Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Dems look to Bean on how to win in GOP-leaning area

Dems look to Bean on how to win in GOP-leaning area
By Jim Tankersley
Copyright © 2007, Chicago Tribune
August 22, 2007

WASHINGTON - Melissa Bean's welcome-to-Congress present in 2005 was a headline in a Capitol Hill newspaper declaring her the Republicans' No. 1 target in the next election cycle.

Two years, a $12 million campaign and a 7-point victory later, her sophomore greeting was decidedly different: a line of newly elected Democrats from GOP-leaning districts, eager to learn Bean's secrets of electoral success.

Bean, a self-styled pro-business Democrat from a slice of Chicago's north and northwest suburbs long dominated by the GOP, has become an archetype for many of the congressional rookies whose victories delivered control of the House to Democrats last fall -- and whose fortunes in 2008 will determine whether the new majority lasts another two years.

Democratic colleagues -- and several Republicans in Illinois and nationally -- attribute Bean's victory last year and Republicans' inability to recruit a well-known challenger against her this year to a combination of fundraising prowess, attention to district issues and a centrist voting record.

"She's a real role model for someone like myself, running in a Republican-leaning district," said Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.), a freshman who holds a top spot on the National Republican Congressional Committee's target list for 2008.

National Republicans insist Bean remains a top target and is "highly vulnerable" next year, particularly if wealthy businessman Steve Greenberg wins the GOP primary to face her. They say Congress' low approval ratings, along with a Republican turnout boost from the presidential election, will hurt Bean and the 60 other House Democrats from districts President Bush carried in 2000 and 2004.

"Lessons of the past for vulnerable Democrats do not apply to 2008," said Ken Spain, an NRCC spokesman.

National political trends didn't apply to Bean, a business consultant and mother of two, when she upset longtime Rep. Philip Crane in 2004. Only one other Democratic House candidate unseated a GOP incumbent that year. Republicans called Bean a fluke and put her atop their electoral hit lists.

In Congress, Bean preached fiscal discipline and courted business leaders for support and campaign cash. She bucked the Democratic line and angered organized labor leaders by voting for free-trade deals.

She also brought staffers to town halls to field complaints about government services and focused on her office's Web site after replacing a congressman who didn't have an e-mail address.

High-profile Republicans passed on challenging her. Her eventual GOP opponent, David McSweeney, poured millions into his campaign and outspent Bean by nearly $1 million. The NRCC kicked in at least $2.4 million more. Bean won 51 percent of the vote, McSweeney took 44 percent and a third-party candidate snagged the remainder.

Other Democrats followed suit across the country, winning seats long held by Republicans in areas where Bush cruised in his presidential victories. Bean mentored some of them, including Giffords, during the campaign.

'If she can do it, I can too'

"There's no question," Bean said in a recent interview, "that some of the candidates who ran in the last cycle said, 'If she can do it, I can too.'"

Later she added, "I'm glad to share what's working."

When the victors arrived to form the new Democratic majority in Congress, several turned to Bean again.

Giffords said Bean emphasized the importance of "voting your district" over the party line, which for Giffords meant voting with Republicans on several get-tough-on-illegal-immigrants measures. (The NRCC has criticized her on other immigration votes.)

Rep. Ron Klein (D-Fla.), who beat veteran Rep. Clay Shaw last year, said he follows Bean's advice "closely" on how to win re-election: "She works very hard. She really dogs issues, prepares herself well, understands how her district thinks about it and then makes a good judgment."

Bean's approach has won fans among business groups that traditionally lean Republican -- the U.S. Chamber of Commerce co-hosted a fundraiser for her in Chicago last month -- and the respect of several elected Republicans in her district. State Sen. Pamela Althoff praised Bean's "immediate grasp and responsiveness to" McHenry County's transportation needs and said she could not think of an issue on which to criticize the congresswoman.

Still, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has kept Bean on its list of endangered incumbents for 2008. The NRCC has hammered her on immigration, health care and tax votes, and it predicts that a well-funded challenger such as Greenberg could make the next election Bean's toughest yet.

Tough re-election expected

Bean is raising money as though she expects another tough race. She banked $552,000 last quarter and more than $1 million for the election cycle so far, up slightly from the same point two years ago.

Perhaps ironically, Democratic strategists say Bean's proteges could take some of the heat off her this time. With so many freshmen Democrats running in Republican-leaning -- and cheaper for advertising -- districts, the national GOP could be tempted to spend its dollars elsewhere.

Republicans, meanwhile, have to worry about at least three other seats they hold in Illinois this year: the Democratic-leaning district held by Rep. Mark Kirk and two seats being vacated by Reps. Dennis Hastert and Ray LaHood. Both those seats traditionally lean Republican, but Democrats say they're inspired to try for them.

"In a sense, it's the Melissa Bean century now," said Eric Adelstein, a veteran Illinois Democratic political consultant. She won her 2004 race, "and now people say, why not? Maybe we can win in some of these places. The numbers show it's possible."



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