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Enyart and Plummer compete in high-stakes battle for Illinois' 12th District seat

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Oct. 4, 2012 - If any evidence is needed that the battle for Illinois’ 12th congressional district House seat is a high-pressure, high-stakes affair, look no further than a debate last month in Marion.

The meeting between three candidates for the Metro East seat – Democrat Bill Enyart, Republican Jason Plummer and Green Party nominee Paula Bradshaw – quickly descended into a war of words about the candidates’ socioeconomic backgrounds and truthfulness. 

Plummer accused Enyart of being dishonest about whether he supports U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan's budget; Enyart in turn chided Plummer for using a widely discredited claim that the federal health-care law cuts hundreds of billions of dollars out of Medicare.

Even the candidates’ military service became an issue, with Enyart – the former head of the Illinois National Guard – making a dismissive comment about Plummer’s rank in the naval reserves.

There’s a lot on the line in the 12th District race, which became especially competitive after U.S. Rep. Jerry Costello, D-Belleville, surprised everyone by announcing his retirement. The campaign was thrown for a loop more than a few times before Enyart and Plummer became the nominees. Both major national parties are pulling out all the stops to win the district, a Democratic stronghold for generations.  

With competitive contests also in the 13th and 17th congressional districts, southern Illinois has an unusually active campaign season. And while plenty of dominoes would have to fall for Democrats to retake the U.S. House of Representatives, the national Democratic Party can ill afford to lose traditionally solid seats like Illinois’ 12th District.

At least one campaign watcher sees the region's races as indicative of how challenging it could be for House Democrats to prevail. 

“There’s some similarities between this trio of races and the challenge Democrats have nationwide,” said Nathan Gonzales, an analyst with the Rothenberg Political Report. “Even though Democrats are trying to broaden the playing field and bring as many races into play and challenging seats like the 13th and the 17th, Democrats still have vulnerabilities on their side like the 12th. They have to spend money and energy defending.”

Upholding Democratic tradition

While the GOP-led Missouri General Assembly made the Show Me State more Republican, the opposite occurred in Illinois.

Democrats, who control both chambers of the Illinois legislature, created a congressional map that put Republicans at a disadvantage. That included making several suburban Chicago seats more Democratic and crafting several downstate seats unfriendly to the GOP.

After redistricting, the 12th District has parts of Metro East, including East St. Louis, Granite City and Belleville. It also incorporates Marion, Carbondale and Mt. Vernon.

Mapmakers didn't need to do much to ensure a Democratic advantage for the 12th District. After all, Democratic U.S. Rep. Melvin Price represented it from 1945 to 1988. And Costello hasn’t faced serious Republican contenders since he won a 1989 special election after Price’s death.

But cracks began to show in 2010 when statewide Republicans, including eventual U.S. Sen. Mark Kirk and GOP gubernatorial hopeful Bill Brady, performed well in the district’s counties. Brady lost St. Clair County by fewer than 2,000 votes, an improvement from 2006 when then-Gov. Rod Blagojevich won St. Clair County by more than 11,000 votes.

Costello's retirement caught Democrats off guard: A hurried and often disjointed scramble to replace him ensued after his announcement, with numerous elected officials taking a pass on running for the seat. Some Democrats who had held local offices for years didn't want to give up safe positions for an exhausting and risky congressional contest.

Democrats ultimately gravitated around former St. Clair Regional Superintendent Brad Harriman, a former football standout who easily won March’s primary. Plummer won an often contentious GOP primary, earning nomination with roughly 55.7 percent of the vote over two other opponents.

But Harriman abruptly dropped out, citing medical issues. Again several Democrats declined to take the congressional plunge. Ultimately, Democrats unanimously selected Enyart.

Bradshaw was allowed onto the ballot in August.

General's charge

Technically this isn't Enyart's first campaign; he ran roughly 30 years ago for Monroe County state's attorney. But in an interview during a campaign swing through East St. Louis, Enyart conceded that this campaign's scope -- and truncated time frame -- is an adjustment.

"It’s my first campaign certainly on this level," Enyart said. "And how is it? It’s very hectic. I got in late. I’ve only been doing it for about 100 days. But it’s a wonderful experience to meet all the people of southern Illinois. And of course I’m familiar with southern Illinois anyway with my role previously as commander of the Illinois National Guard."

With undergraduate degrees from Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville and a law degree from Southern Illinois University-Carbondale, Enyart spent many years practicing law in Belleville. He’s married to Annette Eckert, a St. Clair Circuit judge who retired in 2010.

Enyart has emphasized his service in the National Guard. It not only shows his qualifications for congressman, but it provided experience working through the often contentious pathways of Congress.

“The people of southern Illinois are looking for someone who has serious experience, serious leadership skills and the ability to go to Congress and help tamp down the rancor that has developed among the political parties,” said Enyart, who noted he worked with Republican and Democratic committees while leading the guard. “When you talk about building a bridge across the Mississippi or fixing the levees, those aren’t Republican issues or Democratic issues. Those are issues for the people.”

