Race is on: Senger in place to battle Foster for 11th District seat

No matter which way the political winds blow in November’s midterm elections, one thing is certain: Naperville will still have a hometown voice in the U.S. House.

State legislator Darlene Senger edged out three opponents in Tuesday’s Republican primary, and now will face U.S. Rep. Bill Foster, the incumbent Democrat, in the general election for the 11th Congressional District. Both candidates hail from Naperville.

Both also name job growth and economic recovery as top priorities — but that’s where they part ways. Foster’s strategies include building trade to trigger growth in the manufacturing sector, supporting higher wages for the lowest-paid workers, and upholding benefits for those looking for work. Senger’s proposals for putting people back to work and triggering new growth in the economy include cutting back on regulations and providing tax relief. She also is determined to repeal the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2009.

Anthony Barry, Senger’s campaign manager, said overhauling the health care reform measures will be the “number one” campaign issue, asserting that they have created damaging uncertainties for the business community that have put the brakes on hiring. He said measures such as allowing consumers to purchase coverage across state lines and enabling small businesses to create insurance pools, something larger employers can do now, would help.

“We’ve got to put a free-market approach to it,” Barry said. “But first things first. We have to repeal it.”

According to Craig Belden, who is heading up Foster’s campaign, the contrasts between the congressman and his challenger are striking. Belden said Senger’s work in Springfield has followed an “extreme social agenda,” including opposition to marriage equality and reproductive rights.

Senger last month signed on as a sponsor of a House bill that would require a physician to offer a pregnant woman seeking an abortion the opportunity to see a real-time ultrasound image and receive a photograph of the fetus and hear its heartbeat. She also introduced a bill in 2011 that would have required surgical centers offering abortions to provide the same medical amenities as any other freestanding facility where outpatient procedures are done. That measure fell short of the support it needed to pass.

Money matters

For those seeking public office, there’s no getting around the need for money.

Belden said Foster has about $1 million in campaign funds ready to use, speculating that Senger’s finances are low after a hard-fought primary campaign. When incumbent Republican Rep. Judy Biggert went against Foster in 2012, Belden said, she started the race with more than $1 million in hand.

Although Senger has said fundraising will be a substantial focus in the coming weeks, Barry took issue with Foster’s million-dollar war chest.

“He didn’t have a primary. He’s been fundraising all over the country, rather than staying in the district, talking to people,” he said.

Neither Senger nor Foster is new to public life, but voters are likely to get to know both in new ways over the coming months. According to Belden, the incumbent’s habit of talking to people is one of those.

“The thing that I’ve been struck by is really his desire to spend as much time as he does listening to the people in this district, and a lot of his legislation is based on that,” he said, citing a Foster-sponsored bill that extends GI benefits to soldiers’ children, which started with the concerns of a constituent in Joliet.

As a former Fermilab physicist, Belden said, Foster brings a scientist’s perspective to governing that isn’t shared by many of his Congressional peers. That background, he said, helps counter the gridlock that many voters have found off-putting.

“It’s about talking,” he said. “It’s about having a conversation based on seeking solutions.”

Although Senger has had a lot of visibility in Naperville — initially as an avid community volunteer and then as a City Council member and state legislator — Barry thinks voters in the five counties touched by District 11 will get to know new sides of her between now and November.

“Darlene’s a fighter. We just saw that in the primary,” he said, adding that some of Senger’s three opponents outspent her considerably in the recent campaign.

And in the City Council and General Assembly, he said, Senger accepted challenges such as pension reform that others sidestepped.

“Darlene walked right up front and said, ‘I’ll take it on,’” Barry said.

Anybody’s guess

As most political candidates can attest, predicting the will of the electorate can be tricky.

DuPage County has never had a Democrat in top office, and its county board membership has always been at least 80 percent Republican, but its economic and ethnic makeup has changed considerably over the past decade. In November 2008, Barack Obama took 54.72 percent of the votes cast in DuPage in his successful run for the White House, and incumbent U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin won with 58.72 percent.

But Biggert also won a new term in that round, with 54.38 percent of the vote to Democrat Scott Harper’s 42.43 percent. Senger prevailed in 2008 as well, edging out Dianne McGuire, her Democratic opponent for the state House, by 600 votes. Two years later, Biggert again beat Harper, that time by a margin of nearly two to one. And then in the 2012 general election, Biggert drew less than 48 percent in DuPage, losing her seat for the newly redrawn district to Foster.

While elements such as demographic shift, voter whim and two Napervillians facing each other in a run for federal office are intriguing, Belden is certain there will be a lot more than that to capture the attention of the electorate over the next few months.

“The starkness of their opinions is what’s going to make this one a more interesting race to watch,” he said.

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