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Incumbents Rodney Davis, Mary Miller battle it out in 15th Congressional District GOP primary

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Rodney

Rep. Rodney Davis, R-Taylorville, receives the endorsement of the Fraternal Order of Police' state lodge. 

RUSHVILLE, Ill. — As he exited his dark SUV along a sleepy side street in this west-central Illinois town of just over 3,000 people, U.S. Rep. Rodney Davis, R-Taylorville, was met by an informal welcoming committee.

It's among the hundreds of stops Davis and his opponent, fellow incumbent Rep. Mary Miller, R-Oakland, have made as they criss-cross the new 15th Congressional District ahead of the June 28 primary election. 

Among the line of hand shakers and back slappers at the late May event, a tour of a “tiny home” built for a local veteran by Quincy-based nonprofit 2x4’s For Hope, were Schuyler County Republican Party Chair Jeff Ervin and Rushville Mayor Carson Klitz.

“I've known Rodney ... and worked with him on a few things,” Ervin said. “And he's just a solid guy and represents the area in downstate very, very well,” Ervin said. “Always has and I think he always will.”

Rodney Rushville

Rep. Rodney Davis, R-Taylorville, shakes the hand of Schuyler County GOP chair Jeff Ervin. Davis has received endorsements from 31 of 35 county party chairs in the GOP primary in the new 15th Congressional District.

It’s not Davis’ district — at least not yet. But it is hardly unfamiliar terrain or an uncommon sight for the five-term congressman, who built up a reservoir of goodwill among local party and elected officials in central Illinois during a nearly two-decade stint as projects director for former U.S. Rep. John Shimkus, R-Collinsville.

As the event ended, Klitz quietly told Davis that “I hope you make it (through),” referring to his primary against Miller.

“We will, I have no doubt,” Davis replied.

In just two weeks, the fates of Davis, a traditional conservative with a bipartisan streak, and Miller, a far-right freshman firebrand who has the endorsement of former President Donald Trump, will be decided by Republican primary voters in the new Central Illinois-based district.

One way or another, the result will likely be viewed as another bellwether on the impact of the former president’s endorsement and, in this context, if that trumps Davis’ perceived organizational and financial advantages.

“It's partially a test of whether organizational strength still counts for something,” said Kent Redfield, a retired professor of political science at the University of Illinois Springfield. “Or how much does that count versus campaigns that are much more media, social media-oriented or relying on the Trump factor in terms of endorsements.”

Over the course of multiple interviews with Lee Enterprises, including an extended day on the campaign trail, Davis pushed back on Miller’s claims that he’s a “Republican in Name Only,” or RINO, who’s insufficiently loyal to Trump; instead, he touted himself as a true conservative with a track record of legislative achievements.

“I'm a conservative,” Davis said. “I don't sacrifice my core values and principles when it comes to protecting the unborn, when it comes to protecting our Second Amendment. But I'm also somebody who has a record of success when it deals with agriculture, transportation, student loan debt and many other successes because I get things done, which is what (my constituents) sent me to Washington to do.”

Miller’s campaign did not return multiple interview requests for this story. And when reporters attended a Miller campaign event in Petersburg in late May, the congresswoman left without taking any questions from the media despite requests to do so.

But, before leaving the event, she did lay out her priorities when asked by some of her potential future constituents, a group of Menard County emergency medical responders.

“I think Americans have three priorities across political boundaries — one, is they want to feel safe in their communities,” Miller said. “So obviously, we need to secure a border, we need to support our police... The second priority is people want their kids to get a good education. And, obviously, Americans want their kids to be smart. And all this other stuff is not a priority to most Americans.

“And then economic opportunities,” she said. “I don't want to be political, but I was the only person in Illinois to vote against sending another $40 billion to Ukraine. But, we're diminishing the value of our dollar, number one. And we're not taking care of the immediate needs, the things that Americans care about, like funding our EMT or our police or our schools. Those would be my priorities.”

mary miller

Rep. Mary Miller, R-Oakland, speaks with Menard County emergency responders in Petersburg.

