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Democrats need stronger Illinois showing to retake U.S. House

By Nick Carey

ROMEOVILLE, Illinois (Reuters) - Democrats appear unlikely to regain a majority in the U.S. House of Representatives on Tuesday despite a nationwide push, and a major reason could be disappointment in President Barack Obama's home state.

In Illinois, Democrats began this election year determined to reverse a Republican gain of four U.S. House seats in 2010 that gave them a majority of the Illinois delegation in a state considered solidly Democratic.

The powerful speaker of the Illinois state House, Michael Madigan, used the Democratic stranglehold on state government to redraw election districts after the 2010 Census in a way that would help Democratic candidates.

The strategy worked to an extent, putting Republicans on the defensive, and making six of the 18 Illinois congressional races competitive. They have attracted more than $45 million in outside spending.

Some political analysts say Democrats could gain three seats back from Republicans in Illinois, which would probably not be enough to return the national party back to power on Capitol Hill.

"The Democrats are not going to take the House, the hill is simply too steep for them to climb," said Michael Mezey, a political science professor at DePaul University in Chicago.

Republican U.S. Rep. Joe Walsh, an incumbent backed by the conservative Tea Party movement, was widely expected to lose to Tammy Duckworth, an Iraq War veteran featured at the Democratic National Convention, in a heavily Democratic district. Two other Republican incumbents, including the relatively moderate Judy Biggert in a suburban Chicago district, are in very tight races.

Democrats also could gain five seats in California, but the rest of the national map doesn't bode well for them.

Republicans used their victories in state legislatures and governors' races in 2010 elections to redraw voting districts in states such as North Carolina to offset the expected Democratic victories elsewhere.

Mezey expects Democrats will pick up "probably no less than five seats and certainly no more than 10," nationally, well short of the 25 seats they need to return to the majority of the 435-member House of Representatives.

"A BULWARK" AGAINST NANCY PELOSI

Unlike Joe Walsh, whose reputation as a Tea Party firebrand made him vulnerable to a challenge from Tammy Duckworth even before he made controversial remarks about abortion, Biggert is running as a bipartisan moderate.

The candidate repeatedly described herself as a compromiser when she spoke recently to senior citizens at the Tasty Waffle restaurant in Romeoville, a outer suburb of Chicago where strip malls mingle with open farmland.

Ken Scorza, 68, a retired independent, said he supports Biggert because "she is one of the few people who constantly reach across the aisle for the betterment of the country."

Appearing alongside Biggert was U.S. Rep. Peter Roskam, a senior House Republican from a neighboring district, who highlighted the threat of a Democratic majority.

"Can you imagine bringing Nancy Pelosi back?" he asked, referring to the Democratic House Minority leader whose name raises conservative hackles. "The bulwark against that is to send Judy Biggert back to Congress."

Biggert's opponent, scientist and former Democratic Rep. Bill Foster, describes her as an extreme politician. At a rally in Aurora, a Chicago suburb with a large Hispanic population, Foster said Biggert "sided with the Tea Party Congress" against the Dream Act, which would have provided a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants brought to the United States as children.

"Bill Foster understands that a healthy middle class is crucial for America's economy," said Cassidy Alexander, a self-employed artist who attended the rally. "He is a scientist who makes rational decisions and that is really important to me."

That race alone has brought in $8 million in outside money, bringing a barrage of mostly negative television ads that often run back to back in the suburbs.

Obama won Biggert's strangely shaped district easily in 2008, making it more difficult for her to hold onto the seat.

Another tight race involves Republican Robert Dold, a freshman congressman from Chicago's North Shore, whose district was altered to include less of the Republican northern suburbs and more ethnically mixed neighborhoods nearer to Chicago. His race has attracted nearly $7.3 million in outside money.

DePaul's Mezey said Dold has a solid chance of fending off Democratic challenger Brad Schneider.

"If Dold does win, he'd have the singular honor of being the Republican in the House with the most Democratic district in the country," he said.

(Reporting By Nick Carey; Editing by Greg McCune and Doina Chiacu)

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