The force of the GOP's 2010 wave swept many new Republican lawmakers deeper into Democratic territory than normal. Even before they were sworn in, Democrats targeted those freshman members for immediate defeat in 2012, when both the electorate and the environment were sure to be kinder.
Rep. Robert Dold, R-Ill., was among the earliest targets Democrats identified this election cycle, but he is not a prototypical easy mark, despite some fundamental disadvantages. His Illinois 10th District is the most Democratic-leaning in the House represented by a Republican, as measured by President Obama's vote share in 2008. But its residents are hardly unfamiliar with Republican representation. Dold didn't actually win a new GOP seat in 2010; he successfully defended one that has been in moderate Republican hands — most recently now-Sen. Mark Kirk's — for decades, even as its presidential votes consistently went Democratic.
Even after the 2010 wave, Dold was the only House Republican representing a district where President Obama won more than 60 percent of the vote in 2008. After the Democratic-led redistricting effort in Illinois, Obama's 2008 vote in the redrawn 10th topped 63 percent. And yet, less than a week from Election Day, Democrats and Republicans alike think Dold is in the best position of any of the four very endangered Republican incumbents in the state. The nation's politics have turned parliamentary, and fewer and fewer House members represent districts that ever give votes to the other party. But the 10th District's leafy suburbs north of Chicago are among the last places in America to resist the trend toward party-line voting.
Between the voters and the candidates, crossover activity is the whole narrative of the 10th District race. Dold's appeal revolves around the invisible barrier running through the middle of the House chamber, which he has traversed with regularity, while his Democratic challenger, businessman Brad Schneider, says the lawmaker has crossed one too many red lines in his House votes, by supporting "radical" GOP policy proposals.
Even though Obama's support has slipped from its 2008 highs, and even if Dold loses, ticket-splitting is the story of this race; without a hefty dose of it, the contest between Dold and Schneider wouldn't even be close. More than half of the district's adult residents over age 25 have college degrees, and those voters credit themselves, as do their candidates, with taking a thoughtful, studied approach to politics that leads to unusual voting patterns. The district trends fiscally conservative and socially liberal, like many suburban districts that have changed hands back and forth over the past few election years.
Both Dold and Schneider describe an electorate sick of Congress's juvenile tone and lack of action. "People are coming up to me and saying, we really need to make a change," Schneider said in an interview with National Journal Daily. "They're frustrated at the gridlock and partisanship in Washington; it has to stop. If I ask for people's key issues, jobs and the economy are No. 1, but partisanship is No. 2 in their minds."
Mindful that even the district's plentiful Obama supporters aren't looking for a fierce partisan, Schneider is emphasizing his deal-making credentials and willingness to solve problems with Republicans. "I think I'll be able to work well with anybody," he said. "I pride myself, I can find the common ground to work on issues."
The problem for Schneider is that Dold already is one of the Republicans that Democrats try to work with, and Schneider is trying to toss him out. Conservative Democrats in their own tough reelection runs, such as Rep. John Barrow, D-Ga., have touted their work on legislative projects with Dold. In an interview, Dold also cited his work with liberals Rep. Gwen Moore of Wisconsin on financial legislation and Rep. Ted Deutch of Florida on Iran sanctions. "I've demonstrated the ability to work together with Democrats," Dold said. "When I asked my opponent to name an issue where he would break with his party to work with Republicans, he couldn't name a single issue."
To his opponent, though, Dold's multiple votes in favor of now-GOP vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan's budget proposals disqualify him from claiming bipartisan street cred. "Other Republicans had the courage to stand up to their party and recognize that that budget hurts seniors, but Mr. Dold didn't," Schneider said, listing votes and positions — on abortion, employment discrimination, and gay marriage, among others — where the two disagree. "If we were in different districts, would I work with him? I can work with anyone," he continued. "But in this district, we are fighting over really important issues."
Like many other GOP supporters, Dold dismisses the Ryan-related criticism. He just wants a plan to fix the budget, he says, and has worked on and voted for numerous proposals to address the national deficit and debt. "My opponent has no plan," Dold said. Schneider, Dold said, "has demonstrated only the ability to criticize."
That criticism is part of the reason Dold and other Republicans believe he will win. The Ryan budget was touted initially as Democrats' silver bullet in House races nationwide, but it has not evolved into the singular issue that the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee had hoped for. Furthermore, Democrats have been trying for election upon election to distill such national issues into Democratic House votes in the 10th District.
Democrats have plenty of reasons to hold out hope here, though; first among them is the "hope" candidate at the top of the ballot. Plus, the freshman Dold doesn't yet have the name recognition that helped Kirk survive tough election cycles, and Schneider's party figures he could strike before Dold becomes entrenched. Also, the undecided voters left at this late point in the game are largely Obama supporters, and they should be more likely to break toward the Democrat at the end.
On paper, it looks perfect. But things have always worked a little differently in the 10th District.
This story is part of a series. The National Journal Big 10 focuses on important and representative House and Senate races. The composition of the Big 10 may change as circumstances warrant.