A new battlefield

The race has been among the most contentious incumbent-versus-incumbent primaries in the country, a circumstance Davis and Miller find themselves in based on the cartography skills of Springfield Democrats who controlled the once-a-decade congressional redistricting process.

The map, passed by the Illinois General Assembly and signed by Gov. J.B. Pritzker late last year, seeks to maximize Democrats' opportunities while marginalizing Republicans into as few as three out of the state’s 17 congressional districts.

With Illinois losing a congressional district due to slow population growth, it was apparent that some of the state’s five congressional Republicans could be pitted against one another.

15th Congressional District

This image shows the new boundaries of the sprawling 15th Congressional District. 

The new 15th is sprawling, stretching west to east across Central Illinois from the Iowa and Missouri state lines to the Indiana state line. To the north, it stops just south of the Quad Cities. To the south, it picks up outlying communities in the Metro East region along with towns in the Interstate 70 corridor.

It completely surrounds the new 13th Congressional District, a string bean-like district that cuts a gaping hole through its heart to pick up the Central Illinois’ liberal urban centers — essentially a skinnier version of Davis’ current swing district that will be more Democratic in nature.

As a result, the new 15th is very rural, including outlying areas of Decatur and Springfield but otherwise mostly farm communities and small- and mid-sized towns. The largest community entirely within the new district is Quincy, home of just under 40,000 people.

It packs in as many Republican voters as possible, with Trump winning the district with a 68.3% vote share in 2020. As a result, the winner of the primary is highly likely to be reelected in November.

And hence why the former president's endorsement looms large.

Davis is the only Republican candidate who lives in the district, though it only contains a fraction of the area he currently represents.

Miller, who operates a farm with her husband, state Rep. Chris Miller, R-Oakland, lives about one mile outside the district. With surgical precision, map drawers placed her in the very northern tip of the Southern Illinois-based 12th Congressional District while essentially splitting her current constituency into two.

But, instead of challenging fellow incumbent Rep. Mike Bost, R-Murphysboro, in the district she resides in, Miller opted to run next door against Davis.

Mary Miller

In this July 29, 2021 file photo, Rep. Mary Miller, R-Ill., speaks at a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington. 

Members of Congress must live in the state they represent, but are not required to live in the district.

The Trump card

The former president announced his support for Miller in a New Years' Day press release, hailing her as "a champion of our America First agenda." Trump later appeared with Miller at a fundraiser hosted at his Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida.

There have been suggestions that Trump may visit the district ahead of the primary to stump for Miller. However, with just over two weeks to go, time is running out.

“The long distance support Trump's giving her, that's just not enough,” said one downstate Republican lawmaker, granted anonymity in order to speak candidly on the state of the race. “But, if he comes in person and gets his supporters to actually show up at a rally in-person and it gets lots of media coverage … that could change everything.”

The general consensus among political operatives close to the race and other observers of Illinois politics is that Davis has the advantage despite Trump endorsing Miller.

They point to the Taylorville Republican’s political organization, which is battle-tested after several high-profile races the past few cycles in the swingy 13th Congressional District he currently represents.

Davis fended off a strong challenge from Democrat Betsy Dirksen Londrigan in 2018, winning by just under 2,000 votes in a Democratic wave year. In 2020, he won what was expected to be a competitive rematch by a relatively comfortable nine-percentage point margin.

“He's got a better operation, they've been through these races before, he's got a great team around him and I think he's got a good message and a good record of service to rely upon,” said state Rep. Tim Butler, R-Springfield, a former Davis staffer. “I think he's gonna win. But none of this is easy. You got to work your tail off.”

davis_rodney-030720A.JPG (copy)

U.S. Representative Rodney Davis, R-Taylorville, speaks on Friday, March 6, 2020, during the celebration of the opening of the new airline to Chicago from Decatur Airport.

Trump's endorsement record has been mixed this cycle. According to Axios, the former president's chosen candidate has won 21 times and lost eight, with 26 left to be decided.

