The most interesting House primary of the 2014 cycle began in June in the 13th District of Illinois. It pits freshman Republican congressman Rodney Davis against an insurgent candidate named Erika Harold. Davis is a political operative who won his seat last year nearly by accident. Erika Harold is a 33-year-old lawyer. Who happens to have been Miss America.

The recent history of the 13th District is about as confusing as a game of musical chairs played in the dark. Reapportionment after the 2010 census shunted a seven-term Republican incumbent to a neighboring district, leaving the 13th an open seat. Another Republican congressman displaced by redistricting, Tim Johnson, decided to try his luck there.

Johnson was a longtime Illinois pol. He’d served in the state legislature for 24 years before being elected to Congress in 2000 from the 15th District. After declaring for the 13th, the 66-year-old Johnson won an uncontested Republican primary—then promptly retired, intending to hand the nomination (and the seat) off to his longtime chief of staff, Jerry Clarke. The baton-pass was so blatant that Clarke announced his candidacy before his boss had formally stepped aside.

In Illinois, when a nominee withdraws after the primary, his replacement is chosen by the party heads of the counties in the district. The 13th includes parts of 14 counties, so the nomination was to be awarded by 14 Republican leaders. Clarke, it turns out, wasn’t particularly popular with them.

Which brings us to Rodney Davis. Davis was the political director for another neighboring Republican congressman when he stepped up to challenge the unpopular Clarke. Two other candidates also came forward—one of whom was Harold—but it wasn’t much of a contest. Davis was extremely well connected with, and well liked by, the local establishment, in addition to being, by nearly all accounts, a smart and decent fellow. (In Illinois, such niceties are nonessential.)

So Davis became the nominee, not by standing before the district’s voters, but by winning a beauty contest. The outcome of the general election was no sure thing. Not only was the district a toss-up politically, but Davis had lost two earlier attempts at public office, a bid for an Illinois house seat in 1998 and a campaign for mayor in his hometown of Taylorville. Last November, Davis squeaked to victory, carrying the 13th by a spine-tingling 1,002 votes and running a worrisome 2.9 points behind Mitt Romney.

With Davis’s reelection prospects in mind, the local party establishment became somewhat distraught when Harold declared her intention to run against him for the Republican nomination in 2014. Part of their dyspepsia is natural to party establishments, which exist to support officeholders and insulate them from challenge. Another part seems rooted in personal trust. Davis has been working for local Republican politicians since he graduated from college. He has been a good and loyal soldier, and they are comfortable with him. Harold is a native of the district—she grew up in Urbana and went to the University of Illinois—but she’s younger and has spent her professional life in the national spotlight, as Miss America, and in the private sector, practicing law in Chicago.

The Republican establishment also has a prudential concern: A weak freshman, Davis has already drawn a top-tier Democratic challenger. Ann Callis, a former prosecutor and Illinois appeals court judge, stepped down from the bench in May to run against him. She’s an attractive candidate who had been the party’s first choice to run for the open seat in 2012 but had declined. This time around, the Democrats may succeed in keeping the primary field clear for her. So even if Davis defeats Harold, as most locals assume he will, the primary could sap him of money he’ll need against Callis in a race that could be tight.

Harold’s decision to run has already driven one of the local poobahs to self-immolation. In June, Montgomery County GOP chairman Jim Allen called Harold a “streetwalker” and the “love child” of the DNC. That is, we assume Allen was talking about Harold. He never mentioned her by name, referring to her instead as “Little Queenie.” This caused something of a firestorm.

Allen is now the former Montgomery County Republican chairman, the first member of the Illinois GOP establishment to be displaced by Harold’s entrance into politics. There may be more.

Why is Erika Harold trying to disintermediate the Champaign-Urbana Republican establishment? To understand Harold’s candidacy, you have to understand Miss America.

Once upon a time, the Miss America contest was a beauty pageant. Try calling it a “beauty pageant” today and the Miss America organization will congenially rap your knuckles. Yes, the aspirants compete in categories such as “swimsuit” and “evening gown,” but the organizers no longer view the event as a “pageant” of any sort. It is, as they constantly correct laypeople, a scholarship program.

This isn’t PC window dressing. Last year the Miss America Organization handed out $45 million worth of grants across the pageant’s various national, state, and local levels, making it one of the biggest scholarship programs in the country. Harold herself entered Miss America after being admitted to Harvard Law School and reckoning the mountain of student loan debt that was coming her way.

Once you understand how Miss America sees itself, it becomes easier to understand what kind of woman tends to be named Miss America.

The best inside account of Miss America is the book Hype and Glory (1990), by screenwriting legend William Goldman, who served as a judge of the 1989 pageant. As Goldman recounts, celebrity judges like him are given strict instructions on how to grade contestants:

Leonard Horn, the head of the pageant, spoke very clearly about what he wanted and what our job was. . . . [O]ur job was absolutely clear: give them ten girls, any one of whom could be Miss America. Not just a girl with some talent, who might or might not be attractive. But one who could serve as a role model for her generation. . . .