With Scott Air Force Base in the 12th, Enyart said it would send a “powerful message” to have someone with a defense-related background represent the district.

“With Scott Air Force Base the largest single employer in the district and with the $3 billion a year it brings to the Metro East and the entire region’s economy, it’s critical that we have someone who understands that and understands how to work in the halls of the Pentagon and the halls of Congress to ensure that we continue to have that kind of relationship,” Enyart said.

While Enyart's military record is a major focus of his campaign, he's also adopted a more populist theme. His ads allude to his humble origins working at a Caterpillar factory, and he's noted during debates he's had to draw an unemployment check. He's advocated for ending tax cuts “for millionaires,” bolstering manufacturing jobs and altering bankruptcy laws to help people who took out private student loans.

And in a climate in which Democratic candidates are routinely running away from President Barack Obama, Enyart has defended some of the president’s actions. He’s defended aspects of the federal health-care law, especially provisions that allow parents to keep children on their plans until they’re 26 and that disallow rejecting people with preexisting conditions.

"Now are there problems with it? Of course there are problems with it," he said at an August debate in Carbondale. "Let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater. Let’s change the things that are problems and move on."

The Young Gun

Unlike Enyart, this isn't Plummer's first major campaign.

The Edwardsville native, who now calls Fairview Heights home, surprised many with his win inthe 2010 primary for lieutenant governor.Plummer and GOP gubernatorial hopeful Bill Brady narrowly lost the general election to Gov. Pat Quinn and Democratic lieutenant governor nominee Sheila Simon. 

Even though he’s running a distinctly different campaign than two years ago, the 30-year-old noted in a telephone interview some similarities.

“Unfortunately here in Illinois, we hear a lot of the same things,” Plummer said. “It’s still a state that is really in a rut, especially here in southern Illinois. We’ve got a double-digit unemployment rate in this congressional district. People are very frustrated. They feel that there’s no leadership direction out of Springfield. There’s no leadership direction out of Washington. And people are really struggling.”

Plummer attended the University of Illinois-Urbana and graduated with a degree in finance. His family founded R.P. Lumber, a building supplies company with a big presence in southern Illinois.

In addition to serving as vice president of corporate development for R.P. Lumber, Plummer was for a time the chairman of the Madison County Republican Party.

Plummer's 2010 campaign wasn't without missteps. But he appears to have taken the experience to heart. He’s touted a multifaceted “jobs plan,” a 12-point proposal that includes revamping the country’s tax code, scaling down the Environmental Protection Agency and preventing shutdowns of state facilities.

"Congress has a very terrible approval rating right now. And that’s because you have a lot of people who think they know everything running for office or in office," Plummer said. "And you know what? I have a very diverse congressional district. You’ve got to get in front of these people.  You have to listen to them. And you have to represent their voice."

Plummer’s also advocated for the stalled congressional farm bill. He’s pointed that out as a key difference between himself and the Republican majority. But he also believes that the district's voters, who have voted Democratic for decades, are willing to give a Republican candidate a chance.

“I don’t think that I’ve singlehandedly opened the eyes of everyone in southern Illinois and caused so many people who traditionally vote Democrat to vote Republican,” Plummer said. “[The Democratic Party] has done that. The party has left the people of southern Illinois. They left them on their traditional values. They’ve left them on the social issues and they left them on traditional economic issues.

“My job is to meet with as many of those people as possible and talk with them about the issues that are really harming them, talk about the issues that they feel really impact their lives throughout the district no matter where they live,” he added. “And also to offer them solutions.”

Also in the contest is Paula Bradshaw, a Carbondale native on the Green Party ticket. She opposes expanding coal production but supports expanding alternative energy opportunities.

The Green Party fared well in Illinois during past elections. And Bradshaw’s place on the ballot could hurt Enyart, especially in places such as Jackson County where the Green Party traditionally performed well.

Acrimony reigns

Enyart and Plummer have some similarities: Both expressed a desire to help the coal industry, which is especially important in southern Illinois. And both candidates oppose same-sex marriage, while Bradshaw expressed support.

And both candidates have pledged to make maintaining levees a priority, critical to the counties in the district that border the Mississippi River, including St. Clair County.

But more often than not, the race has been characterized by sharp exchanges and pointed accusations.

At the Marion debate, Enyart said that Plummer supported U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan’s budget plan. That wasn't especially surprising, considering Democratic candidates across the country have used the GOP vice presidential hopeful’s plan -- and especially its proposed changes to Medicare -- to whack Republican adversaries.

But Plummer strenuously denied that he supported the proposal, adding that “if you say that again, you’re being dishonest to the people of southern Illinois.” Enyart and his Democratic allies have pointed to a video of Plummer praising elements of the budget in Alton earlier in the summer. And Enyart added: “I swear an oath as an officer; my honor is very important to me. And I don’t have to lie, unlike Mr. Ryan or Mr. Plummer for that matter."

