OREGON, Ill. — Rep. Don Manzullo's beef boils down to something like this: Get off my lawn, son, you're ruining the grass.
After two decades in Congress, the grizzled 67-year-old Illinois Republican faces his first tough primary against a freshman lawmaker half his age.
At the outset, top Republicans predicted Rep. Adam Kinzinger would prevail. The fresh-faced fighter pilot defeated an incumbent Democrat in a competitive district and has been a darling of GOP leadership since arriving on the Hill.
Manzullo, meanwhile, didn't seem to have the fire to keep his seat. But it turns out the underdog came ready to fight.
Heading into Tuesday's primary, Manzullo has a slight edge in what's become a highly competitive and negative contest.
House GOP leaders are backing Kinzinger and weighed in heavily last week with a sizable radio ad buy funded by Majority Leader Eric Cantor's (Va.) super PAC.
But regardless of the primary's winner, this contest between the old guard and young gun will serve as a lesson to the Republican freshman class that most elections probably won't be as easy as the first.
"I think Kinzinger has taken a great brand, and a big lead, and completely squandered it," one neutral Illinois Republican operative said. "How is it that the 34-year-old, first-term tea party hero suddenly becomes the establishment candidate against a 20-year incumbent, former committee chairman?"
'Peak of My Career'
At the start of this cycle, many Republicans viewed Manzullo as a mild-mannered Member — one they never thought would survive a bare-knuckled political fight like this.
On the campaign trail, Manzullo snipes and criticizes Kinzinger at every opportunity. It's easy to see he's bitter toward the freshman, who moved into the 16th district a couple of months ago to run against him after Democrats overhauled the Congressional map.
"We were not put together in redistricting. He choose to move into this district to run against me," Manzullo said. "This is a Chicago-style politician. How could he relate to the people of this Congressional district?"
Manzullo accused Kinzinger's campaign of making his wife "weep." He suggested the farm bill was too "complicated" for the freshman to understand. He charged that Kinzinger "brings nothing to the table" in terms of experience.
"I'm trying to find some good things to say about him, but I'm struggling," Manzullo said. When pressed for specifics, Manzullo eventually delivered three obvious Kinzinger accolades following several minutes of thought: his military service, his 2010 victory over then-Rep. Debbie Halvorson and his party affiliation.
Manzullo runs a very traditional campaign — negative attacks and all. He shakes every hand in the room before a candidate forum in Oregon, a small farming community 25 miles southwest of Rockford. He makes copious notes with a tiny blue pen on the inside of a manila folder at a DeKalb County Farm Bureau meeting.
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