It was good to run into Bob Gaffner a while back. The genteel retired college administrator from Greenville projects the agreeable elegance of an elder statesman.
If the name provides a spark of recognition, it's because a generation ago Gaffner almost was the congressman for most of Metro East. Unthinkable as it was at the time, he was nearly elected as a Republican in a territory where GOP officeholders were almost rare enough to display in a zoo.
Some labeled him a perennial candidate. While Gaffner did run in six consecutive elections, there was a difference: Perennials don't almost win.
He first took on Rep. Mel Price, D-East St. Louis, back in 1982 and then twice more. Price was a potentially ripe, but delicate, target. He had been in office 38 years, risen to significant power and was beloved for efficient constituent services. He also was sliding fast into dementia.
Gaffner, ever the gentleman, never laid a glove on him.
But Price's condition was beyond hiding by 1986, and Gaffner lost by a minuscule 943 votes. It provided proof that a Democrat could be vulnerable in the Metro East-anchored district.
This is instructive history, given that we may now be seeing the most competitive congressional race in that district since 1988.
Price died in office that year, spurring a special election in which Jerry Costello, chairman of the St. Clair County Board, surprised no one as the Democrats' choice. Predictably, Gaffner ran for the GOP again. Costello won by about 2,000 votes in the closest call he would ever have.
The margin was wider when the men met in the general election that fall. In Gaffner's last try, in 1990, he was outpolled almost 2 to 1. Costello spent 20 more years as safe from challenge as Price had been.
Price was a sportswriter serving as a private in the Army when he defeated incumbent Calvin Johnson, a Republican, in 1944. Costello was an accomplished politician, lying in wait for the opening, when Price passed away 44 years later.
This year's race for what has become the new 12th District is much different. The boundaries have changed repeatedly over the decades, and pieces of Metro East are in two other districts. The old urbanized core remains, although diluted by substantial Republican votes as the district dribbles down the Mississippi River to Cairo.
Gaffner was a moderate Republican, in his 50s and 60s, when he campaigned on shoestring budgets in a trusty old motor home dubbed "Mean Green Machine." The Republicans who came behind him in the scramble to challenge Costello typically lacked name recognition or money.
But today's GOP nominee, Jason Plummer, is conservative, young and funded — the 30-year-old scion of the R.P. Lumber fortune. His political debut was as running mate on Bill Brady's losing ticket for governor in 2010.
If the Republicans' position feels stronger this time, the Democrats' feels weaker.
Price sort of came from left field back in '44, but Costello was a calculating character from a savvy political family. He rose through the ranks of the St. Clair County party machine, where he learned how to raise money, court votes and wait for his moment.
Yet for all of Costello's past planning, the Democratic Party was obviously caught unprepared by the announcement this year that he would retire.
Brad Harriman, a retired regional school superintendent, won the primary but ran into health problems and bailed out. Enter William Enyart, 62, substituted by the 12 affected counties' Democratic chairmen. He's a lawyer and former Illinois National Guard adjutant general who has even less campaign experience than Plummer, although he can count on national support in the Democrats' quest to retake the House.
Even the district itself is somewhat new, with boundaries redone after the 2010 census. It includes all of St. Clair County, which went with Democrats in every presidential race since 1972, and a significant slice of Madison, which last went Republican in 1984. Democrats who took the Price-Costello longevity for granted may never have imagined the day they'd have to fight hard for this seat. Were the Republicans to win and hold on for as long, the Democrats would be shut out until 2080.