Ervin, the Schuyler County GOP chair who endorsed Davis, said he "loved" Trump's policies.

"But his endorsement doesn't sway my vote one way or another," Ervin said. "I just know who Rodney is, I know what he stands for. And that's what I stand for and that's what downstate stands for, that's what Schuyler County stands for."

Including Ervin, Davis has secured the endorsements of 31 of the district's 35 GOP county party chairs. He also has the support of Bost and U.S. Rep. Darin LaHood, R-Peoria.

Besides Trump, Miller's endorsements have been fewer and farther between, mostly encompassing arch-conservative Eastern Bloc state legislators who are allies of her husband Chris and within their sphere of influence in southwestern Illinois.

But even in Coles County, Miller's home base, the local Republican Party has decided to officially stay neutral in the race.

However: "On a personal level, I do believe a majority of our committee members are backing Mary Miller," said Coles County GOP chair Travis Coffey.

"I think it's gonna be a close race," he added. "We got two good candidates, and I think the people of the district will be well-supported with either of them."

Miller was elected in 2020, succeeding the retiring John Shimkus. She easily bested three opponents in the primary and coasted to a general election victory in the heavily Republican district.

But that lack of competition and experience can show in a competitive primary.

“His campaign infrastructure's much better than Mary's and he's just been on TV for years because he's always had these contested races and he's going to continue to be on TV and in the media,” the Republican lawmaker said. “And so he's just gonna blow her out of the water with money and organization. And her only hope is that Trump comes in to campaign for her.”

Congress Guns

Rep. Mary Miller, R-Ill., speaks as Republican members of the House Second Amendment Caucus talk to reporters as they criticize a series of Democratic measure to curb gun violence in the wake of the mass shootings at a school in Uvalde, Texas, and a grocery in Buffalo, N.Y., at the Capitol in Washington, Wednesday, June 8, 2022. 

Davis himself noted that his new constituents have probably seen his ads before.

"So when you look at all of that investment that we had to make and the Democrats made to try and beat me, 80% of my new constituents saw all of that — they're in my media markets," Davis said. "... They've seen me have to fight toe to toe with the Democrats and they know I'm a solid Republican vote."

Davis has a significant cash advantage that has allowed him to be on television for the past few months. As of the last quarterly report filed in April, he had $1.9 million on hand in his campaign account compared to Miller's $510,795.

However, outside political action committees not affiliated with either campaign have also spent money on both sides, though it essentially comes out to a wash.

According to Open Secrets, a non-partisan organization that tracks money in politics, more than $1.8 million in outside cash has been spent on Miller's behalf. About the same amount has been spent against her.

At the same time, just over $900,000 each has been spent both in support and opposition of Davis.

Miller's top outside benefactor has been the conservative Club For Growth, which has spent more than $1.5 million on her behalf, spending that has included television advertisements. At the same time, a political action committee named the Illinois Values PAC has over $1.1 million against her.

True conservative?

Davis and Miller have traded barbs over who is the true conservative candidate in the race.

Miller has called Davis a RINO, a charge he denies.

She has cited his previous advocacy for immigration reform that would protect undocumented immigrants who arrived as children from deportation and his support of red-flag laws that would allow guns to be taken away from people deemed to be dangerous.

But Davis has returned fire, calling Miller a “fake conservative.”

Rodney Davis - File

In this April 23, 2020, file image from video, Rep. Rodney Davis, R-Taylorville, speaks at the U.S. Capitol in Washington. 

In one advertisement, Davis accused Miller of “coddling illegal immigrants and putting Illinois families at risk,” citing her comments in an interview where she states that if there’s an “illegal immigrant that lives next door and they need something it is our responsibility as individuals to help those people.”

It then cuts to Davis saying “let’s finish President Trump’s wall, ban sanctuary cities and stop illegal immigrants from voting in our elections.”

In an ad responding, a PAC supporting Miller said she was citing lessons from the Good Samaritan, noting that she also said that it was the government’s responsibility to enforce laws.

Yet by most metrics, the pair are both conservative Republicans.

