Exurb Districts Pose Threat to Recently Elected Dems

BY Lee Banville  October 15, 2010 at 3:00 PM EDT

Freshman Democrat Debbie Halvorson will have to balance the diverse needs of a sprawling district in northern Illinois if she hopes to hold off Republican opponent Adam Kinzinger in an area historically considered a swing district with Republican leanings.

But Anthony DeAngelo, communication director for Halvorson’s reelection campaign says the Crete, Ill., native understands these challenges because she grew up in a town where the winding urban streets of South Chicago stretch to flat country roads.

“In some respects it’s a district that understands its own diversity,” DeAngelo said. “Even the parts that are urban or exurban are close enough to the rural communities to really understand each other.”

But analysts say the split-partisan voters, who had elected Republican Jerry Weller until his retirement in 2008, will test Halvorson’s understanding and incumbency this election cycle.

The “T”-shaped district encompasses small towns on the outer fringes of Chicago and more urban cities like Joliet and Aurora in its northern most reaches and stretches south nearly 100 miles into the rural farmlands and scattered villages before ending in college-town Bloomington.

It is the quintessential Patchwork Nation Young Exurb district, where young Democratic-leaning families have moved to escape urban Chicago while others, largely Republican, voters have migrated from small agricultural villages to one of the region’s larger towns. Both the 11th and the neighboring 14th districts are considered highly competitive this year.

Beyond the ‘Burbs

Scattered across a wide swath of the nation, the Young Exurbs have sprung up in areas that saw growth in the last decades, but unlike our Booming Growth districts, these places saw a slow expansion of towns and populations.

They are places in real transition. On average more than 50 percent of residents of most of these districts moved into a different home in the last five years. But unlike some of the areas of explosive growth, these areas are home to residents who were born in the state they now live. In many ways these are districts being affect by the internal changes in the state.

And with these population shifts, the politics appear to be in a state of flux as well. Looking at the members of Congress from these places we find a diversity of voices and an unclear political bent. Some 56 percent of the members of Congress voted for the stimulus bill and 47 percent voted for health care reform.

Still most of the 35 districts in this type reflect the politics of their area, those exurbs near Los Angeles or Houston are solidly Democrat and the more far-flung districts in Georgia, Idaho or Utah, solidly Republican. But for some seven Democrats in these districts the fight for re-election, according to the pundits, is a close one.

Cutting through the ‘Illinoise’

It is this uneasy political middle ground that makes predicting some of the races in this district type so difficult. The two Democrats in Illinois face a serious challenge as they seek to solidify the small gains they saw from the Young Exurbs two years ago.

The 14th District’s Bill Foster, D-Ill., and Halvorson must defend their seats from Republicans who are championing their opposition to the growth of federal spending since President Obama’s election.

In 2008, Halvorson was elected by a nearly 24 point margin and Foster by 7 points. But according to polls from this year, both are trailing tea party-backed Kinzinger and state senator Randall Hultgren.

The Republicans have aimed their message at independents and undecideds who are tax-tired and anxious about increased government spending.

The Dekalb Daily Chronicle and other community papers report dissatisfaction among some civic leaders with costly health care reform, which could hurt the reelection hopes of Halvorson and Foster, who both supported the measure.

The big issues

In many of the more competitive races there appear to be two competing factors that could affect the Young Exurb vote. On the one hand, many of the more populated parts of these districts have felt the sting of the foreclosure crisis – especially in California, Georgia and Illinois. How these areas react to the continued sluggish economy could spell trouble for some of the Democrats in those areas.

But another factor could help some of those same representatives. The Young Exurbs is home to a growing number of Latino voters. With larger numbers in the Midwest and Western districts, these voters turned out in decent numbers to help elect many of the Democrats who represent these districts. Another strong showing could help stave off wider losses in the handful of races considered true toss ups by Charlie Cook and Congressional Quarterly.

If the Illinois races are any indication, for those representatives who rode the slight growth in Democratic support and a large turnout in the presidential race to Congress, this fall’s campaign has been a challenge to establish their own base of support in these changing communities.

Patchwork Nation contributor Lee Banville is the former editor of the Online NewsHour and strategy adviser to the NewsHour’s web site. Jayme Fraser is a student at the University of Montana.