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AT THE RACES: IL-10: Congress Needs Some Pest Control

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of
CHICAGO -- With heretofore "safe" Democratic incumbents like Jim Oberstar, Barney Frank, and John Dingell all playing serious defense this cycle, it's unsurprising that precious few Congressional districts are in danger of flipping from R to D in 2010.  One such battle is being waged over Illinois' 10th Congressional District, which features an open seat due to incumbent GOP Rep. Mark Kirk's Senate run. 

The affluent suburban district on Chicago's north shore has elected a moderate Republican Congressman dating back to 1980—even while regularly supporting Democrats at the top of the ticket.  For instance, IL-10 voters backed Al Gore, John Kerry, and Barack Obama for president, while sending Mark Kirk to Congress in each case.  Even in 2006 and 2008—extremely challenging years for Republicans—Kirk managed to stave off challenges from Democratic challenger Dan Seals, who in 2010 hopes that his third race is finally a charm.  His opponent, Robert Dold, is determined to hold the seat for the GOP.

The only recent poll in the race shows a slight Seals lead, but Dold says momentum, and history, are on his side.  "Voters in our district are used to voting against Dan Seals," Dold says, pointing out that Seals underperformed Obama in the district by 14 points in 2008, despite strong support from Obama himself.  Whatever lead Seals may have built this summer, Dold says, "it has eroded."

Dold was born and raised in the 10th district, where he attended New Trier High School.  After earning a J.D. from Indiana University and an MBA from Northwestern, Dold moved back to the district, where he currently runs a successful business with nearly 100 employees.  "We do pest control, which a lot of people think is perfect for Washington, DC," Dold jokes.  He says that his private sector and job-creating experience is a major point of distinction between himself and his Democratic opponent.  "Dan Seals is looking to create one job for himself, first and foremost," Dold says.  "I take a different approach.  I have just under 100 employees, which is 100 families.  That's a huge responsibility.  We need more people in Washington who have made a payroll and know how to draw up a budget."

On that score, Dan Seals' recent employment history has proven to be a bit enigmatic.  He has held no discernable full-time job for the last five years and reported a total personal income of $18,000 in 2009.  Still, the Chicago Tribune reported that Seals and his wife managed to pay their nanny $50,000 during the same period.  Also of note, Seals lives outside the 10th District, which he blames on gerrymandering.  But Dold says the record shows Seals bought his Wilmette, IL home after it was already located in the 9th Congressional District.  "Where are all the photos of Dan Seals leaving the voting booth after voting for himself in 2006 and 2008?" he asks, before answering his own question:  "They don't exist because he was down in the Ninth voting for Jan Schakowsky.  That's not illegal, it's just weird."

The Republican, who describes himself as a fiscal conservative and social moderate, also draws a bright line between himself and his opponent on tax relief and job creation.  Seals campaigned against the Bush tax cuts in 2006 and 2008, but is now equivocating; saying he favors a 1-year extension of all cuts, followed by another evaluation.  Dold argues this approach would inject even more uncertainty into an already fragile economy.  "We want tax cuts for everybody.  'The rich' are small businesses.  They are employers.  We need more of them these days.  When did profit become a bad word?  Profits are the life blood of the American economy," he says.  "My opponent is now running nearly the exact opposite campaign from what he ran even two years ago.  He is a say-anything candidate who takes his orders from the DCCC."  (Ironically, many establishment Democrats backed Seals' opponent, Julie Hamos, in the Democratic primary in a failed attempt to avoid again being saddled with an established loser on the ballot).

Dold's fate may come down to get-out-the-vote efforts and the question of how IL-10's influential independent voters will break.  Seals holds two advantages: Strong name recognition—earned during his previous failed bids—and the district's history of resisting party-line voting.  Since Illinois' Republican gubernatorial and Senate candidates are expected to fare well in the district, some voters may cross over in the House race just to split their ballots, as they've done in the past.  Dold, however, has voter enthusiasm and the overall political climate on his side, in addition to the distinct possibility that many IL-10 voters just won't be able to bring themselves to vote for both Mark Kirk and Dan Seals in the same year.

Campaign aides say internal polling shows the race is a virtual dead heat, which is why Dold vows to, "Run like we're ten points behind, and we won't take a breath until November 3rd."  He says he knew this race would be a dogfight from the get-go, and is often reminded of that fact by his wife, Danielle.  "She sometimes kids me: 'You decided to run for Congress, and you just had to pick the most competitive district in the country,'" he laughs. "But this is home.  This has always been home."

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