WASHINGTON – Armed with support from the business community, a "Blue Dog" membership card and a middle-of-the-road voting record, Rep. Melissa Bean, D-Ill., is hoping to deflect criticism that she is a liberal Democrat who won her seat on a fluke in a Republican district.
But Republicans see Illinois' 8th Congressional District, which went for President Bush over Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., 56 to 44 percent in 2004, as one of their few opportunities to pick up a seat in a political climate that is generally favoring Democrats nationally.
"It's a good year to be running against an incumbent," said David McSweeney, the Republican candidate vying for the seat to be awarded on Nov. 7.
A former investment banker, McSweeney said he thinks Bean has played up to both liberal and conservative constituents and doubts voters will reward her for it.
"She has tried to be all things to all people," he said. "I'm not quite sure what the Melissa Bean base is anymore."
"This is no cookie-cutter district," acknowledged Steve Brown, spokesman for the Illinois Democratic Party, who said Bean has done her best to reach out and connect with the conservative voters of her affluent suburban Chicago district. "It doesn't make the [Democratic] special interest groups ecstatic, but as a result, she's a good fit for the district."
Political observers say this is one of the more competitive, if not expensive, House races in the country this year. While Bean has raised $2.8 million, McSweeney has raised $3.2 million, including $1 million of his own cash. It is certainly one of the GOP's targeted challenger races.
"David McSweeney is doing everything right. He's been out there raising money, meeting voters and, in a overwhelmingly Republican district like Illinois eight, he'll have a really good shot at an upset in November," said Jonathan Collegio, spokesman for the National Republican Campaign Committee.
McSweeney beat out five other GOP hopefuls for the nomination back in March.
Jeff Berkowitz, host and producer of "Public Affairs," a local-access television talk show in the district, said he expects this race to be a squeaker, especially since independent Bill Scheurer, who is running on a predominantly anti-war campaign, threatens to take a bite out of Bean's more liberal Democratic constituency.
"I think anyone who says this won't be a close election is a partisan," said Berkowitz, who has interviewed all three candidates at length. "I can make the prediction … it will be decided with the winner not winning by more than four points."
In 2004, Bean, a technology and sales consultant by trade, beat 35-year incumbent Rep. Phil Crane, a Republican criticized for complacency and an unwillingness to aggressively defend his seat on the campaign trail.
She won the race 52 percent to 48 percent in one of the few Republican upsets of the year.
"A lot of that was an anti-Phil Crane vote — he was a far cry from the congressman of 1969," said Berkowitz. "He was not campaigning, not in the sense that she was. The question for today is, how many of those [voters] will migrate back to the Republicans?"
Brown said Bean has built and emboldened support with her Republican-leaning constituents, mostly through deft voting on business issues as well as maintaining a strong presence in the district.
"She's not vulnerable because she's done a good job in terms of constituent services and she does a good job in terms of her voting record," Brown said. "I think [voters] are looking for what they've got for the last two years: good, solid representation."
Bean's strategy in 2004 was "downplaying her party identification and keeping her distance from Democratic leaders," according to National Journal's Almanac of American Politics. In Congress, her voting record has been neither too conservative nor too liberal on foreign policy, fiscal and social issues.
She supported the war in Iraq and Bush's tax cuts. She voted for Republican-led bankruptcy reform and the Central American Free Trade Agreement, which cost her the national AFL-CIO endorsement this year, but seemingly gained her a nod from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
"She understands what it takes to create a healthy business climate and promote local job growth, and Congresswoman Bean is never afraid to stand up and do the right thing for the businesses and families she represents," said Bill Miller, vice president and political director of the Chamber.
But Bean also voted against offshore oil drilling, voted for a Democratic substitute on student loans and, in 2005, won 100 percent ratings from NARAL-Pro Choice America and the National Education Association, the teachers' union.
Those are some of the items McSweeney can point to when he charges Bean with not being conservative enough for the district.
"She's opposed lawsuit reform, opposed an energy bill that would have lowered gas prices," he said.
Bean's campaign declined repeated calls for an interview,
While calling her too liberal for the district, McSweeney also suggested she is disingenuous, having lost credibility with labor unions who supported her two years ago.
"She ran in '04 and had heavy union support" before voting for CAFTA, he said. "Effectively, she lied to the people who put her in office and sold out to big business."
Berkowitz said Bean and McSweeney have a lot in common on the issues, but Bean has the edge because McSweeney is "running against a person who has two years already in office."
Scheurer, on the other hand, said he wants to exploit the similarities between the Republican and Democrat, giving voters what he calls a truly independent option this November.
"The other candidates don't offer the voters a real choice at all," he said. "They both side with the interests of large corporations and the wealthy. Neither of them cares about the interests of working people. When you look at national security they pretty much have the same pro-Iraq war, follow Bush agenda."
Analysts say the parties cannot count Scheurer out in terms of his impact on the race. He garnered 7,500 votes in the 2004 Democratic primary against Bean and could draw some of the anti-war and labor vote away from her in the fall.
"He will certainly take votes from her precisely because she hasn't represented her base," said Andrew McKenna, chairman of the Illinois Republican Party. Meanwhile, "the [GOP] primary really helped to engage our base to be excited about the race."
Peter Couvall, vice chairman of the Democratic Party in Lake County, which is a big chunk of the 8th District, said he thinks Scheurer is a "one-issue candidate" who is unable to do much harm to Bean's candidacy.
"She's very popular in that district," said Couvall, who denies that the AFL-CIO's lack of support means the downfall of her campaign machine. He said she retains the help of local labor unions despite the CAFTA vote.
"She has a tough district, she has to represent everybody," he said. "I disagreed with her CAFTA vote too. You can't make a decision based one issue."