If this election year represents a potential crossroads for Democrats — wherein the party must choose to either embrace progressive principles or espouse moderation in the name of electability — Tuesday’s U.S. House primary contest in Illinois’s 10th Congressional District might well be instructive.
The contentious race pits Ilya Sheyman — a 25-year-old former community organizer who’s won the support of MoveOn, the Progressive Change Campaign Committee (PCCC) and Howard Dean — against Brad Schneider, a long-time management consultant backed by Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-MD) and a host of others within the Illinois and national party establishment. While Schneider is widely seen as the preferred choice of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC), the committee told TPM they’re officially neutral. Both candidates are competing for the right to take on incumbent Republican Rep. Robert Dold in the fall.
Sheyman’s liberal supporters have characterized the race as a choice between a progressive and a “Blue Dog,” a reference to the coalition of conservative House Democrats and a swipe at Schneider’s alleged centrism. It’s a label the Schneider campaign has pushed back hard against.
“I think the other camp ran out of ideas and they had to go negative,” Jerrod Backous, Schneider’s campaign manager, told TPM. “Brad has never been asked and he would never join the Blue Dog Coalition.”
Backous insisted that his candidate is also a progressive, adding that “there isn’t much daylight” between Schneider and Sheyman ideologically. Sheyman’s side disagrees, pointing to Schneider’s history of associations with Republican leaders. A website launched by MoveOn details Schneider’s contributions to GOP candidates and his participation in Republican primaries.
Adam Ruben, political director for MoveOn, denies that his group has ever described Schneider as a Blue Dog, saying they have simply drawn attention to his connections with the Republican party. “What we’ve been very careful to do is just urge voters to look at his record,” Ruben told TPM. “We’re saying that Brad Schneider’s record shows that he’s acted like a Republican and that we should look at what he’s done.”
Backous is quick to highlight that over 95 percent of Schneider’s political contributions have gone to Democrats and the donations to Republican candidates were motivated by a concern for the United States’ ties with Israel, a significant issue for the suburban Chicago district’s many Jewish voters. “Brad doesn’t see a strong U.S./Israel relationship as a partisan issue,” Backous said.
As for Schneider’s participation in Republican primaries, Backous refuted MoveOn’s assertion that it has happened twice, claiming that Schneider pulled a Republican ballot only once to support his personal friend Andy Hochberg in a 2000 House primary election against current Sen. Mark Kirk (R-IL).
Sheyman rejects that defense, arguing that Schneider has no excuse for his financial contributions to Republican campaigns, most notably a 2008 donation to Sen. Mike Johanns of Nebraska. “I don’t think there are many Democratic voters who think that giving money to Mike Johanns, who just supported the Blunt amendment, is something a progressive would do,” Sheyman told TPM. “I think the number one question voters have is, ‘Who do I trust to go to Washington and fight for our progressive values?’ People know what kind of track record I have and what kind of progressive values I’ll bring to Washington.”
Perhaps more than the purported ideological divide between the two candidates, the race has emerged as a debate over electability. Even before the state’s Congressional map was redrawn last year in a way that decidedly favors Democrats, Dold — who won the 10th district seat in 2010 - was pegged as one of the most vulnerable House incumbents this election cycle. Democratic insiders fear that nominating Sheyman will cause the party to squander a prime opportunity to pick up a seat. “We can’t win the House back if we concede races like that,” a Democratic strategist told TPM. “That district has thoughtful voters and the theory that they will elect just any Democrat is disputed. They’re not going to go for a 25-year-old with no life experiences.”
Not surprisingly, Sheyman’s supporters see it differently. Neil Sroka, press secretary for PCCC, dismisses questions about Sheyman’s electability as “the kind of argument that comes from folks who have spent the last decade showing Democrats how to lose elections.”
“We simply would not get involved in a race if we did not believe that the candidate had an undeniable chance to win,” Sroka told TPM, adding that PCCC has raised over $125,000 for the Sheyman campaign. “Ilya has created a model campaign and a model argument that Democrats should listen to: if you stand up for what you believe in, you’re going to have the team behind you that you need to win in November.”
That both candidates have jockeyed for the progressive mantle might serve as an indication that the liberal message is resonating. A poll commissioned by MoveOn and PCCC that was released last week could be even more telling: it showed Sheyman holding an 18-point lead over Schneider.
Sheyman believes that the 2012 elections will confirm that the majority of voters favor progressive principles.
“Whereas the Tea Party has dragged the Republican party so far to the right that they’re no longer palatable to the American people, we as progressives are bringing the Democratic party to where the American public already stands,” Sheyman said. “What we’re demonstrating is that fighting for the middle class is not only a pathway to winning a primary election and winning a general election, it’s also a pathway to governing.”
Ed note: This piece has been edited to make clear that the DCCC is officially neutral in the race.
Tom Kludt is a newswriter for TPM. A former research intern and polling fellow for TPM, he lives and works in New York City. Tom graduated summa cum laude from the University of South Dakota in May of 2010 with a B.A. in Political Science and History. He can be reached at Tom (at) talkingpointsmemo.com.