It's tough, as a constituent, being represented by an entrenched incumbent in Congress. The incumbent typically builds up a huge war chest from supporters and lobbying groups who depend on his or her votes to keep them in business. In Illinois' 9th District, two of our three representatives on Capitol Hill have been there way too long: U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin (D.-Ill.), first elected in 1996, re-elected in 2008 to his third term; and U.S. Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D.-Ill.), first elected in 1998, running for re-election to her seventh term.
Seven terms, Jan? Really?
Trying to bounce an entrenched incumbent from her congressional seat is next to impossible. After a census, the district is gerrymandered to favor her. When Illinois reduced the size of the 9th District following the 2000 census, Rep. Schakowsky was able to keep her core support of lakefront liberals by keeping Lake Shore Drive (down to Diversey) in her district. Those voters really should be in the 5th, like their neighbors to the west. The incumbent enjoys widespread name recognition of everyone who voted in the last decade. In the 9th, it gets worse: since 1948, the district has had just two different representatives in Congress*--the sainted Sidney Yates, and now Jan Schakowsky. Thousands of liberals have pulled the same lever their entire lives, voting for just two different liberal Democrats like themselves.
People who would like a chance at the seat usually don't bother. Jan typically runs unchallenged or receives token opposition, like from that guy in 2006 who refused to accept campaign contributions. (I'm tempted to use the word "idiot" to describe him. He wasn't stupid, but obviously had no interest in people taking him seriously.)
This year is different. This year Jan will be up against Joel Pollack, a young man (Niles North '95) who is running to win. In order to send Jan into happy retirement--to spend more time with her grandchildren--Joel needs to convince a healthy number of Jan's liberal Democratic faithful to stay home or vote Republican for the first time ever.
How is Joel going to manage a miracle on that scale? I don't know. No one else ever has. It's like trying to beat a computer at tic-tac-toe, a game a computer can easily master. (Whether Big Blue completely mastered chess is debatable.) I can think of a couple of issues that Jan should address head-on and has not needed to or been asked to:
1. The finance-related felonies (bank fraud and tax evasion) for which Jan's husband, Robert Creamer, went to prison. Is it really possible Rep. Schakowsky had no knowledge of his crimes? If not, what did she know and when did she know it?
2. How has the 9th District improved since Jan was sworn in as its congresswoman 11 years ago? What has she done to develop and bring jobs to the district? I'm no fan of congressional earmarking, but in this race she is going to boast of her experience and seniority. Is her seniority really worth anything? And how is her experience helping her constituents?
3. Is there a connection between Jan and ACORN, the disgraced left-wing community group that recently had its federal funding yanked in the wake of an embarrassing scandal?
4. Is the health care plan Rep. Schakowsky so strongly supports going to hurt wealthy and not-so-wealthy seniors?
If Joel can make seniors in the district nervous about #4 ("Keep government hands off my Medicare!"), he can seriously cut into Jan's base. Can Jan fight off a serious candidate for the first time in her congressional career? Or can Massachusetts happen here? She will try to scare her base, saying Joel will "try to take away your Social Security and Medicare." Will she get away with it?
*in 1960, Yates ran for Senate and lost. The district had another congressman for one term. Yates ran for his seat in 1962 and won it back.