Since wresting away a previously Democratic Metro East congressional seat almost 20 years ago, U.S. Rep. John Shimkus, R-Ill., has been virtually untouchable by Democrats. He won his 2014 re-election with 75 percent of the vote. No Democrat has bothered to file for his seat this year.
But in what has become a familiar story in Republican enclaves around the country, Shimkus now faces an in-party challenge from his right. Kyle McCarter, a tough-talking state legislator with Tea Party backing, is fighting Shimkus for the GOP nomination in next week’s Illinois primary.
McCarter, 53, of Lebanon, says that Shimkus — a longtime anti-abortion, anti-tax, NRA-backed incumbent who is widely considered one of Illinois’ most conservative congressmen — is too liberal. Several conservative organizations agree, and have backed McCarter.
“The congressman has betrayed us in a lot of ways,” McCarter said last week. He cited Shimkus’ support for last year’s $1.1 trillion omnibus spending bill. The bipartisan compromise measure averted a government shutdown, but enraged the most conservative members of Congress because it didn’t cut off funding for Planned Parenthood.
“After 20 years, [Shimkus] has become part of the problem in Washington,” said McCarter. “He is a liberal Republican and his record shows it … Those are not the values of the people of this district.”
Shimkus, 58, of Collinsville, pointed to his support from a slew of top national conservative organizations regarding abortion, guns and taxes. “I’ve only voted against Obamacare like 45,000 times,” he joked.
Shimkus expressed amusement that his conservatism could be questioned — and he suggested that the very definition of the word seems to be under debate now. “It’s a battle of semantics: How conservative is ‘conservative’?” he asked.
“There’s weird stuff in the air,” he added.
The 15th Congressional District covers most of Madison County and spreads out to encompass the whole southeastern portion of Illinois, from the Champaign-Urbana area down to Metropolis at the southern end of the state.
The GOP primary is March 15. With no one running for the Democratic nomination, the Shimkus-McCarter contest will effectively decide the seat.
Not a rabble-rouser
Shimkus, a former Madison County treasurer, was swept into Congress in 1996 as part of a conservative wave that broke the Democratic Party’s long hold on Southern Illinois and turned the region largely Republican. His stances since then have generally checked all the boxes on traditional conservative issues.
“I don’t think you could have a much more conservative record,” said John Jackson, a political scientist at the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University Carbondale. “But he isn’t by disposition a rabble-rouser. Stylistically, he tends to be calm and soft-spoken.”
That kind of nonconfrontational conservatism, Jackson said, doesn’t always cut it with today’s more activist Republicans, to whom conservatism is often as much an attitude as a list of policy positions.
“Talking tough is the key,” Jackson said. “It seems to turn on style and mannerism and how loud you are.”
In written announcements of their McCarter endorsements, some conservative groups have complained that Shimkus has joined in compromises that Republican congressional leaders have made with the Obama Administration on things like funding Planned Parenthood and raising the federal debt ceiling, rather than standing with the most conservative blocs opposing those compromises.
The powerful conservative group Club for Growth’s endorsement of McCarter has garnered national attention, because Shimkus is one of only a handful of sitting Republicans the group has targeted with significant money. “While Kyle McCarter would bring a fresh breath of fiscal conservatism to Washington, his opponent, John Shimkus, is the epitome of what’s wrong with Congress,” the group said in a statement.
Phyllis Schlafly’s Eagle Forum chided Shimkus for “voting to keep money flowing to President Obama’s priorities” by supporting budgetary compromises. Family-PAC accused Shimkus of “a total surrender to Harry Reid and President Obama” on domestic spending.
Shimkus’ endorsers — including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the National Right to Life Committee, the NRA and the Illinois Farm Bureau — have stressed his record in Congress. “John is a proven leader,” stated the Farm Bureau endorsement, which lauds what it calls “an incredible track record” on issues like trade, crop insurance and “EPA overregulation.”
As is usually the case with incumbents, Shimkus enjoys a major campaign funding advantage over McCarter. FEC records show McCarter has raised about $141,000 in the most recent reporting period, against some $1.3 million that Shimkus has raised.
But McCarter has been aided by third-party expenditures, including more than $280,000 in television ad buys and other spending by The Club for Growth.
TERM LIMITS, CAMPAIGN FUNDS
Both candidates are navigating nonideological issues as well.
Shimkus has come under criticism during the campaign — as he has in the past several re-election campaigns — for breaking a pledge he made during his first campaign not to serve more than 12 years. January 2017 will mark his 20th year in office.
McCarter slammed Shimkus on the issue last week, vowing to introduce term-limit legislation in Congress and to serve no more than 10 years there himself whether it passes or not.
“He broke his promise,” said McCarter. “Twenty years is enough.”
Shimkus last week said (as he has before) that President George W. Bush talked him into remaining in Congress, and that the voters have voiced their agreement by continuing to return him there. “We have term limits; they’re called elections,” Shimkus said. “The voters will be able to decide.”
McCarter, meanwhile, is currently the subject of a complaint to the Federal Elections Commission that he violated federal election law by using his Illinois campaign funds to pay for a consultant to his congressional campaign.
According to records, McCarter’s Illinois campaign fund, which isn’t allowed to be used in federal elections, paid about $33,000 in 2015 to a suburban Chicago political consulting company, during the run-up to his October announcement that he would run for Congress. McCarter has said that the payments weren’t for his congressional campaign, but were related to his state Senate seat — even though that seat isn’t up for re-election until 2018.
OTHER AREA DISTRICTS
The 15th district is one of three that encompass the Metro East and together span most of the southern half of Illinois, all with Republican incumbents.
In the 13th Congressional District, which takes in the northern Metro East and runs northeast to the Champaign and Bloomington areas, Rep. Rodney Davis of Taylorville is being challenged by Carrollton pharmacist Ethan Vandersand.
Vandersand — who recently told an interviewer he was called by God to run — has about $17,500 in campaign funds on hand, against Davis’ $962,000, and apparently hasn’t netted any significant endorsements. Mark Wickland of Decatur is unopposed for the Democratic nomination.
In the 12th Congressional District, which encompasses St. Clair County and runs south to the southern tip of the state, Rep. Mike Bost of Murphysboro has no opponent in the GOP primary. Charles Baricevic, a Belleville attorney, is running unopposed for the Democratic nomination.
This post has been corrected to add Mark Wickland as the Democratic candidate for the 13th Congressional District.