ROCK ISLAND, Ill. ' On an unlikely battlefield, second-term Rep. Phil Hare is amassing an army.
Unions are on the front lines, but the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has also joined with money, advertising and boots on the ground. At a weekend rally in a crowded union hall with Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) sitting in the front row, Hare, a former steward for UNITE HERE, drew the battle lines.
'Organized labor is who I am, where I came from, and my opponent talks about being a member of a union,' the Democratic lawmaker said. 'He talks the talk, except he doesn't really support the Employee Free Choice Act because he says we're taking away the right to a secret ballot.'
On the other side is a scrappier contingent. Republican Bobby Schilling, the owner of St. Giuseppe's Heavenly Pizza in Moline and the father of 10 children, is mounting his first campaign. Early in his career, he was a steward for the United Paper Workers International Union and later a member of the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union. Following an event in Quincy, where he accepted the endorsement of the National Federation of Independent Business, Schilling said his goal would be to bring labor and business together.
'The biggest thing we can do is let people know ' business owners know ' that we're going to create an environment to where it's going to be great for them to do business, rather than the environment that's been created the last year and a half [that] has really just scared people,' he said. 'People are scared.'
This is Hare's first competitive race, and the fact that he's in a dogfight is emblematic of the environment for Democrats. Hare wasn't anywhere near GOP target lists at the start of the cycle, but it's become clear over the past month that the Congressman, who was unopposed in 2008, could get swept out in the GOP wave.
Rep. Aaron Schock (R), who represents a neighboring district and appeared at a fundraiser with Schilling Monday night at a home in Quincy, underscored the importance of the battleground race.
'You're asking yourself the question, 'Are Republicans going to win control of the Congress?'' he said. 'I guarantee you this, if Bobby Schilling becomes a Congressman from Illinois, there ain't a doubt in anyone's mind whether or not we win a majority in Congress. So this is battlefront central, not just for the 17th district, but for the national election cycle.'
While Schilling is a political neophyte, Hare's background and path to Congress is steeped in politics.
Hare's former boss, Rep. Lane Evans, announced in 2006 he would not run for re-election after he had already won the Democratic nomination. With Evans' support, Hare lobbied local Democratic officials for the nomination. That November, he defeated Evans' 2004 Republican opponent, broadcaster Andrea Zinga, with 57 percent of the vote.
Hare continues to benefit from his ties to Evans, who stepped down because he has Parkinson's disease and is still loved by local Democrats. At a fundraiser in tiny Canton, Cindy Rodney, 66, said she supported Evans because he helped her brother, who was in the military.
'Phil is really kind of the shadow of Lane Evans,' she said.
Gale Derenzy, 72, sat next to her and recalled that he first talked to Hare in February 2008 when he became chair of the Fulton County Democrats.
'He's honest,' Derenzy said. 'If he tells you he'll do something, he'll do it.'
Hare enjoys not only the advantages of incumbency but also the significant help of a district painstakingly drawn to elect a Democrat. Illinois' 17th district stretches from the Mississippi River to Decatur, which is east of Springfield, and from Rock Island and Whiteside Counties in the north to counties not far north of East St. Louis in the south. It includes nine whole counties and parts of 13 others. In the 2006 race, Zinga won just four neighboring counties in the southwest corner of the district, including Adams County, where Quincy is located.
The turning point in the 2010 race came at a town hall in Quincy in early April. Everyone tells a different version of what happened there, but the result was that a man with a video camera from the nearby St. Louis Tea Party argued with Hare about health care reform following the meeting and caught it on video. Hare was telling a woman about people the new law would help when the man interrupted, asking a trailing question about the Constitution.
'I don't worry about the Constitution on this, to be honest,' Hare said.
'Jackpot, brother,' the cameraman replied, laughing.
Since then the video has gotten nearly 430,000 hits on YouTube and appeared in TV ads, including one airing now from the American Future Fund, a conservative 501(c)(4). Hare's office later clarified that because experts have confirmed the constitutionality of the law, the Congressman wasn't concerned about legal challenges to it.
Schilling said that although his son and daughter-in-law were at the town hall, they weren't involved in shooting the video.
His supporters have taken the video as a rallying cry. Terri Cary, 63, a leader in the Quincy Tea Party who was at the NFIB endorsement event, said she asked Hare about the constitutionality of the health care law, too.
'I'm tired of the career politicians,' she said.
Outside Money Pouring In
Schilling said he made the decision to run for Congress after the 2008 presidential election, and he entered the race early in 2009. His 24-year-old son is his campaign manager, while his 21-year-old son is managing the family pizza restaurant.
'As a husband, a dad, a small-business owner, you know, you trust that the politicians are going to go in there and do what's right for us the people, we the people, and I didn't see that happening,' he said in an interview. 'So Christie and I just did a lot of discussing and I said, 'You know, I'm going to throw my hat in the ring.''
But the race didn't show up on the national radar until late July when Schilling's campaign released a Magellan Strategies poll that showed him ahead of Hare, 45 percent to 32 percent. More recent polling has continued to show Hare in dangerous territory for an incumbent.
A Public Opinion Strategies poll taken for the Schilling campaign Oct. 17-18 showed the race in a statistical tie, with Schilling ahead 42 percent to 39 percent.
Recent fundraising numbers were consistent in showing Schilling's slight edge. The Republican raised $375,000 in the third quarter and ended September with $421,000 on hand. Hare raised $325,000 and ended with $327,000 on hand.
Outside groups have weighed in on both sides. Democratic groups have spent more than $1 million on Hare's behalf. The SEIU on Oct. 13 began airing an ad in the Quad Cities attacking Schilling, the DCCC has ads running, and the Democratic PAC America's Families First Action Fund took out an ad buy in the district this week.
On the Republican side, the National Rifle Association's Political Victory Fund has supported Schilling with a radio ad, and the National Republican Congressional Committee went up with its second TV ad in the district this week.
In the end, Hare's union support may be what pulls him over the finish line, but that's not a certain outcome at this point.
The local UFCW has taken out $50,000 worth of radio ads in support of Hare. President Jerry Messer said Schilling hasn't asked for the union's support, but his former membership in the union wouldn't be enough to get it anyway.
'I can think of a lot of great Congressmen, but I can't think of anyone better than Phil Hare on our issues,' he said in an interview. 'I wish I had another $50,000 personal money I could put in that race.'
Correction: Oct. 21, 2010
The article misquoted Hare's previous comment about the Constitution. He said: 'I don't worry about the Constitution on this, to be honest.'