DU QUOIN, Ill. — With more than 19 years under his belt as an Illinois legislator, state Rep. Mike Bost has seen it all on the campaign trail.
At a mid-August campaign stop, the Republican taking on Democratic Rep. Bill Enyart, one of the most vulnerable members of Congress , dished on door-knocking memories as he sipped a beer at the St. Nicholas Brewing Company. It's a new craft beer joint here in a farming town of some 6,000 people, connected to Chicago and Carbondale via Amtrak's Saluki train, and in the heart of the swingy 12th District. Bost leaned over to an aide, smirking. "I'm going to tell her about walking precincts with my wife in Belleville," he said, before relaying the tale of finding a pool of blood in a driveway and missing a fatal stabbing by just hours.
While he survived that experience, Bost admits his challenge this cycle may be the greatest he's staked yet. But it's one national Republicans are increasingly optimistic about.
The race is playing out in a competitively drawn district, which begins in the St. Louis suburbs and heads southeast to the Land of Lincoln's southernmost tip — an area blanketed by corn and soybean fields with small towns sprinkled in between.
After some initial bumps in the road since announcing his run more than a year ago, Bost said his team is hitting its stride just as the curtains are rising on the final act — though just last week the campaign mistakenly used a photo from an Ohio county fair in a tweet highlighting Bost's attendance at a fair in an Illinois county of the same name.
"Trying to make the mental shift from state to federal, trying to get our name rolling, and moving up my organization from a state [representative] race that was in five counties to a U.S. Congress race that was in 11 and one-third counties, and getting the right team together — it isn’t always an easy thing to do," Bost said on Aug. 12 over a brown ale fresh from the brewery's new fermenter.
Bost was one of the first candidates named to the top tier of the National Republican Congressional Committee's Young Guns candidate program and is being counted on in one of the party's best pickup opportunities in a year the GOP is likely to add to its majority. At this point, the race is rated Tilts Democrat by the Rothenberg Political Report/Roll Call.
A well-known state legislator, Bost is challenging a freshman who's yet to build an iron-clad profile in his short time in office and in a district President Barack Obama won by a slim 2-point margin last cycle. Enyart, a retired major general in the Army National Guard, earned his party's nomination in 2012 only after the primary winner withdrew; he went on to win the general by 9 points.
This cycle, both Obama and Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn are unpopular in this corner of the state, providing their party with an added challenge in this off-year election, as Democrats work to get their base to turn out.
"Everybody hates Congress nationwide, according to polls, but most people like their congressman," Bost said. "I think in this case, you’ve got to know your local congressman to like him or dislike him."
There has been a dearth of public polling since a baseline poll conducted for Bost's campaign in April found him with a 6-point lead on Enyart. That was before media spending began in earnest, and both campaigns hit the airwaves only in the past couple of weeks.
Crossroads GPS, the GOP-aligned issue advocacy group, is already on the air attacking Enyart over his congressional votes. The NRCC has reserved more than $1.4 million in fall airtime in the St. Louis market.
Enyart went on the air last month with his first ad , which touted some of the things he did in the military to help his community. With a large military population in the district from Scott Air Force Base, where Enyart was stationed while in the Air Force, the message could resonate with voters here.
Enyart has also bucked Obama on issues relating to coal , an industry tied to the southern portion of the district. That's something his campaign is likely to play up, according to a Democratic operative in Illinois.
The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has reserved $1.9 million on St. Louis broadcast thus far, and the Democrat-aligned House Majority PAC booked $1.75 million in the pricey market. That money can also be used for a neighboring district or potentially shifted to another market.
Democrats say Bost's voting record in the state House provides a wealth of opportunity for attacks.
"The reality is, Bost has been part of the problem for 20 years in Springfield," Jason Bresler, a consultant for Enyart's campaign, told CQ Roll Call. "He has voted for numerous reckless bills that have run our state’s finances into the ground and kicked our problems down the road."
Bost's legislative tenure also includes an outburst on the state House floor , in which he threw papers as part of a fiery speech about the timing of a vote on a pension bill. It's an image that could crop up in negative advertising.
"I think it was a passion issue," Bost told CQ Roll Call of the incident.
Back at the brewery, Bost chatted with Abby Ancell, a partial owner and general manager of St. Nicholas, about the regulatory hurdles she faced to convert a shuttered hotel into a company that now employs 31. In an interview shortly after, Bost delved into what he plans to make the race about: Creating a pro-business environment and nixing regulations that he says have hurt job growth in his home state — that's what led to his impassioned floor speech.
"I love my state," Bost said. "I have been there during good years, and I’ve watched what has happened from lack of leadership. Even though I'm — no pun intended — screaming and yelling, I've tried to say, 'No, we can't continue to do this to our business, we can't continue to do this to our state employees.'"
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