Few people who enter public life can ever hope to leave it casting as big of a shadow as retiring Rep. Henry J. Hyde.
The 16-term congressman from Illinois' 6th District is retiring this year, and he leaves behind a legacy as a passionate defender of conservative principles and also as one of the most fair-minded and equanimous members of Congress.
Republican Peter Roskam is running to replace Hyde, and having worked for him back in the 1970s and then watched him in action over the years, he fully understands the size of the shoes he is seeking to fill.
One day, I'm sitting across from Roskam at Flips, a local hot dog joint in Glen Ellyn, Illinois that Roskam says he's frequented since his high school days. We've just come from a photo op with Hyde at the Marion Joy Rehabilitation Center, where the 82-year-old conservative icon, now confined to a wheelchair, pulled his former staffer close after the cameras had gone to offer some cheerful words of encouragement.
In between bites of a gyro and periodic pulls from the straw of his vanilla milkshake, Roskam is explaining what Hyde's legacy means to the people of the 6th District. Though Hyde developed a well-deserved national reputation for eloquently engaging in big policy debates, Roskam says it was his attention to local issues that made him such a well-regarded figure at home.
"People in these communities are used to having access to Hyde," Roskam says, adding that Hyde's devotion to constituent service over the years made him seem "more like a city councilman than a Congressman" to the people who live here.
Illinois' 6th Congressional District sits about a half hour drive West of downtown Chicago, encompassing most of the suburban bedroom communities of DuPage County and stretching north to capture pieces of Cook County including, most importantly, the township of Elk Grove Village and O'Hare airport in the northeast corner.
Thanks to the iconic status and tenure of Hyde, this district hasn't had a competitive congressional election in 32 years, and while both sides expected a fight this year, things haven't gone quite the way most expected.
Initially, Roskam thought the Republican primary would be a true "donnybrook," but it turned out not to be so: at one point there were seven candidates who expressed interest in running, but eventually the field cleared and they fell into line behind Roskam.
Instead, it was the Democrats who had a knockdown drag-out primary between Christine Cegelis, a local IT consultant who ran against Hyde in 2004 and scored the largest percentage of votes of anyone ever to challenge him -- 44 percent, and L. Tammy Duckworth, an Iraq war veteran who lost both legs when her helicopter was shot down in November 2004.
After her strong run in 2004, Cegelis was seen as the clear frontrunner to win the nomination this time around, but Duckworth was recruited into the race and boosted throughout the primary by DCCC Chairman Rahm Emanuel. Duckworth eventually beat Cegelis by just over 1,100 votes, and Cegelis's supporters seethed with anger at the way national Democrats had meddled in their affairs. While much of that bitterness has dissipated over the last few months, there is still some question whether lingering resentment among Cegelis Democrats may hurt Duckworth marginally on Election Day.
It's now the early afternoon and I'm watching Roskam knock on doors in a middle-class neighborhood in Carol Stream. He's ditched the jacket and tie for a black, all-weather pullover with a "Roskam for Congress" sticker over the right breast, and he's carrying a clipboard in one hand and a big red Sharpie in the other. "It's like drinking from a fire hose," Roskam says with a grin, referring to the fast-paced retail aspect of the campaign.
On the clipboard is a list containing the names and addresses of people who his campaign wizards have identified as likely to go to the polls on November 7, but without a strong history of voting along partisan lines. In other words: Independents.
This list, Roskam's assistant told me earlier, is the handiwork of the RNC's vaunted turnout program which micro-targets voters and seeks to engage them with direct contact in the final days of the campaign.
Each voter who answers the door and speaks with Roskam will get a follow up letter in the mail a few days later. Those who aren't home today get a flyer on the door signed by Roskam ("Best Wishes"), and also a letter with a different personalized message via mail shortly thereafter.
Much has been made of the changing nature of the 6th Congressional District, especially in DuPage County, which used to run up huge vote totals for GOP candidates but has been trending less overwhelming Republican in the last few cycles.
I asked Roskam earlier if he thinks the sixth is still well-suited for a conservative like him in the mold of Henry Hyde. He responds by describing a recent tour through what he called an entry-level community in Glen Ellyn.
"The folks answering the doors come from all over the world," Roskam says, but he finds them talking about the same issues that have drawn people to these suburbs for more than a generation: good schools, economic opportunity, and a strong sense of safety and security. "The faces of the district have changed," Roskam concludes, "but the value system of the district hasn't."
As we crisscross the street in the Carol Stream subdivision, you get a sense of two of Roskam's biggest assets in this campaign. The first is that after serving seven years in the Illinois state House and six in the state Senate, he's a very experienced campaigner. Roskam says he has knocked on more than 5,600 doors in this campaign alone so far -- 20,000 over the course of his career -- and when voters come to their door, it shows.
Roskam is quick to assess the situations that present themselves the instant a door swings open: the woman holding a telephone to her ear (he silently offers her a flyer so as not to disturb her conversation), the mom who is trying to herd her three-year old daughter into a minivan ("I don't want to bother 'cause I can see you're very busy..."), to the non-voting, latch-key teenager just home from high school ("would you mind passing this flyer around the dinner table tonight?").
Though Roskam prefers this "light-touch" style of campaigning, trying to introduce and inform with minimum intrusion, he's quick to engage voters if he senses an opportunity, and it's here you get a sense of his other big asset.
He'll start by asking how long they've lived the area and then, depending on the response, he'll immediately offer a follow up question or a knowing comment about a school, a teacher, or even a local restaurant, anything to make a personal connection with voters and to pass along the subtle but powerful message that he is a born and bred product of the 6th District.
If all politics is local, as Tip O'Neill once famously said, Peter Roskam would be a heavy favorite to win this race. But all politics isn't local, at least not in a year when you're running against a double-amputee veteran of the Iraq war while public opinion of the conflict has been steadily declining.
Roskam knows he's facing a very sympathetic figure and an unfavorable national climate, which is why he's trying hard to keep the race focused on local issues and to paint Duckworth as an outsider who doesn't offer much to the district beyond a great biography.
"The other day, my opponent got written up in the Los Angeles Times and I got a write up in the Lombardian," Roskam says smiling, referring to a tiny local paper from the south-central portion of the sixth district. "But in this race," he adds, "I'll take the Lombardian."
Roskam is also quick to point out that while most of his money comes in the form of small checks from district residents, more than 95 percent of Duckworth's money comes from out of the district and her list of contributors is a veritable who's who of the liberal elite: George Soros, Barbara Streisand, and Rosie O'Donnell, to name just a few, have all given money to the Duckworth campaign.
There's also the issue of Duckworth's residency: she lives more than a mile outside the boundaries of the 6th District. Her home in Hoffman Estates actually sits in the adjacent 8th Congressional District.
Roskam bristles at Duckworth's standard line that he's the one out of touch with the 6th District, pointing out that he's lived there his entire life. "I'm going to get up vote for myself on Election Day," Roskam said. "I don't know who my opponent is going to vote for."
Unable to resist taking a follow up shot, he turns and says with a laugh, "If Duckworth wants lower taxes maybe she'll vote for McSweeney," referring to the Republican candidate in Illinois 8 seeking to unseat incumbent Democrat Melissa Bean.
As we make our way back to the car, Roskam says he's trying to keep his campaign focused on the fundamentals of contacting voters and working the grassroots, or "blocking and tackling" as he refers to it.
"We just need to keep doing the little things right day in and day out," he says, before going on to extend the football metaphor: "Our campaign just needs to keep gaining three yards in a cloud of dust. The other guys are the ones who are going to have to throw the Hail Mary."