SPRINGFIELD — When U.S. Rep. Bill Enyart, D-Belleville, lost his bid for reelection in the 12th Congressional District in 2014, Illinois was left without a Democratic congressperson south of Interstate 72 for the first time since at least World War II.
Though the party twice came exasperatingly close — 1,002 votes in 2012 and 2,058 votes in 2018 — to defeating Rep. Rodney Davis, R-Taylorville, in the neighboring Central Illinois-based 13th Congressional District, that effort proved futile amid a shifting political terrain.
But after a decade of tough losses, false starts and unfulfilled hopes, Democrats believe 2022 is the year and Nikki Budzinski is the candidate to finally return a downstate Illinois congressional seat to the blue column.
Budzinski, a Peoria-born political consultant and labor activist, is running against Republican Regan Deering, a Decatur community activist and scion of one of the most prominent families in American agribusiness.
The pair are competing in the newly reconfigured 13th Congressional District, which was drawn by Springfield Democrats during the once-a-decade redistricting process last year with the intention of giving the party a foothold in central and southern Illinois once more.
They did this by narrowing the geographic size of the district, cutting out several conservative rural communities and consolidating the most urban, liberal portions of the Metro East region, previously split three ways, into one district.
As a result, the string bean-shaped district stretches from East St. Louis to Champaign-Urbana, picking up Springfield and Decatur in between — a mix of college towns and communities with a blend of blue- and white-collar industries. Not to mention a sizable Black population that forms an influential bloc.
This also shifted the district’s partisan lean from voting for President Donald Trump by three points to one that voted for President Joe Biden by an 11-point margin in 2020. It also cut Davis out of the district, leaving it open and perhaps making for an easier path for Budzinski.
The district includes a mix of the increasingly cosmopolitan, urban base that has come to define the modern Democratic Party along with remnants of the coalition made up of unionized coal miners, steel plant workers and workers in other heavy industries that had previously made the region a Democratic stronghold.
“I think when the rubber really hits the road — the makeup of the district and we do our job turning the vote out — she will be the next Congress member from the 13th district. No doubt about it in my mind,” said Sangamon County Democratic Party chair Bill Houlihan. “But these elections have ebbs and flows.”
Indeed, the district’s fundamentals suggest it to be a Democratic-leaning district. However, low approval ratings for Biden, sky-high inflation and the poor performance the president’s party typically faces in midterm elections have given Republicans hope that the race could be within reach.
The district’s working class, blue collar constituency has come to define the campaign, with each candidate laser-focusing their messaging on “kitchen table” economic issues, such as bringing down inflation.
“I think, for sure, the defining issue of this campaign is going to be the cost of living,” Deering told Lee Enterprises in an interview earlier this month.
“The question is always, are you better off today than you were two years ago?” she continued. “And the answer is no.”
Deering, a first-time candidate, has blamed Biden policies and, by extension, Budzinski for the rise in prices, tying it back to significant government spending during the COVID-19 pandemic. Deering, however, has been short on specific policy proposals to address the issue.
Budzinski, though also a first-time candidate, has been around politics for more than two decades, serving most recently as chief of staff for Biden’s Office of Management and Budget, where she played an integral role in crafting and implementing the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan.
Among other things, Budzinski said she would seek to address inflation by repealing the Trump tax cuts while making the child tax credit — a signature achievement in the American Rescue Plan that lapsed last year — permanent.
“We need to be fighting for the middle class, and tax cuts should be targeted to those families,” Budzinski told Lee Enterprises in an interview on Friday. “That’s all a part of a larger effort to help people keep more of what they’ve earned but also address rising costs so that people can afford day to day expenses.”
Though a mainstream Democrat, Budzinski has put distance between herself and her party on a number of issues. She is against Biden’s plan to forgive $10,000 in student loans for all borrowers earning under $125,000 per year, for instance.
She also favors an “all of the above” energy strategy, notably releasing a statement earlier this year in support of the construction of a natural gas plant in rural Sangamon County.
“So I’m a trade unionist, a made-in-America Democrat,” Budzinski told Lee Enterprises in August. “I’m not a typical Democrat.”
Before her stint in the Biden Administration, Budzinski was a senior adviser to Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s campaign and, later, administration. She also worked for Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign and was in the labor movement for 10 years with the International Association of Firefighters and later the United Food and Commercial Workers Union.
