“These aren’t easy districts. Politics are very different once you get outside of Cook County and the collar counties” around Chicago, the five-term Bustos said in an interview. “You have to have the right candidate and the right message to be successful in these downstate districts.”
The last thing Bustos, a friend of Pelosi, wants to do is pass the 17th District baton to a Republican.
But with the prospect of losing the House if the GOP wins just six seats in November, Democrats are finding that even places they carved out for themselves are frustratingly competitive as economic concerns spook voters.
Bustos is backing Democrat Eric Sorensen, a TV meteorologist, facing Republican Esther Joy King, an Army JAG officer who entered the race with strong name recognition after losing to Bustos by 6 points in 2020.
The 17th encompasses the populous Rockford and Quad Cities areas in the northwestern region of Illinois and was notable as one of the few areas in the country that elected a Democrat to Congress while also backing Donald Trump in 2016 and 2020.
With Democrats in control of the Illinois statehouse, a greater edge was given to their party during the redistricting process — but it might not be enough to guarantee a win. King has experience as a candidate and is using it to her advantage, even mimicking ads put out by Bustos a few years ago.
In 2020, for example, Bustos’ campaign message was “Illinois is worth fighting for.” Now King’s 2022 message is “America is worth the fight.”
“It’s smart. It’s straight out of Cheri’s playbook, emphasizing the economy,” said Robin Johnson, a Monmouth College professor and longtime pollster on Illinois policy issues. “King learned from her loss about the proper message to take to the district.”
But King is already taking hits from Democrats with an ad by the House Majority PAC that calls her a “fraud” and claims she embellished her biography and the Democratic Campaign Congressional Committee is out with an ad that calls out her anti-abortion views.
Sorensen, meanwhile, is a first-time political candidate with name recognition in the Rockford and Quad Cities area. His campaign is focusing on economic issues such as the cost of food and health care, bringing jobs to the district and addressing climate change. Sorensen also would be the first openly gay member of the Illinois congressional delegation if he’s elected.
King has $1.3 million cash on hand after raising $1.2 million in the third quarter, and Sorenson has raised $1.5 million in the third quarter, according to their campaigns.
“With apologies to Bob Dylan, maybe you do need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows,” deadpanned Eric Adelstein, a political strategist who has consulted for Barack Obama, Lori Lightfoot and the Democratic National Committee. “It’s a highly competitive race that could go either way. There’s a lot of spending.”
Sorensen wasn’t the first pick among those in Bustos’ circle. He won a highly contested primary against a former state representative and a city council member who was backed by people who had worked on Bustos’ campaign.
Illinois’ other open seat, the newly formed 13th District, was gerrymandered as a landing spot for Democrat Nikki Budzinski, a budget aide who left the Biden White House in 2021 to run with support from Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.).
The eel-shaped 13th leans more Democratic, according to POLITICO’s Election Forecast, than the more conservative 17th District seat.
But that isn’t easing the worries of some Democrats.
“I’m concerned. There’s a lot of disinformation out there and there are a lot of election deniers. The misinformation creates an environment that could hurt turnout for Democrats,” Wayne Williams, a county Democratic leader in Budzinski’s district, said in an interview. “There’s also a lot less door-to-door interaction than four years ago. I have concerns as someone who doesn’t want to see an anti-choice Republican win the seat.”
The 13th District captures African American and university communities from within East St. Louis to Springfield, Decatur and Champaign-Urbana. It’s a thin swath that voted for President Joe Biden by 11 points in 2020.
The contest is close enough that Clem Balanoff, an Illinois campaign adviser and longtime party political operative, says Democrats “are going to put everything they have into the race” to assure Budzinski’s success. Balanoff advised Jonathan Jackson in his Democratic primary victory to fill Rep. Bobby Rush’s seat.
That at least was the case until this week. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee is now pulling money out of IL-13, according to AdImpact, a sign of confidence in Budzinski.
Budzinski, who also was an aide to Gov. JB Pritzker, has organized labor on her side and is better funded than her competitor, Republican Regan Deering.
Still, Democrats are watching Deering, the granddaughter of the late farming industrialist Dwayne Andreas, who headed Archer Daniels Midland, fearing she could fill her campaign coffers quickly in the waning weeks before Election Day. Deering raised $1 million in the third quarter, according to her campaign.
The National Republican Congressional Committee has named Deering one of its 2022 Young Guns, which channels attention and organizational support to budding campaigns. And the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee added Budzinski to its “Red to Blue” program that similarly helps promising candidates.
Budzinski’s team says it’s not taking anything for granted, particularly as inflation remains stubbornly high and Biden’s approval ratings remain underwater.
The big question mark in both the IL-13 and IL-17 races, as it is across the country, is the extent to which the Supreme Court ruling overturning Roe v. Wade plays in the November election.
Balanoff, the Illinois operative, expects voter interest to continue shifting before November.
“If the election were held today, I think Democrats would win both seats. But it’s two more months, and that’s an eternity,” he said at the time, adding what would be a prescient comment. “One bad break and things change dramatically. What if OPEC said they were to cut production and prices go up? You just never know.”