Democrats are targeting four seats in Illinois, where voters will pick their nominees Tuesday in the second congressional primaries of the year.
It’s an early test for the party’s ability to nominate candidates it thinks are viable in the general election. Unlike in Texas, which held the cycle’s first primaries two weeks ago, there are no runoffs in Illinois. So a simple plurality would be enough to advance to the November general election.
The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has added four Republican-held districts to its target list: the 6th, the 12th, the 13th and the 14th. Democratic strategists who know the state admit the 14th is a reach.
The DCCC has only openly picked a favorite in the 12th District. Last cycle, the party failed to even recruit top-tier candidates in the 12th and 13th districts, both of which were drawn to be competitive for Democrats.
EMILY’s List has played an early, influential role in endorsing candidates in five contested Democratic primaries, including in two Solid Democratic seats — the 3rd and the 4th districts.
The 3rd District race has attracted the most national attention. Seven-term Democratic Rep. Dan Lipinski is in the fight of his life against first-time candidate Marie Newman. With social issues a salient difference between the two, the contest has become nationalized as a flashpoint in the fight over the identity of the Democratic Party.
Watch: Blue Dog vs. Progressive — What to Watch in the Illinois Primaries
Democrats need to gain 24 seats (or 23, depending on certification of Pennsylvania’s 18th District special election result) to win the House majority in November.
The 6th District, represented by GOP Rep. Peter Roskam, voted for Hillary Clinton by 7 points in 2016, leading one Democratic strategist working in the state to call it a “must-win” this year. The affluent suburban Chicago district is the only one of the four targeted districts that Clinton carried.
But voters here have shown an inclination to split their tickets. In 2016, they also backed Roskam and GOP incumbent Sen. Mark S. Kirk, who lost his bid for re-election.
Democrat Kelly Mazeski, a former financial adviser and local elected official, has been seen as the front-runner in the primary. A breast cancer survivor, she announced her candidacy the day the House voted to repeal the 2010 health care law, which earned her national headlines. She’d raised $843,000 (including a $295,000 personal loan) by the end of the pre-primary Federal Election Commission report, which ran through February.
Spending from EMILY’s List on direct mail allowed Mazeski to go up early on cable and broadcast. She also has the backing of Illinois Reps. Jan Schakowsky and Cheri Bustos and several of Bustos’ closest female allies in Congress, who have been politically active across the country.
But the delegation is split. Lawyer Carole Cheney, a former district chief of staff to Rep. Bill Foster, has the backing of Foster and Rep. Robin Kelly. She had raised $314,000 by the end of February.
Clean energy entrepreneur Sean Casten has raised the most money. He had raised $902,000 (including a $630,000 personal loan) by the end of February. Several outside groups have launched last-minute spending backing Casten and attacking Mazeski.
Amanda Howland, the 2016 nominee who lost to Roskam by 18 points, is also running. Despite initial concerns from national Democrats that her previous name recognition would give her a boost, she’d only raised $141,000 by the end of February.
The ancestrally Democratic 12th District, held by two-term GOP Rep. Mike Bost, represents the sort of seat that has trended away from the party in recent years that Democrats want to win back. Former President Barack Obama twice carried the seat, and Democrat Tammy Duckworth carried it in her winning Senate bid in 2016. But so did President Donald Trump — and by 15 points.
The DCCC picked a favorite here when it included St. Clair County State’s Attorney Brendan Kelly on its Red to Blue list. The committee had been after him for years, but this cycle, he finally said yes to running.
He had raised $911,000 by the end of the pre-primary reporting period, and doesn’t face much opposition in the primary.
Like in the 12th District, Democrats failed to recruit a top-tier candidate in the 13th District last cycle. GOP Rep. Rodney Davis won a third term by 19 points. It’s another district that’s swung to the GOP at the presidential level. Obama carried it by double digits in 2008, and lost it narrowly four years later. Trump carried it by 6 points.
EMILY’s List got involved early for Betsy Dirksen Londrigan. She also has support from Schakowsky and Senate Minority Whip Richard J. Durbin, for whom she used to be a fundraiser. Londrigan had raised $561,000 by the end of February (including a $15,000 personal contribution).
Former Illinois Assistant Attorney General Erik Jones had raised $477,000 (including a $35,000 personal loan). He's expected to place second or third depending on perennial candidate David Gill, who beat the DCCC’s recruit in 2012. Gill has since alienated many in the local and national party establishment, though, and only raised $82,000.
The DCCC says it’s targeting the 14th District, which Trump won by only 4 points. But this exurban Chicago district is tough and expensive territory. GOP Rep. Randy Hultgren won a fourth term by 19 points in 2016. The race here is rated Solid Republican.
EMILY’s List is backing Lauren Underwood, a nurse and a former Obama administration official who raised more than double her closest Democratic opponent. But engineer Matthew Brolley has the endorsement of the state AFL-CIO and Schakowsky.
Solid blue seats
EMILY’s List is also involved in two primaries for Solid Democratic seats, where first-time candidates are taking on much more entrenched male politicians.
In the 3rd District, EMILY’s List and Planned Parenthood Action Fund are now part of a coalition with NARAL Pro-Choice America, the Human Rights Campaign, the Service Employees International Union and MoveOn.org supporting an independent expenditure campaign attacking Lipinski. Newman also has the endorsement of Vermont independent Sen. Bernie Sanders, who carried the district during the 2016 Democratic presidential primary, and two members of the Illinois delegation.
As the son of the former congressman who held this seat, Lipinski has deep ties to the district and strong support from many labor groups. But the latest public polling, conducted for Newman allies, shows a close race.
The 4th District is the only Democratic primary in an open seat contest. When Rep. Luis V. Gutiérrez announced his retirement at a press conference in November, he backed Cook County Commissioner Jesús “Chuy” Garcia to succeed him.
But that hasn’t stopped first-time candidate Sol Flores from getting into the primary. Her team produced a moving digital spot about her experience with sexual assault, but despite generating some national headlines, it’s not likely to be enough to overcome Garcia’s name and cash advantage.
“Chuy is coming to Congress,” said a Democratic strategist not involved in the race who predicted a bright future for Flores in politics.