In a congressional district drawn to favor Democrats, Republicans believe they have reason for optimism.
But just how much optimism is justified remains a bit of an open question for the Illinois 13th Congressional District, which pits Republican Regan Deering against Democrat Nikki Budzinski.
Deering, 46, and Budzinski, 45, are both seeking political office for the first time. There is no incumbent, as Rep. Rodney Davis, R-Taylorville, was drawn out of the newly reconfigured 13th Congressional District. Several conservative rural communities were eliminated from the district, while other urban areas were added, shifting the overall makeup to more liberal and Democratic voters.
Three overriding external forces will influence the outcome of the races in tossup districts such as the 13th:
• Voter disenchantment with rising food and gasoline prices.
• Pro-choice voter anger over the U.S. Supreme Court overturning Roe v. Wade.
• The historic trend for the party out of the White House to gain seats during mid-term elections.
At least that’s the analysis provided Illinois Times by retiring U.S. Rep. Cheri Bustos, D-Moline, and former U.S. Rep. John Shimkus, R-Collinsville.
“One week I feel really good. The next week I’m concerned. … I think a lot depends on when you’re heading to the polls and you stop to fill up your F-150 (pickup) whether the gas is five bucks a gallon, or is it $4, or is it going to be $3 and something,” said Bustos, a veteran of congressional politics and a Springfield native.
She added that she has been surprised by the number of constituents in her own district, which has similar demographics to the 13th, that have become outspoken on the abortion issue.
“I can tell you I’ve never gone around talking about it – ever – because it’s very polarizing. The majority of voters in our congressional district want to make sure that women can make their own health care decisions.”
Budzinski apparently agrees and has launched a television ad critical of Deering’s pro-life stance.
But Shimkus said this is not a particularly beneficial strategy on her part. A September Gallup Poll found only 4% of Americans believe abortion is the most important issue facing the nation.
“This may help in college towns within the district like Champaign and Edwardsville, but I don’t see it being particularly beneficial in places like Springfield, with its large Catholic population, and in the Metro East, with its large blue-collar population, who I believe lean pro-life,” he said.
In addition, Deering has not taken as extreme of a stance on abortion as some in the Republican Party. While she has said that she is personally against abortion, and often references her own upbringing as an adoptee, she opposes a federal ban. She also supports exceptions for rape, incest and the health of the mother.
No recent public polling is available for the race. So, with the traditional means of gauging electoral races absent, political prognosticators are left trying to read tea leaves.
Since neither campaign has taken to leaking polling results, that indicates to Shimkus that the race is tight.
“This is a race within the margin of error. If it wasn’t, the campaign that was ahead would be leaking poll results to try and dissuade people from giving to the other campaign,” he said.
Congressional polls are notoriously unpredictable. For example, in the neighboring 15th Congressional District, U.S. Rep. Rodney Davis said his polls showed him in the lead hours before he ultimately lost the Republican primary to Mary Miller in June. Miller won with 58% of the vote in the two-way Republican primary fight.
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PHOTO BY KESHIA BARBEE
Theresa Clay, left, speaks with Nikki Budzinski at Fresh Visions Church in Springfield Oct. 16.
The 13th Congressional District, which was drawn by Democrats in the legislature to favor their party, is typical of the congressional districts across the nation that are in play.
Effective gerrymandering by both parties means that for about 90% of all congressional districts, the winner is all but a foregone conclusion. When he campaigned for governor, JB Pritzker pledged not to sign a partisan map. Nonetheless, on Nov. 23, he signed one drawn by the Democrat-controlled General Assembly that made Illinois perhaps the most gerrymandered state in the nation.
The 13th Congressional District snakes its way up from East St. Louis, engulfing Collinsville, Chatham, Springfield, Decatur and Champaign. It’s designed to elect a Democrat, and the Princeton Gerrymandering Project originally predicted the 13th Congressional District would likely vote 56% Democratic.
But surprisingly, the 13th Congressional District appears to be in play, Bustos said.
“I think it is pretty close. Why? Nikki Budzinski is breaking from President Biden on her positions on some key issues, and she wouldn’t be doing that unless she was concerned about losing. Also, I hear that the (National Republican Congressional Committee) is investing in the race, and they wouldn’t unless the polls were fairly tight,” said state Sen. Steve McClure, R-Springfield.
An example of Budzinski’s break from President Joe Biden is her opposition to his student-loan forgiveness program that will cost taxpayers at least $400 billion. However, Deering continues to try to link Budzinski to the president, often referring to the “Biden Budzinski team” in campaign messaging and reminding voters that Budzinski served as Biden’s chief of staff for the Office of Management and Budget.
And despite rumors of NRCC funding, nothing indicating its financial support shows up in Deering’s campaign disclosure reports, which were filed Oct. 1.
Lee Enterprises reports that Deering raised $500,000 during the primary, including $150,000 from a personal loan to the campaign. In the last quarter ending Sept. 30, she raised $1.35 million more – $850,000 of which she loaned to the campaign.
“That not really an overwhelming amount she is investing. She’s not spending whatever it takes,” said Kent Redfield, a retired University of Illinois Springfield political science professor.
