Campaign Trail: Illinois 12th District candidates still learning the ropes
While the dust is still settling in Missouri after a raucous primary, the general election in Illinois has been set in stone for a few months now.
Well, that isn’t entirely true. Land of Lincoln voters have seen shakeups in the Metro East's 12th and 13th congressional districts, with Democrat Brad Harriman and Republican incumbent Tim Johnson dropping out of their respective contests. And while those situations weren’t as dramatic as, say, former U.S. Rep. Thad McCotter’s epic departure from his re-election bid in Michigan, they’ve still affected the campaigns going forward.
Perhaps that’s why David Yepsen said that the two major candidates in the 12th District — Republican Jason Plummer and Democrat William Enyart — were "still learning the ropes" in their first debate last week in Carbondale.
Enyart, a Belleville attorney who recently served as the head of the Illinois National Guard, is making his first major foray into politics and on a shortened time-table. Plummer, an executive at RP Lumber in O’Fallon who ran for lieutenant governor in 2010, is contending with a new opponent who lacks a record in elected office but has a military pedigree, which could be attractive to the district.
Yepsen, a former columnist for the Des Moines Register who now works at the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, commented on the contest and the candidates in an interview with the Beacon:
The impact of President Barack Obama on the race: Missouri Democrats, such as U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill, often get asked about Obama because if Obama doesn't do well in Missouri, it could affect statewide contenders such as McCaskill.
Plummer has been seeking to link Enyart to Obama’s policies, such as the federal health-care law and a sluggish employment situation. A spokeswoman for the National Republican Congressional Committee accused Enyart of being "completely beholden to Nancy Pelosi and Barack Obama."
But it's an open question how well an anti-Obama strategy will work in Illinois. The president, after all, won his home state with 62 percent of the vote in 2008. And Illinoisans have voted for every Democratic presidential nominee since 1992 by a fairly wide margin.
One undetermined factor, Yepsen said, is how well Obama performs in the 12th District, which along with Metro East includes rural areas of southern Illinois.
"I don’t think he’s going to win 60 percent in this district," Yepsen said. "But certainly in East St. Louis, for example, you have to be careful about how you go after Obama. But the effect of Obama is what kind of coattails these presidential challengers bring. Does Obama bring any kind of turnout for Democrats? He might in East St. Louis, he might with younger voters."
And Yepsen noted that likely GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney may not have Obama’s pull.
He noted that the former Massachusetts governor didn’t make much headway in the 12th District during the Republican primary. Romney did, however, perform well enough in the rest of Illinois to win a closely watched primary against former U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum.
Tax returns: Ever since he first ran for office, Plummer’s opponents from both parties have pestered the 30-year-old to release his tax returns. That was the case in 2010 when he ran for lieutenant governor and during both the primary and general election of the 12th District campaign.
Enyart released a biting radio ad on it before last week's debate and also pressed the issue during the debate. A spokeswoman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee noted afterward that Plummer "refused to share his finances with voters, while backing more budget-busting tax breaks for millionaires from which he can personally profit."
For his part, Plummer has told other media outlets that releasing his personal financial disclosure form, which all candidates are required to file, is sufficient. Plummer's return would, among other things, show his tax bracket and the extent of his charitable donations.
"My opponent seems very focused on talking about me," Plummer said. "And if you look at us, we’re very focused on talking about the voters of the 12th congressional district."
Yepsen said the attack on Plummer amounts to a "populist" appeal, aimed at showcasing Plummer's wealth to residents of one of the state's less affluent districts. It's similar to how Democrats are demanding that Romney release more of his tax returns, he said.
“They’re trying to shape them as people who are too wealthy to understand the problems of average Americans,” Yepsen said. “I get that. It’s a legitimate line of attack and question. It’s just that we keep hearing it and hearing it and hearing it. And at some point, a candidate has to come up with something new to try to cut through the clutter.”
Going Green: Although Enyart’s entry into the contest is late by Illinois standards, Green Party nominee Paula Bradshaw is an even newer — and potentially a spoiler.
While third-party candidates have had a tough time winning elections, Illinois' Green Party has sometimes made a respectable showing as a third party. The party’s gubernatorial candidate – Rich Whitney – won 10 percent of the vote in 2006, most likely from Democrats sending a protest message against then-Gov. Rod Blagojevich.
Whitney received roughly 4 percent in St. Clair, Monroe and Randolph counties, but a much bigger percentage in rural areas, such as Jackson County, where Carbondale is located. Yepsen said Bradshaw’s bid was likely bolstered by being in last Wednesday’s debate, which was televised across the district.
He also said that Democrats missed an opportunity to knock Bradshaw off the ballot.
"Knocking people off the ballot is an art form in Illinois," Yepsen said. "By not getting that done, the Democrats — if this is really close — could lose just a few thousand votes by virtue that she’s on the ballot. So I think that’s definitely a factor to pay attention to.”
Metro East voters are likely to hear more from congressional candidates in the coming months, mainly because the congressional contests have been targeted by the national parties.
Enyart and 13th District Democratic nominee David Gill are on the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s "Red to Blue" list, meaning that the candidates will receive outside help. Plummer and 13th District Republican nominee Rodney Davis are on the National Republican Congressional Committee's "Young Guns" list, which also means they could receive similar outside resources.
Missouri’s 4th District in central and southern areas of the state is Missouri's only congressional contest on the national parties' radar. Cass County Prosecutor Theresa Hensley is on the DCCC’s "emerging races" list, which highlights candidates “making themselves competitive by running smart campaigns, which are becoming increasingly competitive.”
Hensley is seeking to unseat U.S. Rep. Vicky Hartzler, a Harrisonville Republican who upset Democrat Ike Skelton in 2010. While Hartzler has raised more money so far for her re-election bid in the GOP-leaning district, Hensley is hoping to capitalize on Hartzler's controversial statements against same-sex marriage and Obama's citizenship.
Campaign Trail, a weekly column, weaves together some of the intriguing threads from the world of bistate politics.