Democrat Christine Cegelis lost to longtime Republican U.S. Representative Henry Hyde last year 56 percent to 44 percent. Since then, she has argued that the national Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) ought to back her this time around in an open-seat contest against Republican Peter Roskam. Hyde retired after his close encounter with Cegelis.

Cegelis has become a cause célèbre among liberal activists throughout the country who contend that the DCCC is out of touch with the party's base and doesn't know how to win elections. The activists also believe that national party leaders have wimped out when it comes to truly opposing President George W. Bush on the war in Iraq and on domestic issues.

Illinois U.S. Representative Rahm Emanuel runs the DCCC, and Emanuel hasn't been nearly as impressed with Cegelis as her legion of hardcore fans has been. So, Emanuel started looking elsewhere. He eventually found someone who could turn out to be Illinois' next rock-star politician.

Illinois Army National Guard Major Tammy Duckworth lost both her legs and the partial use of one of her arms when a rocket-propelled grenade exploded in the cockpit of the helicopter she was flying in Iraq. She is a gutsy war hero who demanded that the Army let her return to combat duty once she had recovered.

U.S. Senator Dick Durbin was so impressed with Duckworth that he invited her to be his guest at the president's State of the Union address. Later, she testified to a congressional committee and caught the political bug.

Durbin and Emanuel decided that Duckworth would be the best candidate in Hyde's old district. Cegelis and her followers were outraged. The venerable Henry Hyde retired because of Cegelis' campaign last year, they said. Shouldn't that be worth something?

Well, not really. George W. Bush defeated John Kerry 53-47 in Hyde's district last year. So Cegelis underperformed Kerry's result by 3 percentage points.

Cegelis has based much of her campaign on U.S. Representative Melissa Bean's experience. Bean lost the first time to Republican Phil Crane, then beat him last year. But when Bean lost to Crane, she outperformed Al Gore's 2000 presidential performance by a point.

It's difficult, to say the least, to buttress an argument that Cegelis is entitled to another shot when she underperformed the top of the ticket.

There's more to this, however. I heard a month or so ago about a poll taken for a prospective Democratic candidate who decided not to run for the Hyde seat. I finally got my hands on it, not coincidentally, after Major Duckworth announced her candidacy.

The poll of likely Democratic primary voters was taken August 8 through 10, and the results here are a subset of a general-election poll, so the margin of error is pretty high, plus or minus 6.5 percent. The data was also "weighted by age" by pollsters Bennet, Petts, & Blumenthal "to better reflect the composition of the electorate." Still, they're the only numbers we have.

• Just 28 percent of likely Democratic primary voters in her district knew who Christine Cegelis was. Remember, this is after her high-profile race against Hyde and a strong effort to keep her campaign going in the months since then. Cegelis has burned through a bunch of money in the past year to keep her name out there, but just over a quarter of Democratic primary voters recognized her name in August.

• Forty-eight percent of those same likely Democratic primary voters knew who Peter O'Malley was, even though he had never run for office before. O'Malley dropped out of the Democratic primary race a couple of months after the poll was taken.

• Before he dropped out, the poll showed that O'Malley was leading Cegelis 26-19 (or 22-16 excluding "leaners") in the primary. Even with that high margin of error, a 7-point lead is still pretty solid - about an 86-percent probability that O'Malley was ahead and the result wasn't due to sampling error.

• Just 15 percent had a favorable view of Cegelis, while 5 percent had an unfavorable view. That's bad news for someone who thinks that her last race will propel her to victory in the next contest.

The poll is flawed because of its small sample size and weighting, but until someone shows me better numbers and explains to me why underperforming the top of the ticket last year was no big deal, I can see why the DCCC decided that Christine Cegelis wasn't the best Democratic candidate for that district.

Rich Miller also publishes Capitol Fax, a daily political newsletter. He can be reached at (

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