While Budzinski may be most associated with labor, Deering’s ties are decidedly business. She is a member of the Andreas family, which ran Archer Daniels Midland Co. for nearly four decades and, in the process, transformed it from a modest regional grain processor into a world-leading company.
Deering was born in Decatur but spent most of her adolescence in the Chicago region, moving back to Soy City after getting married. She has since been involved in various philanthropic endeavors and was a small business owner.
Most notably, she was president of the board of directors for the Northeast Community Fund, an organization that serves low-income Decatur families by helping with food, clothing, financial assistance and advising programs.
Like Budzinski, Deering has sought to separate herself from the most extreme elements of her party.
Though personally anti-abortion, a position influenced by her own background as an adoptee, Deering said she opposes a federal abortion ban. She said the issue should remain in the hands of the states. She also supports exceptions for rape, incest and the life and health of the mother.
“It’s a challenge for me being a woman that supports life in a state that has very radical legislation that is late-term abortion and fully taxpayer-funded,” Deering said in August. “But, that’s why I think elections in November are gonna matter at the state level as well.”
Budzinski, who would vote to codify Roe v. Wade into federal law, said Deering cannot be trusted on the issue.
“No one believes that,” Budzinski said. “It’s political speak because she knows that women are paying attention to this election and they’re going to come out and vote and they are going to want to protect their right to choose. It’s a critical election.”
Deering is supported by Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America, an anti-abortion group that is supporting federal legislation introduced last month that calls for banning abortion after 15 weeks. Budzinski, on the other hand, is supported by pro-abortion rights Planned Parenthood.
On guns, Deering said she supports the Second Amendment and has been endorsed by the National Rifle Association. Budzinski said she supports “commonsense gun safety measures.”
On immigration, both candidates said there was a need for comprehensive reform, with Budzinski explicitly calling for a pathway to citizenship for Dreamers, who are undocumented people brought to the country as minors.
Deering said “there is a conversation to be had” on a pathway to citizenship but said that the border must first be secured. She criticized Biden for reversing Trump-era policies such as “Remain in Mexico,” in which asylum seekers stayed in Mexico while awaiting their hearing in the United States.
Both candidates have touted support from law enforcement, with Deering securing the endorsement of the Illinois Fraternal Order of Police and Budzinski having the support of the Illinois Police Benevolent and Protective Association.
And in a cycle where several Republican candidates for office nationwide have questioned the legitimacy of the 2020 presidential election, Deering said she believes that Biden is the duly-elected president.
Most national election handicappers have the race as “leans Democrat.”
The race has remained off the national radar, especially in comparison to the nearby 17th Congressional District, where Democratic and Republican groups have each poured millions of dollars into the open race to succeed retiring Rep. Cheri Bustos, D-East Moline.
Budzinski, utilizing her deep connections in Springfield and Washington, has generated significant support for her campaign. She’s raised more than $3 million since launching her campaign last year, including $1.4 million in the past three months.
She has also benefited from outside spending, including more than $1 million dropped by a super PAC affiliated with Emily’s List, a group that aims to elect pro-choice Democratic women to office. House Majority PAC, a super PAC closely aligned with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Ca., has spent more than $260,000 on behalf of Budzinski, according to campaign finance records.
Deering, on the other hand, has raised significantly less. She raised just over $500,000 as off the end of June, including a $150,000 personal loan. She had just over $40,000 on hand after after winning the primary in June compared to Budzinski’s $1 million.
But, she’s since closed the gap, raising $1.35 million in the past fundraising quarter, according to the Deering campaign, nearly matching Budzinski.
However, national Republicans, from the House GOP’s campaign arm to the Congressional Leadership Fund super PAC, have not spent a dime on Deering’s campaign.
Oftentimes, decisions on where parties devote resources is a tell on where they think the race is at.
Political operatives on both sides say that Budzinski has run a workmanlike race, raising significant campaign cash while avoiding major gaffes, a combination that should work in a Democratic-leaning district most years.
Some have also pointed to the relative lack of spending by Deering, who listed her net worth somewhere between $35 million and $142 million in a federal financial disclosure report. Budzinski reported earning $558,225 in 2021 working as a political consultant, according to her disclosure.
“A wealthy candidate often kind of gets a little bit of a hint from the major committees that says ‘invest in yourself and we’re willing to invest in you,'” said one Democratic political consultant who has worked on congressional races. “And the people that don’t invest in themselves often don’t get spent on unless (the party has) no choice but to win that race.”
