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Q&A: Political science professor expects ‘competitive’ race in 17th Congressional District

Robin Johnson is an adjunct professor of political science at Monmouth College.
Monmouth College
Robin Johnson is an adjunct professor of political science at Monmouth College.

For the first time since Lane Evans retired in 2006, voters in Illinois’ 17th Congressional District will not find an incumbent on the general election ballot.

Republican Esther Joy King is running for a second time, coming off a better-than-expected showing from 2020 when she challenged U.S. Rep. Cheri Bustos. With Bustos deciding not to run for a sixth term, a crowded field has six Democrats vying for the party’s nomination as her successor in a redrawn district that includes most of Peoria and Bloomington-Normal.

Monmouth College political science professor Robin Johnson says that while it may be a challenging election cycle for Democrats, he anticipates a competitive race for an open seat. Reporter Joe Deacon talks with Johnson about the outlook for the 17th District and what factors will shape the campaign.

This conversation has been edited for clarity and brevity.

Joe Deacon: With U.S. Rep. Cheri Bustos not seeking reelection, there's some degree of uncertainty in the 17th Congressional District race. What is your preliminary outlook for the general election?

Robin Johnson: History tells us that the party that's holding the White House struggles to hold seats in Congress, and I think it's likely to influence elections across the country and in this district. It's going to make the race really competitive. History also tells us that open seat elections are usually more competitive than those with an incumbent running. So, I think (those) two historical patterns tell us that this is going to be a competitive race that's going to draw a lot of attention from across the country.

As you mentioned, midterms are typically tough on the party in control. Do you think that Republicans are especially targeting this 17th as a potential seat they can flip?

Johnson: I think for a variety reasons, they are. First is the closeness, the surprising closeness of the last race. Second, King has got a military background and I know some Republican organizations are focusing on candidates with those backgrounds. And I think third, the fact that she's a woman, I think is another factor that the Republicans have purposely tried to recruit women to run in a lot of these seats and found a little more success. I think for those reasons — and she's had some success in fundraising, which is always a critical factor — she's going to be a very viable candidate this cycle.

You mentioned the fundraising. Does the current fundraising gap show an enthusiasm gap and that the Democrats are maybe willing to let the 17th slip if they seem more focused on, say, maybe the 13th District?

Johnson: It would be a mistake, because there's just not that many seats anymore that are competitive, and all these seats are going to be very, very important for each party in gathering enough seats from majority. In our country with division so strong and with the stakes involved, I think it's a mistake for either party to not stay involved in these districts and make the decision to get out too soon.

Her (King) fundraising advantage is definitely part of the story here. I think whoever the Democratic candidate is, you would assume that the Democratic national organization and other supporting interest groups would engage as quickly as possible to help decrease that gap.

Republican Esther Joy King of East Moline participates in a 17th Congressional District candidate forum in East Peoria on Jan. 25, 2020. King, who narrowly lost the 2020 general election to incumbent U.S. Rep. Cheri Bustos, is running for the seat again this year.
Tim Shelley
Republican Esther Joy King of East Moline participates in a 17th Congressional District candidate forum in East Peoria on Jan. 25, 2020. King, who narrowly lost the 2020 general election to incumbent U.S. Rep. Cheri Bustos, is running for the seat again this year.

I realize King does have one primary challenger in Charlie Helmick. But how do you expect her to try and build off the performance she had two years ago against Bustos?

Johnson: Well, I think she'll be looking for, perhaps, to target areas that Trump and her did very well in from the last time. The big question, honestly, is whether the additional turnout we had in 2020 — which was just a booming turnout, especially of rural precincts across the district— will Republicans now without Trump on the ballot be able to get those voters out?

So I think she's got two challenges. One is to duplicate that and try to get these voters out, and second to try to make some progress in traditional Democratic areas and some of these blue collar areas that feature voters without college degrees, with the major fault line in politics now is those with degrees and without degrees. The white working class voter has become the major demographic group, and in a district like this they’re going to be the key I think, in determining the winner.

When the new boundaries were drawn, the 17th was shaped to include population centers like Peoria, Bloomington-Normal, Galesburg, Quad Cities and Rockford. So why does it seem like they're struggling in this cycle, aside from the points we've already made that it's kind of the midterm, off-year situation?

