Backyard Battles

Take Back the House in 2006!

Back in April of this year I received a phone call while I was cooking dinner. It was from a volunteer at They were setting up a phone bank in my hometown of Chicago to call people in the 50th Congressional District of California. I’ve been that guy on the other end of the line, so I listened politely while I chopped onions. I’ve worked for several Democratic campaigns and regularly contribute to MoveOn. I realized the implications of this special election to replace convicted Republican representative Randy Cunningham. This was going to be the first skirmish in the midterm elections of 2006, something I had been looking forward to since 2004, but this time I had to pass. I had just finished working for a local candidate in the Illinois Democratic Primary in March. I was exhausted and just needed some time away from devoting energy toward such matters.

But it wasn’t just that. I couldn’t stop asking myself why MoveOn had to organize a phone bank in Chicago for an election in California. California? California? Come on, California! Be responsible for what goes on in your own damn back yard!

I had just finished campaigning for Forrest Claypool, a reform candidate running for Cook County Board President in the Democratic Primary. The Democratic Primary pretty much is the election in Chicago. The fall general election is just a formality, a coronation ceremony. Claypool was running against longtime incumbent Cook County Board President John Stroger. Cook County government is mainly responsible for running the courts, prisons, and forest preserves in the Chicago area. It levees its own sales and property taxes and has a budget larger than 42 state budgets. It is also a bastion of corruption and nepotism. It is where the sleazier aspects of local Chicago politics have gone to hide away from public scrutiny.

Claypool was vowing to clean up this cesspool. He had been a reformer on the Cook County Board for the last four years and was best known for heading up the Chicago Park District in the late 1990s. While at the CPD he dismantled a huge system of patronage and corruption. He was vowing to do the same for county government. His campaign was well financed and helped by the likes of David Axelrod. Millions were spent on local television advertising and on grassroots organizing.

That’s where I came in. I was organizing the Claypool campaign in the 30th ward of Chicago and it was going to be an uphill battle. Every elected official in the ward supported the incumbent, Stroger. He was the Chicago Machine’s candidate and had the support of most local elected officials. He had the endorsements of Mayor Daley, former President Clinton, and 45 of Chicago’s 50 aldermen.

At its apex, our organization in the 30th Ward was made up of 15 people, including residents of the ward and others who had worked with me on past campaigns. Our budget was the $100 or so I sprung for pizza and beer one Saturday in March. We used what little resources we had as wisely as we could to target the precincts where we thought Claypool’s reform message would have the most traction. We covered the ward with literature, campaigned at train stations, and worked targeted polling places on Election Day.

Even though every elected official in the ward supported John Stroger, we won the ward for Forrest Claypool. Sure Stroger won the election — lying in a hospital unconscious, no less — but that’s Chicago politics. My point is that a few determined people with no resources made a difference. The 30th ward was won by 66 votes and we know we were responsible for those votes. We knocked on hundreds of doors and asked for the votes of hundreds of people. We did this with nothing more than determination, and if we could do this in Chicago versus “the Machine,” then Democrats nationwide can do the same against the Republicans this fall. There will be a race for the House of Representatives won or lost by less than 66 votes this November — you can bet on it.

The number one priority of the Democratic Party in the 2006 midterm elections should be winning back the House of Representatives. It is a travesty that we have allowed the Republicans to control this branch of the government since 1994. The House is where the voices of everyday Americans have their best chance of being heard in the cacophony of Washington. It is where all legislation begins and where all monies are appropriated. We Democrats must regain the House. It should be the one clear goal that unifies the party. To begin with, we all need to contribute to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which funds and supports Democratic house candidates nationwide. You can learn more about the DCCC or contribute at

Giving money is a good beginning, but if money is the lifeblood of any campaign, then grassroots organization is the muscle that the money feeds. Clicking a button to charge your credit card may make you feel like you’re doing your part, but if you really want to take back the House, you have to donate your time to a campaign. A day spent volunteering on a campaign is worth so much more than the $50 bucks you might charge to your credit card. Democrats need to pick up 15 seats to take back control of the House. Recent polling suggests that it can be done, but it’s going to take more than money. It’s going to take your time and effort.

There are several close House races nationwide. You can search for a race in your backyard at Besides money and your time and effort, winning this fight might take you widening your definition of backyard. But isn’t it worth it? We’ve all driven a few hours to take a weekend vacation. We can all drive a few hours to fight a good fight and make a real difference. Do you know 10 people who want the Democrats to take back the House as badly as you do? Then plan a road trip to a battleground district and make a weekend of it. Every minute of your time volunteered to a campaign is priceless, and when the election results come in, you’ll know that you did as much as you could. Don’t be fooled into thinking that elections are won online. They are won on the ground. Door to door. Face to face. Person to person.