But, some political operatives believe there is still time for Republicans to get in on the race, especially as the electoral climate appears to be swinging back towards the party.
Perhaps downplaying expectations, Budzinski campaign officials have said from the outset that they’ve always anticipated a close race.
Despite her wealth, Deering said she is the only candidate rooted in Central Illinois. Though Budzinski was born in Peoria, attended the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and now lives in Springfield, she spent significant portions of her life in Washington, D.C., and Chicago.
“She moved here from Washington to bring about her ideals here,” Deering said. “And what we want is someone like me that is going to go to Washington and represent the people of Central Illinois and take their voice the other way.”
Budzinski and her allies have dismissed Deering as a “wealthy heiress” despite the fact that the former worked for Pritzker, himself a billionaire who inherited his wealth.
“I think what’s most important is electing someone that understands the struggles of working people in their daily lives,” Budzinski said. “I don’t believe Regan Deering does.”
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Analysis: Democrats’ momentum has tempered as key Senate races tighten
The race for the Senate is in the eye of the beholder less than six weeks from Election Day, with ads about abortion, crime and inflation dominating the airwaves in key states as campaigns test the theory of the 2022 election.
The cycle started out as a referendum on President Joe Biden — an easy target for Republicans, who need a net gain of just one seat to flip the evenly divided chamber. Then the US Supreme Court’s late June decision overturning Roe v. Wade gave Democrats the opportunity to paint a contrast as Republicans struggled to explain their support for an abortion ruling that the majority of the country opposes. Former President Donald Trump’s omnipresence in the headlines gave Democrats another foil.
But the optimism some Democrats felt toward the end of the summer, on the heels of Biden’s legislative wins and the galvanizing high court decision, has been tempered slightly by the much anticipated tightening of some key races as political advertising ramps up on TV and voters tune in after Labor Day.
Republicans, who have midterm history on their side as the party out of the White House, have hammered Biden and Democrats for supporting policies they argue exacerbate inflation. Biden’s approval rating stands at 41% with 54% disapproving in the latest CNN Poll of Polls, which tracks the average of recent surveys. And with some prices inching back up after a brief hiatus, the economy and inflation — which Americans across the country identify as their top concern in multiple polls — are likely to play a crucial role in deciding voters’ preferences.
But there’s been a steady increase in ads about crime too as the GOP returns to a familiar criticism, depicting Democrats as weak on public safety. Cops have been ubiquitous in TV ads this cycle — candidates from both sides of the aisle have found law enforcement officers to testify on camera to their pro-police credentials. Democratic ads also feature women talking about the threat of a national abortion ban should the Senate fall into GOP hands, while Republicans have spent comparatively less trying to portray Democrats as the extremists on the topic.
While the issue sets have fluctuated, the Senate map hasn’t changed. Republicans’ top pickup opportunities have always been Nevada, Georgia, Arizona and New Hampshire — all states that Biden carried in 2020. In two of those states, however, the GOP has significant problems, although the states themselves keep the races competitive. Arizona nominee Blake Masters is now without the support of the party’s major super PAC, which thinks its money can be better spent elsewhere, including in New Hampshire, where retired Army Brig. Gen. Don Bolduc is far from the nominee the national GOP had wanted. But this is the time of year when poor fundraising can really become evident since TV ad rates favor candidates and a super PAC gets much less bang for its buck.
The race for Senate control may come down to three states: Georgia, Nevada and Pennsylvania, all of which are rated as “Toss-up” races by Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales. As Republicans look to flip the Senate, which Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has called a “50-50 proposition,” they’re trying to pick up the first two and hold on to the latter.
Senate Democrats’ path to holding their majority lies with defending their incumbents. Picking off a GOP-held seat like Pennsylvania — still the most likely to flip in CNN’s ranking — would help mitigate any losses. Wisconsin, where GOP Sen. Ron Johnson is vying for a third term, looks like Democrats’ next best pickup opportunity, but that race drops in the rankings this month as Republican attacks take a toll on the Democratic nominee in the polls.
These rankings are based on CNN’s reporting, fundraising and advertising data, and polling, as well as historical data about how states and candidates have performed. It will be updated one more time before Election Day.
Contact Brenden Moore at 217-421-7984. Follow him on Twitter: @brendenmoore13
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