Johnson: They drew the district, artfully, really to try to maximize more urban areas and get rid of some of the rural precincts. I believe I've heard that the index is maybe plus-four Democratic. A lot’s going to depend on turning out voters for Democrats in those urban centers, and adding part of the Bloomington-Normal area is going to be critical in that. A lot of times, they say it's a ‘base election’ or it's a ‘persuasion election;’ I think both parties are going to have to do both this time to ensure victory.

How bad is the political environment locally and nationally for Democrats? What kind of a message can they give that might resonate with voters?

Johnson: My opinion, and I've done a lot of research on it, is they've hurt themselves in rural areas by just not being competitive enough. Now, Cheri Bustos is the exception to that; she's worked really hard in rural areas to reach out to voters and listen and be there and be accessible. Nationally, the party has failed miserably and (they) still don't seem to learn the lessons on being competitive in rural areas and small towns, and I think it's going to hurt them a lot. I think whoever the Democratic candidate is, the first call needs to be (to) Congressman Bustos for advice on how to reach these voters. I think (it) all, again, plays to some of the national trends that are involved that are going to make it a challenging cycle for Democrats, but by no means is this seat not winnable. I think it's going to be close, but I think they certainly have a good shot at it.

How might the reported possible overturning of Roe v. Wade by the Supreme Court impact this 17th District race?

Johnson: Well, in most of the polls I see, there are roughly an equal number of people with really intense views on both sides of this issue. Especially in a district like this, public opinion is fairly split between those who support (abortion) restrictions and those who support more personal freedom to make the decision. So, my guess is it'll be pretty much a wash of those who are intensely in favor of Roe v. Wade versus those that are opposed.

If anything maybe — again, since we talked earlier about the dynamic of years in which (there’s) a Democrat in the White House, perhaps turnout on the Democratic side is a little less motivated — maybe it'll cause some people on the Democratic side to get out that might not have been (motivated). It will be a small amount, but in a close race it could make a difference. So there might be a small advantage there just because, again, the dynamics of a Democrat in the White House. It could also motivate more people on the Republican side that might have (sat) out to come out, so I think generally it might be a wash in a district like this.

What kind of ramifications could this have on general elections across Illinois, and possibly even nationally?

Johnson: I think that might give a slight edge to Democrats just because pro-choice forces are going to be quite motivated now as they see the Supreme Court making a definite tilt toward repealing Roe vs. Wade, which has been a big fear over the years as more Republicans have been nominated to the Supreme Court. Especially under the circumstances that we had when Justice Scalia passed away and (Sen. Mitch) McConnell wouldn’t allow a vote, and then rushed through under President Trump (confirmation) of Justice Barrett. It kind of fulfills all the fears that those on the Democratic and progressive side had about what was coming. So we'll see. I think overall, it might give a slight edge to Democrats nationwide in getting people who feel strongly about this issue motivated to get to the polls, again, because they might not have been because of the traditional dynamics of having somebody in their party in the White House.

What could a Democratic (majority) Congress do in wake of a Supreme Court decision like this? Is there anything they can do to circumvent the repeal of Roe or anything like that?

Johnson: Yeah, Congress could pass a law that basically codifies Roe vs. Wade. The big question would be, would they suspend the filibuster in the Senate in order to pass it in (the) Senate. Of course, in the Senate the parties are tied with 50 seats each, but the vice president would break a tie and I'm sure that (President) Biden obviously would sign that piece of legislation. So there might be an effort now, in the remaining months when the Democrats have control, to try to do something like that. They appear to have the votes in the House because of their majority there. Again, they'd have to modify the filibuster rules in the Senate to do this; I already saw where Sen. Bernie Sanders is calling for that. So, if this decision does take place in the near term, you could see Democrats rushing to pass a piece of legislation that basically would reverse the Supreme Court decision.

A leak of this kind is unprecedented with the Supreme Court. What kind of fallout could we see just from the leak itself?

Johnson: That's kind of bothersome. Partisan politics is playing an increasing role in the court, which is supposed to be immune from that. Look, I know politics plays some role in these decisions based on who's nominated and all. But really, over the years, it's playing a bigger role and this type of leak doesn't do a lot to instill confidence in the court as a final arbiter to justice, which should concern us all. I don't approve of that; I think it's a horrible way to get word out about this and I fear the precedent it’s going to set in the future with the courts, where a decision that maybe somebody — a clerk or somebody — doesn't like will leak word of that decision early.

The Supreme Court is deciding the law of the land, and we should hold this institution in high regard, and for years, it has been held that way. But with the increasing politicization of decisions and the nominating process, and now with word leaking out on decision adverse to some folks … it's just one of the last few remaining institutions that seemed immune from politics, but even that seems to be going by the wayside now. So we should all be concerned about this quite a bit.

