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Miss America vs. Mr. Incumbent

Not your ordinary House primary race

Aug 12, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 45 • By JONATHAN V. LAST
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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.

Erika Harold at the 2004 Republican convention in New York

Erika Harold at the 2004 Republican convention in New York

NEWSCOM

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. 

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