Davis has a mixed history with Trump, saying in 2016 shortly after the release of the Access Hollywood tape in which Trump described sexually assaulting woman that he could not vote for him.

Yet Davis voted for and served as a campaign co-chair for Trump in 2020. He also largely supported Trump legislatively during his term, voting the former president's position nearly 89% of the time, according to FiveThirtyEight.

"I was criticized by more people in my current district for being pro-life and for being pro-Second Amendment and for standing up with President Trump for a tax cut bill and fixing our broken healthcare system," Davis said.

“I've had a lot of rural communities in my current district and I have a lot of college campuses that many times have resembled more metropolitan areas when it comes to voting tendencies," he continued. "So I didn't have a moderate district. I had a 50/50 district. So no matter what decision I made, I was gonna make somebody mad."

Davis, when on the campaign trail, likes to tout his role in the passage of Trump's tax cut legislation and on farm bills when Republicans held the majority.

He also plays up a provision he championed in the CARES Act — the 2020 COVID-19 relief package — allowing employers to pay their employees' student loans off tax free up to $5,250 per year.

Miller, as a freshman, has less of a track record. But the one she has indicates a desire to wade into the Trump-era culture wars.

One bill she introduced, for example, would require people in schools to use bathrooms and locker rooms and to participate in sports teams designated for their biological sex.

Miller has also been more outspoken, which has gotten her into trouble at times.

In early January 2021, Miller stoked controversy with remarks about Adolf Hitler at a pro-Trump rally outside the Capitol. ("Hitler was right on one thing. He said, ‘Whoever has the youth has the future,’” she said, speaking about the need to reach young people.) This drew widespread condemnation, some calls for her to resign and — eventually — an apology.

There is a disparity in the level of legislating between the two as well: Davis is the main sponsor on 30 bills in the current Congress while Miller has introduced just nine bills.

Another distinction is on earmarks, which allow members of Congress to set aside funds for specific projects in their districts. Democrats reintroduced the practice in 2019 after the previous GOP majority had banned them.

Miller, objecting on principle along with her fellow far-right Freedom Caucus colleagues, was the only Illinois lawmaker not to apply for funding.

Davis, on the other hand, secured $1 million for improvements to Willard Airport in Champaign and $2 million for Millikin University's nursing program last year, for example.

Shimkus said that earmarks are an example of a lawmaker "representing the entire district, it's not just representing a slice of the ideological spectrum."

"It's clear they have different styles of campaigning and different styles of how they perceive the job," Shimkus said. "And I'm in the camp that if we want a member to do the full portfolio job required by a member of Congress, that full portfolio is not just representing the party in tough votes."

Rodney Davis 1 090121.JPG

U.S. Rep. Rodney Davis, R-Taylorville, speaks to those gathered Sept. 1 for the Biofuels Policy Summit at the Farm Progress Show in Decatur. 

In terms of advancing legislation, the House' seniority system would benefit Davis, who would be in line to chair the House Administration Committee if the Republicans take the majority next year.

Davis would also chair the House Subcommittee on Highways and Transit, a potentially powerful perk that could lead to more infrastructure dollars coming back to Central Illinois.

"So I'm pretty jacked about the opportunity to do both of those and I can fix a lot of issues by bringing them up," Davis said.

Miller currently serves on the House Agriculture Committee and House Education Committee.

Though most give Davis the edge, “it's going to tighten up,” said the state lawmaker on background.

Coffey, the Coles County GOP chair, said he sees “quite a bit of movement behind (Miller).”

If Miller wins, many political observers say she will have Trump to thank in large part.

“The real wild card for me, obviously, is Trump's endorsement,” Redfield said. “If he makes one trip to the district, that's going to have an impact, get a lot of coverage and stuff.”

But if the better campaign operation wins, it will be Davis, Butler said.

“I think at the end of the day that's what's going to pull Rodney over the finish line because he's going to do it better than Mary Miller does,” Butler said.


Contact Brenden Moore at brenden.moore@lee.net. Follow him on Twitter at @brendenmoore13.

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