GOP hopes to recapture the House this November hinge on the success of a few underdog challengers to Democratic incumbents. One such candidate, entrepreneur Bobby Schilling from Moline, Illinois, is running to unseat second-term Democrat Phil Hare in Illinois-17. A 46-year-old father of no fewer than ten children, Schilling was raised and educated in the 17th district, where he and his wife operate a successful Italian restaurant they opened 13 years ago.
Schilling, though, has greater concerns than his pizzeria -- he's worried about rapid government expansion of the past 17 months and years of out-of-control spending in Washington. By comparison, his opponent, Hare, seems unconcerned with the enormous federal deficit, bragging on his website about his successful efforts to secure earmarks and his “plum assignment” to the “powerful House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.” He voted for last year’s pork-laden stimulus bill that over two-thirds of his constituents, according to a We Ask America poll, believed had not improved the western Illinois economy as of last November.
Schilling promises that if he is elected, “Nancy Pelosi won’t run our district anymore.” Having earned 100 percent ratings from the far-left Americans for Democratic Action and ACLU, Hare has sided with his party leadership on virtually every issue from Iraq to gay marriage, and has been a reliable vote on key Obama administration initiatives. He voted for the president’s health care bill, even though last November’s We Ask America poll indicated that 61 percent of his district's residents thought the House version of the bill would not improve the American health care system. Asked at a town hall meeting which part of the Constitution authorized Congress to pass such a law, he said he didn’t know, adding, “I don’t worry about the Constitution on this.” As Schilling sees it, a vote for Hare is a vote for Pelosi.
Hare also promotes green energy alternatives to fossil fuels through artificially high utility bills, a strategy that over 89 percent of his constituents oppose according to the same poll. He supported the Waxman-Markey cap-and-trade bill, which the Heritage Foundation estimates would lower Illinois’s GDP by nearly $14 billion per year between 2012 and 2035, destroying jobs and increasing energy prices. The 17th district, which is home to manufacturers like John Deere and Caterpillar, would be especially hard hit. Schilling, on the other hand, advocates deregulation of the energy sector to encourage alternative energy sources.
But Schilling's efforts to distinguish himself from the incumbent haven't yet paid off: Hare still remains a favorite. Illinois-17, which is gerrymandered to benefit Democratic candidates, has been represented by a Democrat for over two decades. It favored Barack Obama by a 15-point margin in 2008, and went for Democrats John Kerry and Al Gore in the previous two presidential elections. Hare is the preferred candidate of labor leaders in a district whose workforce is 23 percent unionized. And Hare’s fundraising has drastically outpaced his opponent’s.
But Schilling may be the GOP’s best chance to cut into the Democratic base, which seems to be the other main part of his strategy. As a former union employee and officer, he is the district’s first-ever Republican candidate with a union background. Over three months from the election, he already has 1,400 volunteers, at least 30 percent of whom are registered Democrats.
There are other good omens for the Schilling campaign. The last time the district’s incumbent congressman lost a bid for reelection was in 1982, also in the midst of a recession (though that one was less severe than the current one). And November will be Hare’s first real electoral test. He easily triumphed in the 2006 general election as his predecessor’s handpicked candidate, and ran without opposition in 2008.
Most significantly, a Magellan Strategies poll conducted last week indicates that only 24 percent of the district believes Phil Hare deserves to be reelected, while 50 percent think it's time to "give someone else a chance." A lot of voters seem to think Bobby Schilling is that "someone else." The same poll reveals that if the election were held today, 45 percent would support the insurgent Republican, and only 32 percent would vote to reelect Phil Hare. Assuming Schilling can convince enough undecided voters, Nancy Pelosi may control one fewer district come January.
Peyton R. Miller is the editor of the Harvard Salient and a Student Free Press Association intern at THE WEEKLY STANDARD.