Later this week, roughly two dozen members of the House of Representatives will return to the sad task of clearing out their offices. Some of the departing incumbents deserved to lose. Some did not, and some will be sorely missed. One of those is Rep. Bob Dold, Republican of Illinois, whose first and only term in Congress representing Chicago’s far northern suburbs was a model of both constituent service and political independence.
Dold’s district, the 10th, was long coveted by Democrats from the Chicago machine. Yet they were defeated, again and again, by the moderate Mark Kirk (now the state’s junior senator, recovering from a stroke earlier this year). In 2010, Dold won a difficult primary, and an even tougher general election against three-time candidate, Democrat Dan Seals. His pitch was simple: “I’m a fiscal conservative, a social moderate, and a foreign policy hawk.”
That suited the district perfectly–so perfectly that Illinois Democrats decided to redraw its boundaries radically in 2011. In a gesture that was as spiteful as it was opportunistic, they put almost all of New Trier Township, including the “old school” GOP stronghold of Kenilworth, into the 9th district, represented by Jan Schakowsky, one of the most far-left members of Congress. They also added heavily-Democratic Waukegan to the district.
Even so, Dold had a solid chance at re-election. He ran an excellent campaign; raised a large war chest; and dominated his Democratic opponent, Brad Schneider, in debates. Schneider is a party man and talking-points machine who exaggerated his business experience and distorted Dold’s record, in the tried-and-true Chicago fashion. Those tactics failed in 2010, but were enough to win in 2012–on Obama’s coattails, at least.
What the voters are losing with Dold’s departure is the kind of congressman that voters say they want, in theory: one who represents the values and policy preferences of the people of the district before those of his party. As Dold pointed out on the campaign trail, he proudly voted for Paul Ryan’s budget and entitlement reforms, and he was also the only Republican to speak on the House floor against defunding Planned Parenthood.
That may not have impressed social conservatives, but it was true to what Dold’s constituents, who include many among Chicago’s cultural and financial elite, wanted him to support. Meanwhile, as the Chicago Tribune pointed out, while Schneider claimed to be a moderate, he “struggled to name positions on which he disagrees with Democratic leaders.”
And so the 10th district, with help from the Chicago machine and Democrat re-districting in Springfield, has replaced a highly competent and courageous politician with one who struggles to come up with an original thought and who will be an eager rubber stamp for the party agenda.
That is what our political system has become, in the era of Obama’s divisive politics: one in which voters almost invariably put the party ahead of the person, and fail to prioritize the most pressing challenges facing our nation.
It is true that the same dynamic keeps moderate Democrats out of office in GOP areas. The “Blue Dogs” were all but wiped out in 2010, for example. And Democrats are losing North Carolina’s Rep. Heath Shuler, who was the only one in his caucus willing to oppose Nancy Pelosi’s bid for Minority Leader after the 2010 disaster.
Yet Dold stands out for his near-win against daunting odds. Now the voters must live with their decision.