During an Oct. 11 interview with Illinois Times, Deering held her cards close to the vest.
“This is definitely a top race for Republican leadership, knowing that it was so badly gerrymandered,” Deering said. “But we have a really great opportunity to hang onto the seat for Republicans, and so they have been very supportive in making sure that we get our message out to define myself as a candidate, as well to push back on the messaging coming out of the Democratic Party. My opponent has millions of dollars in outside groups that are coming for me on a variety of ads and a variety of postcards in the mailbox. So, we’ve been working closely with leadership to make sure that we’re all rowing in the same direction and investing in that messaging.”
But Deering wouldn’t specify the amount of financial support she has received from GOP leaders.
Redfield said although Deering has given her campaign $1 million, he’s surprised she has not given more. He added this is not a first-tier race for Republican leaders.
“I wouldn’t expect them to invest much here unless they see a red wave coming nationally and think they can bolster their numbers in the House by spending here,” he said.
Deering comes from wealth. She is a member of the Andreas family, which transformed Archer Daniels Midland into the world’s largest farm commodity processor.
Budzinski has made this an issue.
“Somebody that you know has been born into such significant family wealth, (you have to ask), does she know what it’s like for a senior on a fixed income?” she said during an Oct. 4 interview with Illinois Times.
But Deering noted she is adopted and was not “born” into the family.
“My birth mother chose life for me, and as a result, I have given life to three of my own children alongside my husband,” she said. “And I want to make sure that I’m advocating for women and children in all aspects of my life. I want to value that decision and make sure that I have a meaningful life myself.”
She added, “I’m never going to apologize for my family’s success. I know that I have been taught the value of hard work and the value of serving your community. I don’t think that anyone’s personal wealth necessarily qualifies them or disqualifies them from elected office. I know that a life of service has been mine, and this run for Congress is just one more way that I can take my life and my experiences and make a difference.”
While Budzinski has made Deering’s personal wealth part of the narrative for why working people shouldn’t vote for the Republican, the GOP has taken issue with how briefly Budzinski has lived in the district.
“She’s a carpetbagger who moved to the district from Washington, D.C.,” said Don Tracy, chairman of the Illinois Republican Party.
But Bill Houlihan, who chairs the Sangamon County Democratic Party, says such attacks are of little concern to most voters.
“When people go and vote, they don’t say, ‘I didn’t vote for that person because they’re a carpetbagger. They just came in.’ You know, that was a term way back in the 1860s,” he said. It’s not an issue today. People want to vote for somebody that has got their feet tied to the ground.”
Budzinski bristles at the notion that she is a carpetbagger. She noted that she grew up nearby in Peoria, attended University of Illinois in Champaign and worked for Pritzker’s administration in Springfield and Chicago. She is single and currently has a residence near Springfield’s Washington Park.
Budzinski has worked as the political director for the United Food and Commercial Workers. She also has served as a senior adviser to Pritzker and as chief of staff for Biden’s Office of Management and Budget.
Most of Budzinski’s reported donations have come from organized labor.
Lee Enterprises reported that since Budzinski announced her candidacy, she has raised $3 million, of which nearly half – $1.4 million – was brought in during the last three months.
“The money she has sewed up so far came from unions, lawyers and liberal or progressive groups,” Redfield said.
Budzinski prides herself on the union backing she has received.
“We’ve been building a campaign with a broad coalition of support. I’m very honored to have the Illinois AFL-CIO and labor unions. The Police Benevolent Association has endorsed my campaign, which is an endorsement that I’m really proud of. Not a lot of Democrats get it, but I think that law enforcement knows that I will have their back,” she told IT.
Deering’s experiences are also varied. She has worked as a biology teacher in the Lincoln Park neighborhood of Chicago and later owned a tutoring franchise serving central Illinois. She is a Decatur resident, married and has three children. Deering currently identifies herself as a community activist and served as president of the board of directors for the Northeast Community Fund in Decatur, an organization that helps low-income families with food, clothing and financial assistance.
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Regan Deering speaks to the Illinois Farm Bureau. Its political action committee, which has endorsed both Republican and Democratic candidates, recently endorsed Deering for the 13th Congressional District.
KSDK, a St. Louis television station, noted Budzinski made $558,225 in income as a political consultant last year, according to her financial disclosure reports. She lists her assets and investment portfolio in a range worth somewhere between $700,000 and $1.9 million.
Deering, who lists her net worth between $35 million and $142 million, drew nearly all of her recent income from her investment holdings, according to her financial disclosure report, the station also noted. Most of her wealth comes from her family inheritance in Archer Daniels Midland stock. Her investments in ADM could be worth up to $85.3 million, according to her financial disclosure.
During the waning days of the campaign, her personal wealth could have a significant impact on the race. But it remains unknown whether she will open up her checkbook further.
Former GOP political consultant Patrick Pfingsten, who writes a political newsletter, said he is a bit perplexed by her reticence to spend her own money.
“Some rich people like to light their money on fire, and some rich people like to keep their money,” he said. “I don’t know why she’s doing what she’s doing … I just don’t have a good answer.”
Scott Reeder, a staff writer for Illinois Times, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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