We here at will be volunteering in our own backyard (the western suburbs of Chicago) for Democrat Tammy Duckworth, who is running to pick up the 6th Illinois District. Republican Henry Hyde is retiring after holding this seat for the last 30 years. This race has received much national attention because Duckworth is an Iraqi War veteran who lost both of her legs when the helicopter she was piloting was shot down north of Baghdad. Both national parties are pouring resources into this race and the latest poll taken on September 6th has Duckworth leading her Republican opponent, Peter Roskham, by one percentage point (47/46). Chicago, here’s your chance to flex your muscles.

Another race in Chicago’s backyard is Illinois’ 8th District, where Democratic incumbent Melissa Bean is fighting to hold on to her seat in this historically Republican district held by Phil Crane from 1968 to 2004. Bean was elected in 2004 in this conservative district —which stretches from Chicago’s affluent northern suburbs to the Wisconsin border — as a centrist, pro-business Democrat. Congresswoman Bean has done an outstanding job representing her constituency, even breaking with her party when she believed it was in the best interests of the 8th District. She is facing well-financed candidate David McSweeney, and the Republicans would love to get this seat back. This is going to be a big-money race, since the candidates will have to use Chicago media outlets to reach this large swath of northern Illinois, but as I said before, money isn’t everything in a campaign. Get out there and help Congresswoman Bean to hold this seat and to keep proudly serving the people of Illinois’ 8th District.

There are several other important races in the Great Lakes/Upper Midwest region. Find a fight in your own backyard and we will take back the House.


8th District
In the northern suburbs of Milwaukee, Bryan Kennedy is taking on Republican lightening rod Jim Sensenbrenner. Kennedy faces an uphill battle against this entrenched incumbent, but if you ever wanted to get back at Sensenbrenner for his sponsorship of racist anti-immigrant House bills, this would be your chance. It’s a long shot, but you can force the Republicans to spend money in a district they thought was locked up tight.

5th District
In northeastern Wisconsin, Republican Mark Green is leaving this seat to run for governor, creating a very close race in this district, which contains Green Bay and the Fox River Valley. It is an older district with strong union membership that has been hit hard by manufacturing jobs leaving the U.S. Democrat Steve Kagen is looking quite strong, and this seems to be a spot where the Democrats could pick up a seat from the GOP. Kagen is well financed and well recognized. He was voted one of America’s top doctors and owns a well-known chain of local allergy clinics. Given his medical background, he is making health-care reform his number one issue, and that message is playing well with this older district.


1st District
This is another open seat, with Republican Jim Nussle leaving to run for governor. Democrat Bruce Braley is running neck and neck with Republican Mike Wahlen in this Eastern Iowa district containing the Democratic stronghold of Dubuque. Braley is running as a Washington outsider and has a genuine “bootstrap” story, having worked his way through college and law school doing menial jobs. Braley’s story of American hard work is playing well in this district, which contains the mile-long John Deere Dubuque Works. Hey, Chicago, if you can go to Galena for the weekend, you can go campaign across the Mississippi River in Dubuque!

3rd District
Democrat Leonard Boswell has been serving his country and the state of Iowa throughout his life. A decorated army veteran and former president of the Iowa State Senate, he has held this House seat since 1996 and was named to the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence in 2001. Currently Boswell is the only Democrat in the Iowa House Delegation, and the Republicans think this is a seat they can pick up. Help fight them back and hold on to this seat. The district contains Des Moines, the largest city in the state.


2nd District
This a rematch of 2004, when Republican Chris Chocola beat Democrat Joe Donnelly 55% to 45% in this north central Indiana district containing South Bend. Given the public’s low opinion of the GOP in that area, and the revelation that Chocola took money from big oil companies in return for voting against controls on price gouging, this race is going to be much closer this time around. MoveOn is currently running TV ads in the district linking Chocola to the oil companies, and current polling shows this race as a dead heat. Come on, Notre Dame students and alums, get out there for Donnelly and flip this red district blue!

8th District
Southwestern Indiana’s “Bloody Eighth” looks like another good opportunity for the Dems to steal a seat from the GOP. Republican incumbent John Hostettler hasn’t received much support from his national party and is depending mostly on grassroots organizing. Even though these tactics have worked for him ever since the “Republican Revolution” of 1994, current polling shows Democratic challenger Brad Ellsworth leading the race. Ellsworth is a 25-year veteran of law enforcement, goes to church every Sunday, and is perfect for this conservative downstate district. The 8th contains Indiana State University, is close to Indiana University in Bloomington, and is about an hour away from the University of Illinois in Champaign. Can you say road trip?


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