GURNEE, Ill. – Melissa Bean (search) hands out seat cushions that spell out the reason Democrats think she can beat veteran Rep. Phil Crane (search) on Nov. 2. They read: "Crane. The Original Seat Warmer. So many years ... so few accomplishments."
After 35 years in Congress, Crane, an ardent conservative from the northwestern suburbs of Chicago and the longest-serving Republican in the House, is facing an unexpectedly spirited challenge from Bean, a Democratic political novice who argues the congressman has become too comfortable in Washington.
In fact, nervous Republicans have poured extra cash into the race and encouraged Crane to visit the street festivals and party meetings that even supporters grumble he has skipped for too long.
"I've been busting my hump for about five straight weeks," the 73-year-old congressman said from Washington on a day he had Vice President Dick Cheney (search) lined up as his special guest at a capital fund raiser.
Bean, a 42-year-old technology consultant, surprised Crane in their 2002 matchup when she received 43 percent of the vote despite having little name recognition or money. That won Bean the attention of groups such as EMILY'S List, which supports women candidates in favor of abortion rights, and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.
"We consider it one of our top targets, absolutely," said Greg Speed, spokesman for the DCCC. "Melissa Bean's an excellent candidate who showed two years ago that she can run a very effective campaign on a limited budget."
Crane and Bean disagree on most issues, including caps on verdicts in lawsuits, the federal No Child Left Behind Act, and abortion.
Both candidates say a change in the demographics of the district, encompassing suburbs north and west of Chicago, has opened the door for Democrats. More young families and commuters have moved to the area, and a 2000 redistricting put a few more Democratic-leaning precincts into Crane's area.
Add that to a state Republican Party in disarray and expected Democratic wins for president and U.S. Senate in Illinois, and Crane says Bean's challenge is one he must take seriously.
National Republicans also are taking it seriously, sending Crane money from political action committees.
"We're not considering this a race right now. We're just making sure it doesn't become one," said National Republican Congressional Committee spokesman Chris Paulitz.
Republican leaders urged Crane to do more glad-handing in the district this year.
"He loses votes due to his poor constituent service and lack of visibility in the district," said Bob Schmidt, a GOP activist who says he has rarely seen Crane at local party meetings over the past 20 years.
Crane said he goes home as often as any other congressman, but added that he has paid more his visits this summer.
Bean, meanwhile, has been making nonstop appearances at street festivals, parades and meetings with mayors and business owners. She hands out the seat cushions to donors who contribute $20 or more.
Bean argues that Crane has done little to turn his seniority into a boon for the district in terms of jobs or federal projects — a charge Crane disputes.
"I think we made a case last cycle to get a good portion of the electorate to recognize that Crane really wasn't delivering," Bean said. "There is definitely a palpable desire for change."
Crane was first elected to Congress in 1969 when a young Illinois congressman — Donald Rumsfeld — left to work for the Nixon administration. Crane made his name as an anti-tax crusader and ran for president in 1980.
The congressman weathered a difficult period over the past several years that included the death of his 31-year-old daughter and a stint in alcohol rehab. Republicans passed him over for chairmanship of the tax-writing House Ways and Means Committee in 2001. He continues to serve as vice chairman.
Some voters Bean shook hands with outside a grocery store in Gurnee agreed with his challenger that the district needs a fresh face.
"I think maybe it's time for a change," nurse Dianne Frank said as she loaded groceries into her car. "I think it would be nice to have a Democrat."
But Bruce Frederick, a real estate agent who shopped while wearing a National Rifle Association cap, said while Crane may have stayed in Congress too long, a Democrat in this conservative district is "not the answer."