Democratic candidates in the 17th Congressional District primary participate in a forum Tuesday night at Bradley University in Peoria.
Emily Bollinger
Democratic candidates in the 17th Congressional District primary participate in a forum Tuesday night at Bradley University in Peoria.

Do any of the (17th District) Democratic nominees have a distinct advantage over the others? And, how much do you think the party will then back whomever comes away with the nomination?

Johnson: I'll answer the last question first. Again, because of how close the numbers are nationally and just lack of competitive districts like this, the party would be really crazy not to get engaged. Which candidates are more competitive? I think you've got to look at the basics and the fundamentals of politics: name identification is critical, and none of the candidates has really been too successful yet in fundraising over the others.

I think candidates with name identification, for example: Eric Sorensen has been a weatherman in both the Rockford and Quad City media markets; that gives him somewhat of an edge where people are at least familiar with the name. Litesa Wallace is a former state representative from Rockford (and) will at least have name recognition in that area. Angela Normoyle is a county board member in Rock Island County, and then Jonathan Logemann is a city councilman. They’ve all got an advantage of having at least some name identification.

The critical region is going to be down where you’re at, which is Peoria and Bloomington-Normal. If you have geographic voting — where, say, Quad City residents want to keep the seat in the Quad Cities; it's been there for many, many years. Will they vote strategically because of that? Peoria and Bloomington-Normal won’t have any of the front-running candidates running, and so it's wide open and that's where I would expect candidates — in the primaries anyway — to spending quite a bit of time. I'm not sure they've done that; again, none of the campaigns at this point really stand out, I think, for being dynamic in terms of energy or in messaging that I've seen.

That was going to be my next question. It does seem all the candidates on the Democratic side are from the Quad Cities or the Rockford areas, so how big is it going to be for them to try and really grow that name recognition in the Peoria and Bloomington markets?

Johnson: It’s critical; I think that's the whole ballgame really. In Rockford, you’ve got several legitimate candidates up there battling. In the Quad Cities, you've got Normoyle and Sorensen again. But nobody really out in this area, in the Peoria and Bloomington areas. So that's really where I expect it to be decided. I would think that endorsements from local Democrats and some visibility over there would be critical, and that area can very well determine the winner. Where you have the geographic voting, that vote is up for grabs in the Rockford and Quad City area, so that makes the Peoria and Bloomington-Normal areas very, very important.

Why do you think the Democrats struggle to get anyone with more name recognition to run for this office this year?

Johnson: I think part of it may be just, again, the dynamics of I think it's going to be a tough year for Democrats. They've kind of made it tougher on themselves to some degree with some of their decisions and messaging they've done, such as 'defund the police' — which in some ways is unfair, but you still have activists in the party trumpeting that, which makes it harder for interstates and districts like this.

There was a blue-chip candidate in Rockford, the mayor of Rockford, Tom McNamara, who considered the race and opted out. He's got a good situation as mayor of Rockford and he decided not to run. I think it may just be people deciding to take a pass because the district looks challenging, and also the year involved; it's going to be a tough Democratic year. Now, again, I don't know that people look at it and decided for those reasons.

The other thing is just being a congressperson, it's just a grind: traveling back and forth, and traveling in a very, very big district. It’s hard. It's a special type of person who really dedicates their lives for that, and it’s something that the public doesn’t appreciate. I think that may play a factor as well: why would you want to give up, say, a seat in the General Assembly — the Peoria area has several members there who are Democrats — why would you want to give that up to be taking on the amount of driving and traveling you're going to be doing as congressperson. So, that might enter into it as well.

Do you think, also, the fact that it's only a two-year term and that you're almost campaigning all the time, does that make it that much harder of a job to be a congressman?

Johnson: The two-year limit is definitely a factor, too, because you're constantly fundraising and you're constantly looking over your shoulder at the next election. Especially in a district like this, whoever wins is going to be in two years facing an election with a larger electorate because of the presidential year. If you've got a Biden-Trump matchup, it's going to be a very volatile year again, and so that certainly can play a role, too. Why go into this grind of continuous fundraising and all the social media criticism that's out there? It’s hard, and we really should appreciate these folks for stepping up more to take on the challenges that being a legislator in a two-year term faces.

Contact Joe at jdeacon@ilstu.edu.