SPRINGFIELD, Ill. — Freshman Rep. Rodney Davis entered the midterms as one of the most vulnerable Republicans on the map.
In 2012, the former staffer for Rep. John Shimkus, R-Ill., won the 13th District by a mere 1,002 votes to a perennial Democrat panned by party operatives. This cycle, Democrats in Illinois and Washington, D.C., recruited former judge Ann Callis, billing her as a top-tier challenger who could win this Springfield-based swing seat.
But nearly two months from Election Day, Republican operatives in the Land of Lincoln and Washington, D.C., are cautiously optimistic about Davis’ chances, thanks to his adept political skills and favorable tail winds behind the GOP in the midterms. At the same time, Republicans and, privately, Democrats say Callis has not lived up to her candidacy's hype or made the necessary inroads to win the district.
"Other than knowing her name I don’t know if she even exists, frankly," said Mark Scranton, a Republican and blasting and painting company owner from Decatur at the Illinois State Fair. “It’s going to be a challenging race, but I think Rodney’s been in office long enough that he’s proven himself, he makes himself available to his constituents, he’s been in my business several times over the last two or three years."
Davis also appeared confident at Republican Day, Aug. 14, at the fair, where he glad-handed his way through the crowd of GOP insiders at the unofficial kick-off to election season. A red cup in hand, Davis handed out hugs and back slaps, catching up with operatives, insiders and elected officials, many of whom were pals from his years as a political operative in Illinois and on Capitol Hill. "When you win the closest Republican victory in the nation like I did last time by 1,002 votes, you’re not getting a pass," Davis, 44, told CQ Roll Call before a State Central Committee meeting the morning of the fair.
On paper, the 13th District is a swing district, with no clear partisan advantage in voter registration. In 2012, GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney edged President Barack Obama in the district by a fraction of a percentage point, while Obama carried the district by an 11-point margin in 2008.
Democrats hustled to woo Callis, a 49-year-old with a compelling story, into the race, even hosting her at the president's second inauguration. She had started a number of programs as chief justice of the Madison County Court including a foreclosure mediation program and a veterans court.
“I think she is a really good candidate and will be a great congresswoman," Senate Majority Whip Richard J. Durbin told CQ Roll Call in the car port of the Crown Plaza Hotel before an Illinois Democratic County Chairmen's Association brunch in Springfield on Aug. 13. "And the fact that Speaker Boehner came in here to campaign for Rodney Davis is an indication they’re not taking this district for granted either. I think it’s going to be a close race.”
But the midterms are leaning increasingly in the GOP's favor as public opinion continues to sour on the president. And Illinois Democrats have an even bigger problem : Gov. Pat Quinn. His poor approval rating outside of Chicago may prove a more difficult obstacle for the party to overcome on the ballot.
In southern Illinois, Quinn is down 24 points to Republican gubernatorial nominee Bruce Rauner, according to a poll conducted Aug. 12 to 14 for Durbin's re-election and provided to CQ Roll Call. That region includes the 13th District.
Another sign Republicans feel confident about Davis' chances? Crossroads GPS, the tax-exempt advocacy group run by Karl Rove, has targeted two other House districts in Illinois held by Democrats with advertisements. But the spending juggernaut is not in the 13th District.
“Her fundraising is just OK, Rodney works hard and Quinn just doesn’t help," said an Illinois Democratic operative, who requested anonymity to speak candidly.
Callis attended a brunch at the Crowne Plaza Hotel a few miles south of the fairgrounds, where Quinn and other Democrats delivered speeches to 1,400 party operatives and county chairmen.
But Callis did not speak, nor did she have a crowd of supporters tag along. While media swarmed other Democrats who showed up to the brunch, such as Secretary of State Jesse White and state Sen. Mike Frerichs, currently running for state treasurer, Callis quietly entered the ballroom with little fanfare.
Inside, she mingled with the attendees — few of which were from Springfield or the surrounding area.
Callis did not make her way to the fairgrounds later in the day, where Quinn and the other Democratic candidates worked the crowd at a picnic, posing for photos as a jazz band played on stage.
"I'm sure she was told to make no waves, make no news and don’t get in the same storyline as Quinn is any way, shape or form," the Illinois Democratic operative said of Callis. "But you've gotta make appearances, you've gotta be seen at the fair by county chairmen. It’s a tough rope to walk."
In an interview outside the ballroom after Quinn's speech, Callis dodged the question of what impact Quinn could have on her chances in the contest.
"I'm just focusing on my race and really trying to highlight who I am and just the stark differences of Mr. Davis," Callis said. Davis "voted for the shutdown and then he came to the district and said he wouldn’t rule out a second shutdown while the congressional gym remained open during that shutdown and that does, I’ve heard that angers people."
Davis, on the other hand, was an integral part of the Republican Day gathering at the fairgrounds, riling the crowd with Rauner chants and bringing with him a contingent of supporters wearing shirts emblazoned with his campaign logo.
Davis made no mention of Callis in his speech to the crowd or in a one-on-one interview with CQ Roll Call. He instead touted his work in Congress as a member of the farm bill conference committee — a committee that helped usher a rare piece of bipartisan legislation through Congress this year.
"Those issues I like talking about because those are success stories," Davis said. "And those lead us down a path to actually restraining spending and continuing to move the ball forward and get toward that vision that we all have as conservatives for America’s future."
To be sure, anything can happen in a competitive district like this one. The DCCC and House Majority PAC, a super PAC that supports House Democrats, have reserved millions in airtime in the Champaign and St. Louis media markets , both of which cover the 13th District, among other races.
The National Republican Congressional Committee also has more than $720,000 reserved here in the fall, while Speaker John A. Boehner made a personal visit to the district earlier this month to boost Davis' war chest, which stood at $1.3 million as of June 30. Callis reported $717,000 in the bank as of the same date.
Republicans at the fair said they were impressed by Davis, who they described as a visible presence in the district since he took office a little more than a year and a half ago.
“We feel very confident about Rodney Davis,” Chuck Redpath, a former Springfield alderman running for another stint on the Springfield City Council, said before the slate of Republican candidates took the stage at the fairgrounds. “This is a farm community and farm issues are what Rodney took on first. And obviously he stands up for us, so we feel real good about Rodney.”
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