Then Karen Aarons, administrative officer of the pageant, spoke briefly. . . . What we were doing, she explained, was just this: we were interviewing someone for a job.

And what was that job?

Well, she would have to deal with her first press conference after the pageant. And another the following morning, Sunday. And then off to New York for television and more interviews on Monday.

That was the kind of year it would be.

Miss America busts her chops during her year. It’s been estimated that the prize brings close to $200,000 in all to the lady. But it’s earned. She works every other day, several times a day, personal appearances, public-relations work for the sponsors of the program, talking at schools, hospitals, on and on. She is always, always on. The day she isn’t pressing the flesh is spent mainly in traveling from one city to the next.

Goldman observes that what the pageant prizes most in a Miss America is poise, intelligence, charisma, and unflappability. He jokes that to the organization, the platonic ideal of Miss America isn’t Marilyn Monroe. It’s Jane Pauley. Because the requirements for the job of Miss America are essentially the same as those for a big-time morning TV news anchor.

This vision is why the dispositive part of the Miss America pageant is one the audience never sees: It’s the individual seven-minute interviews with the judging panel at the beginning of Miss America week. “The interview,” Goldman writes, “is everything.” Because in that period it becomes clear to the judges who fits the job.

To show you how dead-on Goldman’s analysis was, based on the interviews alone, he narrowed the field from 53 down to 5 girls he believed could win. One of them did. The Miss America who emerged that year was a Stanford senior from Minnesota named Gretchen Carlson. You may know her today as the co-host of Fox News Channel’s morning show Fox & Friends—or, as some conservatives like to think of her, Jane Pauley with an extra 30 IQ points.

What didn’t occur to Goldman is that the same qualities that make for a good morning TV host can also make for a formidable retail politician. This insight, however, was not lost on Erika Harold.

In addition to the charisma and poise native to good politicians, Harold has exhibited the principled toughness of the best pols. And again, to appreciate this aspect of her character, you need only go back to Miss America.

Harold competed three times for the Miss Illinois crown, which she finally won in 2003. Each time, she ran on a platform of abstinence. But one of the arcane traditions of Miss America is that while contestants choose their own platforms when competing for the state crown, it’s the state organization that decides what platform the winner will take to Atlantic City. The year Harold was named Miss Illinois, her state committee settled on a bland platform opposing “youth violence.” (Think of it as “world peace,” for the children.) Harold agreed to oppose youth violence.

After she was named Miss America, however, Harold decided to add abstinence to her platform for the year of her reign. She didn’t abandon “youth violence” but rather included it, along with abstinence, in a broad appeal to kids to respect themselves by standing up to bullies and avoiding sex, drugs, and alcohol. This was, as a matter of both intellectual coherence and moral sense, a significant improvement on the pure “youth violence” platform she’d been handed. The Miss America organization did not like it one bit.

The organization pushed back hard and told Harold to keep quiet—especially about sex. The disagreement made national headlines and culminated in a news conference at the National Press Club in Washington, where the newly crowned Harold told reporters, “I will not be bullied. I’ve gone through enough adversity in my life to stand up for what I believe in.” Miss America stared down the pageant and won.

Harold was already interested in politics. During a Miss America appearance at East St. Louis High School, students asked her what she wanted to be when she grew up. She told them, “My ultimate goal is that I want to be the first black female president of the United States.” While still an undergraduate at Illinois, she volunteered for conservative Patrick O’Malley’s doomed 2002 Illinois gubernatorial campaign. She also volunteered with the Republican National Committee in an effort to promote conservative economic principles in African-American communities. After graduating from law school, she joined a Chicago firm where her practice has specialized in health care law and religious freedom. Both have led her to be increasingly critical of President Obama’s policies, though not the man himself.

In fact, she goes out of her way—far out of it—not to criticize Obama. For instance, in June she told Politico:

[Obama] and I both have an optimistic view of the country and people’s capacity to effect change, and I think that we do share that in common. I know that he has a background in organizing communities to affect issues, and I think that’s a very empowering way to organize people. And I think that sense of optimism is something people hopefully find appealing. And I also admire the fact that he seems like he’s a great father and I’ve found it heartwarming to see pictures of his daughters growing up. They’re great representatives of their generation.

This sort of talk has been interpreted by some in the Illinois Republican establishment as suggesting that Harold isn’t, to put it more nicely than Jim Allen did, a genuine conservative.

