CHICAGO — Illinois Republicans emerged Wednesday from a combative primary in which a freshman congressman ousted a 20-year veteran and pledged to aggressively defend the party's recent gains, despite a new congressional map that whittles the state into districts favoring Democrats.
While GOP leaders expressed confidence they could hold onto most of the seats they won in 2010 during a tea party-backed surge, Democrats eyed Illinois as a prime opportunity to inch closer to control of the U.S. House.
"Illinois is going to be absolutely pivotal to what happens in November," said New York Rep. Steve Israel, chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.
Longtime U.S. Rep. Don Manzullo was the biggest-name casualty of Tuesday's primary races, but his seat is almost certain to stay in Republican hands because no Democrat has declared a run in the north-central Illinois district.
U.S. Rep. Adam Kinzinger, a former Air Force pilot who received an endorsement from House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, defeated Manzullo in a nasty incumbent vs. incumbent battle.
The most high-profile fall races solidified during the primary include matchups between tea party firebrand U.S. Rep. Joe Walsh and Iraq war veteran Tammy Duckworth, longtime GOP U.S. Rep. Judy Biggert and former one-term U.S. Rep. Bill Foster and the contest for the state's only open congressional seat.
Israel calls the election between Walsh, who has been in the national spotlight for criticizing President Barack Obama, and former U.S. Veteran Affairs Assistant Secretary Duckworth "one of the most glaring contrasts" among U.S. House races.
Duckworth, who easily defeated a former Illinois deputy treasurer, Raja Krishnamoorthi Tuesday, received early endorsements from U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin and Obama adviser David Axelrod. She has painted Walsh as extreme and out-of-touch with the Democratic-friendly territory in Chicago's northwest suburbs. Walsh won a surprisingly close contest over three-term incumbent U.S. Rep. Melissa Bean in 2010, when four other newcomer Republicans won congressional seats.
But Walsh, who chose to run in the heavily Democratic district to avoid a primary run against another incumbent, said Duckworth is already a Washington insider and thinks voters in the northwest Chicago suburban district will resent it. He has challenged Duckworth to monthly debates until November.
"I am extreme and these are extreme times," Walsh said. "The Democrats are out of touch."
Democrats say that another congressional race, forming in far flung suburbs southwest of Chicago, is another shot at a pickup. Biggert, who first took office in 1999, has to run in expanded territory that's more Democratic-friendly in the contest against Foster, a scientist.
But Republicans believe that they can defend the other seats and are banking on an anti-incumbency mood.
"We are not sitting back and saying, `Well this might be difficult,'" said Mike Shields, political director for the National Republican Congressional Committee. "We feel very confident."
He said that even with the map, there was only one Republican incumbent vs. incumbent race and that Democrats lost the longest-serving Democrat in the state's congressional delegation. U.S. Rep. Jerry Costello abruptly announced his retirement in October, leaving the state's only open seat.
Republicans are convinced the area has been culturally conservative and is trending Republican.
Jason Plummer, a lumber company executive, and Brad Harriman, a Democratic former regional education administrator are the general election rivals in what observers expect to be a pricey race.
Only two men – both Democrats – have represented the 12th Congressional District since World War II. The district runs from St. Louis' Illinois suburbs to the state's southernmost tip.
Plummer and Harriman are courting votes in a district encompassing a large swath of a chronically economically stressed territory. And Harriman, even weeks before winning the Democratic primary, has hounded Plummer about the lumberman's failure to make his tax returns public.
Plummer's has said he's not going to campaign on Harriman's schedule.
Other closely-watched races in Illinois include the contest between tea party U.S. Rep. Bobby Schilling and former health care executive Cheri Bustos, who had an endorsement from Durbin, and freshman Republican U.S. Rep. Bob Dold and Democrat Brad Schneider, a businessman who received establishment Democrat backing.
More Democratic territory has been added to Dold's suburban Chicago district. He won Republican U.S. Sen. Mark Kirk's old seat in 2010.
"The voters are looking for someone to work in a bipartisan fashion," he said.
Associated Press writer Jim Suhr in St. Louis contributed to this report.
Sophia Tareen can be reached at http://twitter.com/sophiatareen