ST. ANNE, Ill. -- Surrounded by fields that grow corn, soybeans, melons and potatoes, this tiny rural village is 65 miles from Chicago but light years away from the big city. Still, St. Anne and a lot of the farm country around it has now been dragged into the metropolis as part of an ambitious political strategy focused on the 2012 national elections.
A new census-based political map drawn by the state's Democratic-controlled Legislature, and signed into law by Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn, has taken swaths of suburban and rural Illinois and added them to the districts of veteran Chicago Democrats such as U.S. Rep. Jackson Jr., who could be St. Anne's next representative.
The move was one of the boldest by the national political parties this year as they sought to benefit by changing political boundaries.
The new map should help Democrats and hurt Republicans in Illinois in 2012, and boost the Democrats' hopes for retaking control of the U.S. House. But it's creating an awkward situation for some of the people who live in these rural areas, who could soon find themselves represented by officials who live in a very different universe.
"He's a long way from home, isn't he?" said Scott Rigsby, a former warehouse worker who lives in the village of some 1,300 people, referring to Jackson's political base on Chicago's industrial South Side. For a hamlet that goes by the motto of "preserving a rural life," Rigsby said, "We're way too far away for him to have his own personal finger on this town."
The political maneuvering began this year when legislatures and governors began redrawing political districts with the new census data as required by law. Because Republicans won major gains in the midterm elections last fall, they had the upper hand in most states, and have been aggressively massaging boundaries to their advantage.
But in Illinois, where Democrats control all branches of state government, the party had its prime opportunity. If the new map survives an expected GOP court challenge, Democrats could knock off as many as five GOP House members who now find themselves in districts with many more Democratic voters or much tougher competition.
Jackson and four other Democratic congressmen would have districts that stretch like tentacles from Chicago to take in – and politically neutralize – suburban and rural areas that recently have sent Republicans to Congress.
The effort is an important part of the Democratic Party's national strategy. "Illinois and particularly the suburbs of Chicago have always been a center of gravity in our path to retake the House majority, because those districts have been competitive and will remain competitive," Rep. Steve Israel of New York, chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, told reporters in Washington at a breakfast hosted by The Christian Science Monitor. Republicans now hold a 48-seat advantage in the House.
The new map places four freshman Republicans and one veteran GOP lawmaker in districts where they would have to run against other incumbents in 2012. Jackson's expanded territory would take away parts of the current district of U.S. Rep. Adam Kinzinger, one of the GOP freshmen whose victories in 2010 bolstered the tea party coalition in Washington. The new Jackson district even includes Kinzinger's hometown of Manteno in Kankakee County.
Karl Kruse, a farmer and the GOP county chairman, is not optimistic about Kinzinger's prospects. "Reality is that this district was drawn in a way that I don't think Adam could win," said Kruse.
For his part, Kinzinger will say only that he "will definitely be running again." He wouldn't say whether he'll move somewhere else to do it.
Elsewhere, the map would force freshman GOP Rep. Robert Dold to face veteran Chicago Democrat Jan Schakowsky, who won her race in 2010 with 66 percent of the vote. The reworked districts of other Chicago-area Democrats, including Reps. Daniel Lipinski and Mike Quigley, would now cut into Republican territory.
Democrats defend their new congressional map as fair, competitive and in line with the Voting Rights Act, which requires map drawers to protect the interests of minorities. They say the expanding Chicago districts are the inevitable result of the state losing one congressional seat, from 19 to 18, because of its slowing population growth.
Kankakee is Republican territory – the home of former Republican Gov. George Ryan, Kinzinger and many other elected officials over the years. Jackson isn't exactly unknown here. The son of the Rev. Jesse Jackson, he has served in Congress for 15 years. But he's known for his role in Chicago-area issues, such as the push for a third airport there, and inner-city causes.
Jackson's chief of staff, Rick Bryant, said the congressman is ready to serve a new crop of farm constituents. "We may have more in common than people believe," Bryant said.
But Kruse, the county GOP chairman, said Kankakee County voters care a lot about agriculture, and that Jackson supported so-called "cap and trade" environmental legislation, which farmers didn't like because it would have increased regulation and the cost of diesel fuel and fertilizer.
"For a legislator who has not had an agricultural community in his or her district before, it would be a challenge," said Kankakee County Farm Bureau manager Chad Miller said. "But somebody as seasoned as Congressman Jackson is, I'm sure he's up for that challenge."
At a dinky gas station in the village of Hopkins Park – population 837_ 83-year-old John Bender said he'll be interested to see what Jackson could do for the area if he wins the district in the 2012 election.
"Sometimes the further it is the better it is; sometimes the closer it is the worse it is," said Bender, who says he switched to become a Republican eight years ago. "So, if he does his job, that's as good as anybody else."