Is she a squish? Possibly, but probably not. Differentiating between Obama and his policies is smart politics—Harold is running in Illinois, after all, a heavily Democratic state where Obama is a favorite son. Yet while Harold tries to resist easy classification, her ideological markers are highly suggestive of a conservative worldview. There’s the abstinence, of course. She’s fiercely pro-life. She favors concealed-carry gun laws. And she’s on the board of Prison Fellowship Ministries, the program founded by Chuck Colson.

This last is telling. The most interesting part of Harold’s legal practice has been her work defending faith-based entities. In one case, for example, she represented a retirement community affiliated with a religious group. The organization featured a cross on its logo and used a Bible verse in its mission statement—which attracted a lawsuit from an advocacy group contending that this amounted to discrimination. Describing this work, Harold says, “It’s a passion of mine.”

Looking across the broader national landscape, Harold sees ample reason to be concerned about religious freedom. “We’re starting to see ways in which our constitutional protections are being encroached upon,” she says. “We all are less free when any group isn’t afforded their constitutional protections.”

And not just less free, but less well off. Harold says that her time with Prison Fellowship Ministries has deepened her appreciation for the good religious organizations can do. “I’ve seen firsthand the need for there to be a space in public life for religious groups to be able to offer service to their fellow man,” she says. When government seeks to quarantine religious organizations, moving from freedom of religion to “freedom of worship” (to use the formulation President Obama favors), “it’s far too limiting in terms of the good they can do for the public, and it’s far too restrictive in terms of the protections which are afforded religious groups by the Constitution. We give something up when we say that certain voices aren’t welcome in the public square.”

Harold says she intends to make religious freedom an issue in her campaign. This is fitting at a time when the HHS mandate, the Hobby Lobby case, and the torrent of litigation about to be unleashed by the Supreme Court’s gay marriage decisions appear likely to make religious freedom a central front in the culture war.

None of this has made much of an impression on the Republican establishment. As a senior adviser to the local party told me with some exasperation, “It doesn’t make any sense that she’s running. She has no complaints about Davis. No one has any complaints about Davis—he’s a good man and he’s done a good job for the district. All this does is hurt the Republican party in Illinois.”

Yet the twin rationales for Harold’s campaign are fairly obvious: The 2012 results suggest that Republicans might be able to field a stronger general election candidate for a tough 2014 race. And more important, whatever Davis’s merits, Republican primary voters never got a say in choosing him.

When you add it all up, the real mystery about Harold isn’t why she’s challenging Davis. It’s why the Illinois GOP didn’t find a way to harness her talents and ambition when she came home five years ago.

In 2002, a friend of mine got a surprise call asking if she would sit as a judge for Miss America. Like any sensible person, she said yes. When she told me the news, I gave her a copy of Goldman’s book, and after the pageant—sorry, scholarship contest—she confirmed his reporting. She said that the minute Harold finished her extended interview, it was clear to the panel that she would be Miss America. She was that good.

Shortly thereafter, when Harold came to Washington in the middle of the abstinence platform dust-up, my friend had a small party for her. It was informal, maybe two dozen people at a home by the D.C. reservoir. Harold was there, with her sash, her tiara, and her elderly minder from the organization. (During her tenure, Miss America has a chaperone with her every waking minute. That’s probably why the only scandals the pageant has ever endured came from indiscretions committed before the competition.)

My wife and I spent a little time talking with Harold. We hadn’t met a Miss America before, and she wasn’t what I expected. For starters, she wasn’t beautiful. This isn’t meant as a slight—Harold was then and is today a very attractive woman by any standard. But I was expecting Helen of Troy, or at least Heidi Klum. And she wasn’t that. Also, she was short.

Those were my immediate impressions. It took less than a minute to appreciate how engaging she was. Even at 23, she was uncannily personable; all the more so because her manner seemed effortless and natural. After a few minutes, it became clear that she was also very smart. On this score I had been expecting Jane Pauley; Harold reminded me more of Bill Clinton—of the package of attributes that made the young Bill Clinton such a promising politician.

In the car on the way home, my wife and I compared notes. We were both convinced that Harold was destined for politics and would be a formidable contender once she arrived there.

Other formidable politicians have started out by displeasing their party establishments. In 2000, Barack Obama mounted a primary challenge to Bobby Rush, a four-term congressman. Obama got thrashed in an ugly race. In 1995, Chris Christie was a sitting freeholder (the New Jersey term for county commissioner) when he challenged Anthony Bucco, the incumbent Republican, for a seat in the state’s general assembly. Christie lost, and in retaliation the county Republican party recruited a candidate to challenge him in the primary when he ran for reelection to his freeholder seat. He lost that, too.

Today, the national Democratic party belongs to Obama just as surely as the New Jersey Republican party belongs to Christie. Erika Harold understands that while political establishments can be powerful, they are neither irresistible nor immortal.

Jonathan V. Last is a senior writer at The Weekly Standard and the author of What to Expect When No One’s Expecting: America’s Coming Demographic Disaster.

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