The hottest Illinois political race going into 2014 doesn’t involve a governor, a U.S. senator or any other statewide office holder. And it doesn’t involve a Democrat.
The contest that political strategists from Chicago to Washington are watching is for the Republican nomination to the 13th Congressional District, a downstate swing district that encompasses a wide swath of central Illinois and parts of the Metro East.
The fight has rocked the Illinois Republican Party more than six months out from the primary, tapping at the fault-line issues of race, gender, partisan loyalty and the alleged disconnect between party leaders and voters. All in a district that the Republicans held by barely 1,000 votes last year.
“From the point of view of the Republican Party, it’s the last thing they needed,” said Brian Gaines, political scientist at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana.
But to others — particularly supporters of African-American beauty queen-turned lawyer-turned candidate Erika Harold — it is exactly what the GOP needs.
“We’ve got some old guys in this party who really don’t get it,” said Doug Ibendahl, former general counsel for the Illinois GOP and now one of its toughest in-party critics. “If they don’t like a little competition, then they’re in the wrong country.”
On one side is U.S. Rep. Rodney Davis of Taylorville, a white professional politico who has spent his adult life climbing the ranks of the Republican establishment. In his first year in Congress, supporters say, he has proven a stable presence during a turbulent time for the party.
Davis, 43, points to his roles in legislation on agriculture, water resources and other nuts-and-bolts issues — and what he says is an ability to work across the aisle in an increasingly polarized congressional atmosphere. “I think in the short 10 months I’ve been there, I’ve proven that,” he said.
Challenging him is Harold, 33, a biracial Harvard-trained lawyer from Champaign. She touts her lack of elective political background as if it is a Miss America crown — which she has, in fact, worn, reigning in 2003. Her résumé includes leading national anti-bullying and abstinence campaigns as Miss America, and speaking at the 2004 Republican National Convention.
Harold notes that Davis was installed on last year’s general election ballot by 14 GOP party leaders rather than in a primary.
“Voters are looking for people who are leaders, and not just people who have served the party,” she said last week. “Neither of us has faced primary voters yet.”
That’s because ex-Rep. Tim Johnson, R-Champaign, announced in April 2012 that he wouldn’t run for re-election, too late for candidates to be chosen in the primaries. Party leaders picked their own candidates for the November 2012 ballot.
GOP leaders tapped Davis, then a congressional aide to U.S. Rep. John Shimkus, R-Collinsville. Harold and several other Republicans had sought the nod. Davis went on to narrowly defeat Democrat David Gill, and took office in January.
National Democratic leaders openly targeted the seat from virtually the moment Davis was elected. He was in office barely four months when former Madison County Judge Ann Callis announced her intention to seek the Democratic nomination to face him next November.
Then, in June, Harold announced she, too, would challenge him, for the party’s nomination in the March 18 Republican primary.
Her challenge has drawn national scrutiny in part because of her unusual status as a former beauty queen who would be the first African-American female Republican ever elected to Congress. In an August piece entitled, “Miss America vs. Mr. Incumbent,” the national conservative magazine The Weekly Standard declared it “the most interesting House primary of the 2014 cycle.”
It got ugly early. A racist, misogynistic diatribe written by a local GOP party official against Harold made national news in June.
In comments emailed to a Republican activist website, Montgomery County GOP Chairman Jim Allen called Harold “the love child of the D.N.C.” whose law career is based on racial quota hiring and who is “being used like a street walker” by the Democratic Party. Davis and the rest of the GOP party establishment quickly condemned the comments, and Allen resigned.
Harold’s supporters contend the party itself has engaged in more subtle forms of discouragement. Party officials refused to let her speak at a GOP event during the state fair in August, and they are currently refusing to give her access to the “GOP data center,” a party-run clearinghouse of voter information that allows targeting of donors and voters.
“Members of the Republican establishment continue their attempts to make this primary a coronation,” Harold alleged in a statement last month. “From day one, party leaders have angled to ensure that Congressman Rodney Davis is the only person on the Republican primary ballot.”
In response to inquiries last week, Illinois Republican Party Executive Director Jayme Odom issued a statement saying no challengers were allowed to speak at the state fair event because of “time constraints,” and that other candidates also weren’t able to speak.
Regarding the voter database, Odom said in the statement that it has been “long-standing policy” to deny primary challengers access to the party’s voter database — though that was an informal policy until Harold asked for the list this year. Her request prompted an Oct. 5 unanimous vote of the Illinois Republican State Central Committee formalizing the policy.
“This policy has been in effect for over a decade, and was not created for any one particular candidate, committee, or circumstance,” said Odom’s written statement.
Ibendahl, the former state GOP general counsel, alleged, that is party stonewalling, and said it’s “worse than I’ve ever seen it.”
“(Harold) is one of the best things we’ve got going, someone who can grow the party. … and they’re afraid she might get traction,” Ibendahl said.
Davis last week distanced himself from the dispute, noting that he doesn’t make the state party’s rules. “I’m not involved in that,” he said. “Anybody’s opportunity to run for office is their own decision. The voters will be the ones who end up deciding.”
But Davis’ backers contend that by challenging a sitting Republican — especially one with the vulnerability of a freshman in a swing district — Harold has not only hurt the party in one race, but is causing it to miss opportunities in others.
“She could have selected any other office (with a Democratic incumbent) and she would have had everyone behind her,” said Sangamon County Republican Chairwoman Rosemarie Long, who professes to like everything about Harold except her choice of battle. “We always prefer that we don’t have (in-party) candidates run against our incumbents unless they’ve done a bad job. And Rodney Davis has by no mean done a bad job.”
Gaines, the U of I political scientist, agreed that a better strategic move all around would have been for Harold to take on a sitting Democrat. He lays part of the blame on ineffective Illinois GOP leadership.
“In another state … they might have worked to find something for her, a state Senate seat or something to channel her appeal,” said Gaines. “That could have helped … to prove they’re not the party of old white people,” while avoiding a primary challenge.