03/17/2012 04:04 pm ET Updated Mar 19, 2012

Ilya Sheyman, Progressive Groups Team Up In First Primary Test To Elect More Progressive Democrats

WASHINGTON -- In a newly redrawn congressional district covering the North Shore Chicago suburbs, progressive groups are mounting their first foray into the Democratic primaries of 2012 in an effort to elect progressive candidates across the country. With a combination of a low six-figure campaign of mailings and robocalls and strong grassroots volunteer and donor mobilization, this effort comes in contrast to the super PAC television advertising making news in both the Republican presidential primary and in other congressional races across Illinois.

The Democratic primary race in Illinois' 10th District pits Waukegan community organizer Ilya Sheyman against businessman Brad Schneider. Progressive groups like MoveOn.org, USAction, the Progressive Change Campaign Committee (PCCC) and the Communications Workers of America (CWA) have all gotten involved to help Sheyman win the Democratic nod to face Rep. Bob Dold (R-Ill.). They also hope that this marks the beginning of a successful cycle for progressives running in contested primaries. Sheyman worked previously worked as the National Mobilization Director for MoveOn during the healthcare reform debate.

"The exciting thing about it is there's a higher degree of interest in intervening in primaries than in 2010," says USAction Program Director Alan Charney. "This time there are a bunch of races that are on everyone's radar screen. Illinois 10 is the first one."

USAction has teamed up with MoveOn.org and the CWA to run an independent expenditure campaign that targets Schneider with five mailers and robocalls. The mailings all focus on Schneider's contributions to Republican congressional candidates and their votes on Social Security, Medicare, the Dodd-Frank Wall Street reform bill and a woman's right to choose. So far, the effort has only cost $87,317, although it is expected to rise to the low six figures. That small amount of money has helped shift the race, according to Charney.

"We know it's working because it brought Schneider to respond," Charney said. "We feel good about that."

Schneider's television ad responds to the mailers and the robocalls by accusing Sheyman's "out-of-state special interests" of "spreading lies about progressive Brad Schneider." In a recent candidate forum, Schneider stated that those contributions to Republicans were only made due to their "their support of a strong U.S.-Israel relationship."

A poll commissioned by PCCC and MoveOn.org found Sheyman taking a commanding lead over Schneider -- 45 percent to 27 -- after trailing in previous polls conducted before the mailing campaign.

The independent expenditure effort is not the only one undertaken by the progressive groups to help out Sheyman. PCCC is mobilizing its members in the 10th District to help Sheyman, as are the other groups. PCCC has also tapped its membership for small donations to Sheyman, for a total of about $125,000 to date, making them the biggest single fundraiser for his campaign.

Neil Sroka, PCCC's press secretary, notes that the strength of his organization, and of the progressive movement in general, isn't in making big expenditures: "Our support isn't about the money that we're putting into the race. That pales in comparison to what our members bring to the race. What we are about is boots on the ground."

PCCC is also working with Democracy for America, whose founder, former DNC chairman and Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, has endorsed Sheyman through the latter group's Call Out The Vote program, which can target calls to voters in the district.

The groups involved in Illinois-10 see a Sheyman victory as a signal for Democrats running across the country, as they eye opportunities to get involved on behalf of progressive candidates this cycle.

"[Voters in Illinois' 10th District] have a tremendous candidate rooted in progressive values and who built a grassroots campaign," Sroka said. "That's a big takeaway nationally about this race. If he wins, that will send a huge message to Democrats across the country: If you run as a progressive with spine and conviction, you'll not only build a campaign with grassroots and volunteers but you'll build a campaign that can win in the general election."

Other races at which the groups are looking include New Mexico's 1st District, Maryland's 6th District, New York's 10th District and Connecticut's 5th District.

Not everyone thinks that a Sheyman win in the primary will be good for Democrats in the general election race against Rep. Dold. As Cook Political Report's David Wasserman told Slate on March 15, "This is all about how the PCCC/IL-10 Dems will find a new way to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory."

PCCC's Sroka disagrees, contending that this cycle is different in a way that benefits progressive candidates, as issues like collective bargaining and women's rights have become national flashpoints since the 2010 cycle elected Republicans to offices across the country.

"Progressives are uniquely positioned to do well this time, because the issues that we have this time are truly fundamental. And we need to send [people like Sheyman] to Washington," Sroka said. "You don't start off by compromising your position. You need to go in there and fight for what you believe in and get the people that support you and push."

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article stated incorrectly that Illinois' newly redrawn 10th District contained a northern slice of the city of Chicago. In fact, no part of the city is included within the boundaries of the 10th District.