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Ill. GOP congressional primaries closely watched

Published: Monday, March 3, 2014 11:39 p.m. CDT

CHAMPAIGN – In a year when only half of Illinois’ 18 congressional seats have March primary contests, the most closely watched are between Republicans as the party aims to undo a near Democratic sweep of contested seats two years ago.

One of the key matchups is between first-term U.S. Rep. Rodney Davis and two challengers, including Erika Harold, a Harvard law school graduate and former Miss America. Davis kept the district in Republican hands by only a slim margin two years ago, and the battle with Democrats in November for his 13th District congressional seat could be one of the most targeted races in the country.

Harold, a conservative who is biracial, offers an appealing profile as the GOP tries to broaden its support among voters after the 2012 losses, but she has struggled to gain traction with fundraisers and local party officials. Experts say the party has rallied around Davis, believing the first-term incumbent has a built-in edge toward retaining the seat that stretches from Urbana to Decatur to the outskirts of St. Louis’ eastern suburbs.

“A very divisive primary can injure the incumbent and make the incumbent more vulnerable,” said John Jackson, a professor at the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University. “The race in the fall [with Democrats] is going to be competitive.”

Two years ago, the 13th was the only heavily contested district Republicans kept as Democrats took advantage of new redistricting maps they drew to take away four congressional seats. The Democrats now control 12 of the state’s 18 seats, but Republicans are expected to exploit the problematic rollout of President Barack Obama’s new health care law to try winning them back, as Democrats stress economic issues, such as a minimum wage hike and immigration reform.

The other most closely watched Republican primary contest will be southwest of Chicago, where four Republicans are vying for the chance in November to face U.S. Rep. Bill Foster of Naperville, a scientist who worked at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory and is serving his second one-term stint in Congress. The 11th District includes Chicago suburbs and Aurora, the state’s second-largest city.

The contenders include state Rep. Darlene Senger of Naperville – who’s received backing from establishment Republicans – businessman Bert Miller of Hinsdale, Chris Balkema of Channahon and Ian Bayne of Aurora. The candidates share the same views on many issues, including the health care law, so the race is likely to boil down to background and character, political experts say.

Come November, two former GOP congressmen will bid for their old seats: Pizzeria owner Bobby Schilling of Colona will challenge Democratic Rep. Cheri Bustos of East Moline in the 17th District, and businessman Bob Dold of Kenilworth faces a rematch against Democratic Rep. Brad Schneider of Deerfield in the 10th District.

This month, only three sitting congressmen face primary challengers: Davis, Democratic Rep. Luis Gutierrez of Chicago and Republican Rep. Adam Kinzinger of Channahon. Of those, Davis is considered the most vulnerable.

Early on, the race between Davis and Harold was expected to be tight. Brian Gaines, a political science professor at the University of Illinois’ Institute of Government and Public Affairs, said the Urbana lawyer, 34, is the kind of candidate many Republican loyalists would like to see on a ballot to broaden the party’s reach.

“She’s got a lot of qualities that make her in a sense a godsend for the Republican Party,” Gaines said.

But Harold has said that party insiders appear to favor Davis, a former staffer for U.S. Rep. John Shimkus, and failed to give her equal access to GOP campaign resources. She also has lagged in fundraising: Through the end of December, Davis had raised $1.45 million to Harold’s $215,000, according to the Federal Election Commission.

Gaines said her campaign has appeared disorganized – focusing on complaints about her treatment by party officials rather than effectively countering with grass-roots organizing.

Also running in the primary is veterinarian Michael Firsching of Moro, whose campaign hasn’t reported any fundraising, according to the FEC.

Harold, who says she would bring a fresh approach to the district, is planning a run of radio, TV and direct-mail ads that she hopes will make a difference. And she said she is looking forward to contrasting her views with the 44-year-old Davis at a debate with the congressman on March 10 on a Bloomington radio station.

“I understand that there are people in the political establishment who had hoped this would be a foregone conclusion, but I think the outcome may surprise people,” she told The Associated Press.

Davis spokesman Tim Butler disputed Harold’s contention that the incumbent has not given voters enough opportunities to compare the candidates and their positions.

“Congressman Davis has talked about the issues before he got elected in 2012 and has continued to talk about the issues,” Butler said.

The winner will face one of three Democrats running in their own 13th district primary: Ann Callis, the former chief circuit judge in Madison County, and physics professor George Gollin and social policy analyst David Green, both of Champaign.

“The Democrats are upset about the 13th District, the one seat that got away from them and prevented them from having a clear sweep in 2012,” said Matthew Streb, a political scientist at Northern Illinois University.

Early voting started Monday for the March 18 primary.

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Tareen contributed from Chicago.

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