One of the most closely watched races in Tuesday's election will be the Democratic primary for the 13th Congressional District.
That's a seat now held by U.S. Rep. Rodney Davis, a Republican from Taylorville. It's a district that Democrats hope to pick up in November’s midterm election if they intend to win back the House.
The gerrymandered, sprawling 13th District includes parts or all of 14 counties, stretching from the western half of Bloomington-Normal all the way south to Edwardsville.
Davis has held the seat since 2013, but he’s seen as potentially vulnerable in a district drawn by Democrats specifically to give Democrats a shot.
“In the right election, with the right candidate, it’s a competitive district,” said Kent Redfield, a political scientist at the University of Illinois.
While the district includes many Republican-leaning areas, it also includes Democratic pockets like college campuses.
“It’s kind of a strange district,” said Redfield. “There is an education community component to the district.”
President Donald Trump won the 13th District in 2016, with 49 percent of the vote, over Democrat Hillary Clinton (44 percent). Mitt Romney narrowly beat out President Barack Obama there in 2012.
Trump is a polarizing figure, to put it mildly, but it's still unclear if those who voted for him in 2016 will stay with the Republicans in November.
Davis himself doesn't seem eager to put much distance between himself and Trump. During an interview in January, GLT asked Davis if he was concerned about not aligning too closely with Trump.
“God no. Why wouldn’t I support the Republican administration on many issues that are important to all of us? We’ve had historic regulatory rollbacks. We’ve had historic tax cuts. I don’t think it’s a bad thing to be on the side of infrastructure investment when the administration is calling for it,” Davis said.
Democrats are energized locally and across the country, hoping they can pick up the 24 Republican seats they'd need to flip the House blue. In the 13th District, Democrats have five candidates to choose from: Jonathan Ebel, David Gill, Erik Jones, Betsy Dirksen Londrigan, and Angel Sides.
These five have appeared at several candidate forums leading up to Tuesday's primary. There's not a ton of room between them on the big issues. Most support universal healthcare, oppose the recently passed tax overhaul, and want more gun control.
This was evident about six weeks ago, when Londrigan and Jones—the two fundraising leaders—released very similar ads on consecutive days using personal family stories to promote their positions on healthcare.
Betsy Dirksen Londrigan
Their personal backgrounds are where voters might find their preferred candidate.
Londrigan lives in Springfield and is a professional fundraiser who's raised money for U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., who has endorsed her. She's also been endorsed by some other Democratic heavy-hitters, including New York senator and potential presidential candidate Kirsten Gillibrand, Illinois Secretary of State Jesse White, and the United Steelworkers union.
Londrigan has also won the backing of Emily's List, a national organization that tries to elect pro-choice Democratic women to office. She’s part of a wave of first-time women running for office.
“In 2018 this is a great year to have a woman on the ballot in Congress,” Londrigan said at GLT’s forum. “So ladies, we’ve got to pull it together and take one more step toward equality in Congress.”
Londrigan has outraised the other four Democrats in the race. Her campaign has raised more than $560,895, around $84,000 more than her closest rival. And that doesn't include another $166,641 in independent help she's received from the Emily's List political action committee, Women Vote.
Also receiving lots of endorsements has been Erik Jones from Edwardsville. He is a former Illinois assistant attorney general who also worked as a congressional investigator in Washington, D.C.
Jones said he's a progressive with the experience to beat Davis. He’s pointed to work on issues like protecting those with student loan debt and climate change.
“On issue after issue after issue, I’ve been on the side of the people of this district, and Rodney (Davis) has been on the side of special interests,” Jones said at GLT’s forum.
Jones has picked up endorsements from the Chicago Tribune, the Springfield Journal-Register, and his former boss, Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan. He's also won support from the League of Conservation Voters Action Fund and the Sierra Club. He's also the closest fundraiser to Londrigan, both with $172,000 in cash on hand as of Feb. 28, according to federal campaign disclosures.
The Illinois State University College Democrats has endorsed Jones. ISU College Democrats President Billy Stripeik said Jones has the best chance of defeating Davis.
“We looked at his fundraising numbers, his experience working on the House Oversight Committee, the Senate Commerce Committee … and as a former Illinois assistant attorney general, Erik has the right experience to be ready on Day 1,” Stripeik told GLT.
Another progressive in the race is Jonathan Ebel, a religion professor at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. At GLT’s forum, Ebel described himself as “the only ballet-dancing, marathon-running, religion-professor veteran in the race,” a nod to his Navy service and his three ballet-loving daughters.
Ebel has been endorsed by With Honor, an organization that seeks to elect veterans, as well as Champaign-Urbana leaders such as former state Rep. Naomi Jakobsson and former Urbana Mayor Laurel Prussing.
Ebel said he supports a universal healthcare program he calls Medicare for All. He says the Affordable Care Act hasn’t done enough to drive down costs, especially for people with individual plans.
“I believe we could do a better job as progressive Democrats arguing for the financial benefits of Medicare for All,” Ebel said. “People oftentimes point to the expense without acknowledging that we are already in a very expensive and inefficient system, and that by most measures Medicare for All would reduce those costs and deliver a better product. I think that Americans are always open to that line of argument.”
Democrat David Gill, an emergency room physician, is the only candidate from Bloomington-Normal. Gill is a favorite among local progressives, but he's run and lost in the 13th District (or its pre-redistricting predecessor) five different times.
But Gill gave Davis his biggest scare in 2012, when Gill lost by around 1,000 votes—one of the closest races in the country that year. That came after a tough Democratic primary, when Gill beat fellow Democrat Matthew J. Goetten by just 163 votes. National Democrats supported Goetten, not Gill, he said.
In 2018, national Democrats are “not with me and are actively working against me,” Gill said.
“At the end of the day, that’s fine. Part of my message is about needing to stand up against this corporate ownership of our politics and government. The DCCC (Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee) takes all kinds of corporate money,” Gill said. “I get it, but it’s a shame. But it speaks to the schism within my party that we saw laid wide open in the Hillary vs. Bernie of 2016, and the battle over the DNC chairmanship a few months ago.
“The 13th District is a microcosm of that schism, I believe,” Gill said.
Gill has been endorsed by former U.S. Rep. Phil Hare from Rock Island, a Bernie Sanders supporter, and progressive groups like the Justice Democrats. But Gill has struggled to raise money, with just $4,328 in cash on hand, trailing Dirksen, Jones, and Ebel by quite a bit.
The fifth and final candidate in the race is Angel Sides, a late entry into the race, only showing up at December's candidate-filing deadline. She's since appeared at candidate forums with the other four.
Sides works as a substitute teacher for Springfield Public Schools. She’s been a political activist for more than 10 years.
Sides said her No. 1 concern is the role of for-profit media in shaping public debate over important issues. Sides supports universal healthcare but said media owned by corporations do not accurately report on the issue. (Sides said she does political commentary on Access 4, a public access TV channel in Springfield.)
“Media is one of those issues that affects all the issues,” said Sides. “When people don’t have the right information and vote against their own best interest, I’d have no problem with that if they weren’t voting against my best interest too.”
Whichever Democrat emerges on March 20 will face an uphill battle. The well-regarded Cook Political Report considers it a competitive race, but likely to stay Republican.
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