Plummer has sought to link Enyart to Obama’s more controversial policies, especially the federal health-care law. Enyart often bristled over Plummer’s continued statements that law will cut $720 billion out of Medicare, a claim that he notes has been debunked by various media outlets.

"When I call him out on those misstatements in fact, he gets upset about it," Enyart said. "Well, that’s his privilege to get upset, get angry. But I’m about telling the truth. I don’t need to make up facts.”

But more than any particular issue, the candidates’ backgrounds have provided ample fodder for attacks. 

Enyart and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee have harped on Plummer’s wealth, including his refusal to release his tax returns. Plummer’s opponents have made his refusal to release his tax returns an issue for years, perhaps as a not-so-subtle way of highlighting his wealth in the decidedly working-class district.

Plummer in turn disparangingly refers to Enyart as a "trial lawyer" -- one reason businesses are leaving Illinois. He also took umbrage to a comment in the Marion debate when Enyart derisively asked whether a major general or a lieutenant junior grade would provide better leadership. 

Plummer, who serves as an intelligence officer in the U.S. Naval Reserves, said the comment was emblematic of Enyart’s rudeness. 

“For him to act like he’s been a career military guy, to gloss over the fact that he’s a trial lawyer from Belleville, and then to insult the rank of me and some of the other people that serve in our military in such an arrogant manner – it’s just not right,” said Plummer.

But Enyart said the comment wasn’t meant to disparage Plummer’s military service, which he says he respects. Rather, he said, it was a practical point about the difference in their experience.

“Clearly anyone who looks at my background and my experience and contrasts that with Mr. Plummer’s background and experience, there’s a long walk from being a lieutenant junior grade and between being a major general,” Enyart said. "Mr. Plummer gets upset about the fact that I talk about that. But it’s a fact. It’s life. I have served on national-level defense advisory commissions. He has not.

“He wants to say he’s a naval intelligence officer and I applaud for him,” he added. “What he doesn’t want to say is he’s a lieutenant junior grade and I have 35 years of very serious, very high level expertise in defense and indeed in international issues. He doesn’t have that.”

Meanwhile, third-party groups – including the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and the National Republican Congressional Committee – have spent big money on television ads.

Most political predictions have the district as a toss-up, including the Rothenberg Political Report. Gonzales noted that the race under a special desingation of being a toss-up tilting toward the GOP.

“Just because it’s Illinois and it is President Obama’s home state doesn’t mean Democrats automatically get to win all of the congressional seats,” Gonzales said. “This isn’t Chicago. This isn’t even suburban or exurban Chicago. This is a very different part of Illinois where the president I think is viewed differently. That being said, it looks like the president’s numbers have gotten better across the board.”

He added it’ll be worth watching “if the president’s improvement nationally and in the swing states is having a trickle-down effect on House races.”

“That’s a question beyond the three that we’re talking about,” Gonzales said.

13th congressional district

In some ways, the 13th congressional district is a mirror image of what happened in the 12th.

Republican U.S. Rep. Tim Johnson initially won the nomination for the district, which includes Metro East cities such as Collinsville and O'Fallon. But then he droped out after the primary and was replaced by Rodney Davis, a longtime political aide who most recently served as U.S. Rep. John Shimkus’ chief of staff.

Facing Davis is David Gill, an emergency room doctor who previously ran against Johnson. Gill was not the favored candidate, but he managed to upset Greene County State’s Attorney Matt Goetten in the Democratic primary. Since the district became more Democratic after redistricting, the DCCC eventually got behind Gill.

Gonzales noted this is a rather unusual contest because it features two candidates not widely known by voters. That’s led to an ad war aimed at negatively defining each candidate. Democrats have an ad out attempting to link Davis to former Gov. George Ryan, who ended up in prison. Republicans are trying to link Gill to Obama.

17th congressional district

While Republicans are still trying to break through in the 12th District, they've  already accomplished that in the onetime Democratic 17th congressional district. In 2010, Republican Bobby Schilling, the owner of a Moline pizza parlor, rode the Tea Party wave and won by a surprisingly large margin.

But redistricting made the 17th District even more Democratic. Gonzales estimates about 60 percent of it voted for Obama in 2008. While the district used to include Jersey and Calhoun counties, it now has parts of eastern and northern Illinois.

Because of redistricting, many political analysts saw Schilling as vulnerable,  especially after Democrats recruited East Moline Alderwoman Cheri Bustos to run against him. Like the 12th and 13th districts, third-party groups from both parties have released biting ads against the candidates.

Still, Schilling's been able to keep the race in the toss-up category through strong fundraising and his outsider mystique. Gonzales says the race should be close.

Schilling "has a reputation of being a good campaigner and even winning in a tough district before redistricting," said Gonzales, adding that Democrats drew the new district to make "his life even more difficult."

"You know the story of Bobby Schilling: You can't probably just paint him as many different things, but he's not a career politician. He hasn't exactly taken the typical road to politics. If he can continue to use that, that will help him even though he has 'congressman' now on his resume."

Jason is the politics correspondent for St. Louis Public Radio.