should also be extended for the lower- and middle-class earners who have been hardest hit in the economic crisis, Anderson said. Hultgren, however, said now is the time to reform the tax system and increase the tax base.
• Daily Herald staff writers Larissa Chinwah, James Fuller, Madhu Krishnamurthy, Kerry Lester, Russell Lissau and Marni Pyke contributed.