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Is it 2014 already? Shimkus kicks off campaign for 10th term; other Metro East candidates follow

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Nov. 5, 2013 - U.S. Rep. John Shimkus may not face as stiff of a re-election challenge as his other colleagues from Metro East. After all, the Collinsville Republican represents a heavily GOP district and won election last year in a landslide.

The region's most senior U.S. representative says he plans to use his latest campaign to showcase how he represents the conservative viewpoint of his constituents in a U.S. House full of diverse viewpoints.

“I can’t get elected in San Francisco, nor could my friends in San Francisco get elected here,” Shimkus said. “But we have to somehow – just like city council – you have to eventually get to the point where there’s compromise and middle ground. Because all these folks are coming from throughout the country.”

Shimkus is in the midst of a two-day, eight-city tour to announce his re-election in the 15th congressional district – which includes 33 counties across the southern Illinois. n Illinois, candidate filing for congressional and statewide offices on the 2014 begins on Nov. 25 and ends on Dec. 2.

Monday's tour included a stop at the VFW Hall in Troy, where he made his announcement before municipal and state political figures. He held a major fundraising event Monday night at Michael's Restaurant in Highland.

Shimkus was first elected to the U.S. House in 1996. He chairs a House subcommittee related to the environment and the economy, which he said makes him a player in debates over coal use, nuclear power, electricity generation and telecommunications.

Previously, he has been active in efforts to improve the Mississippi River locks and remains involved in efforts to improve levees on the Illinois side. He also pressed for extensions of Interstate 255 north and assisted in a bipartisan effort to get funding for the Stan Musial Veterans Memorial Bridge.

But Shimkus noted that seniority in Congress is different now than in the past, adding that “government’s changed since the old days of bringing home the pork.”

“The age of ‘bringing home the pork’ in a conservative Congress is not the priority,” Shimkus said. “The priority is $17 trillion national debt, $680 billion deficit spending and getting our fiscal house in order. Do we still spend a lot of money in Washington? Absolutely. The question is: If we’re going to limit that spending, why don’t we do things we really need to do? What are our real priorities in the spending?”

The nine-term congressman won re-election last year over Democrat Angela Michael with 68 percent of the vote. Even after redistricting, Shimkus hasn’t faced a challenging re-election effort since 2002 – when he defeated then-U.S. Rep. David Phelps, D-Eldorado.

But Shimkus said one reason he was embarking on the announcement tour was because he didn’t have a chance to introduce himself during the last election cycle. Because of Illinois’ redistricting, Shimkus said he “lost the opportunity to go around this district to do the announcement aspects of what I’m doing today.”

“Of course I represent southern Illinois – small town, rural conservatives,” Shimkus said. “So I’ve been asked by my constituents to go to fight against bigger government, higher taxation, more intrusion on our personal liberties.”

One example of that, he said, was the recent controversy over the federal health insurance exchange website. "We’ve given the federal government the authority to set up a website, which usually in the private sector can do fairly well," he said. “But because the federal government’s tried to micromanage the implementation, it’s been a disaster."

Heating up again?

Shimkus’ two other congressional colleagues representing parts of the Metro East could be facing a competitive election cycle next year.

Last year, U.S. Reps. Bill Enyart, D-Belleville, and Rodney Davis, R-Taylorsville, won in highly competitive contests. Enyart decisively defeated Republican Jason Plummer in Illinois’ 12th congressional district, while Davis barely edged out Democrat Dan Gill in the 13th congressional district.

Already, Enyart and Davis have both drawn opponents. State Rep. Mike Bost, R-Carbondale, announced his bid to run against Enyart, while former Madison County Judge Ann Callis, a Democrat, is running against Davis.

Callis was seen as a possible candidate in 2012 for the 12th District, but she declined. Bost drew attention for an impassioned speech on the floor of the Illinois House on the state’s pension situation.

Nathan Gonzales, the deputy editor of the Washington, D.C.-based Rothenberg Political Report, said both those districts could be competitive next year. His organization labeled Illinois’ 15th District as a “safe Republican” seat.

The “13th District is more competitive from our perspective, but it wouldn’t surprise me if we’re talking about these two races for the next 12 months,” said Gonzales.

“In the 12th, Republicans believe that since Enyart hasn’t been in office for very long, his first re-election is the time to go after him,” Gonzales said. “It’s a big question mark whether Bost will be able to raise the money that it will take and put together the campaign necessary to beat a member of Congress.”

Gonzales said that Illinois would see several competitive races, especially with two former GOP congressmen – Robert Dold and Bobby Schilling – running again in the 10th and 17th Districts. If Republicans win in the 10th, 12th or 17th, it might be difficult for the Democrats to retake the U.S. House.

“With each race that Republicans win, it makes it more difficult for the Democrats to win back the majority nationwide,” Gonzales said.

Still, before Davis can focus on re-election, he must face off against a former Miss America and Harvard-educated attorney Erika Harold in the GOP primary.

Both Enyart and Davis were latecomers to the campaign, as the initial nominees – Democrat Brad Harriman and then-U.S. Rep. Tim Johnson, R-Urbana – unexpectedly bowed out after the primary. Harold sought the GOP nomination for the 13th congressional district seat after Johnson withdrew but lost to Davis.

Gonzales said Democrats are hoping that the primary drains money and resources away from Davis. But Illinois’ short primary timeline might work against Harold’s chances of unseating Davis, he added.

“From when she as first being talked about and when she first announced, I think there was the potential there,” he said. “She’s a serious person with credentials. But I think the calendar is working against her. Having a primary so early doesn’t give her a lot of opportunity to build that effort. And I don’t know if it’s coming together as quickly as it needs to.”

Walking the tightrope

For his part, Shimkus noted that as Illinois’ most senior Republican congressman, “You do have a role to play in being supportive in your party and conservative principles.”

He said he would certainly work to re-elect Davis next year – especially since the freshman lawmaker previously served as his chief of staff. “I’d better, otherwise I’d be in trouble,” quipped Shimkus.

While he said he would try to be helpful to Bost, Shimkus added that he has to walk a line between helping his party and not being disrespectful of a colleague from the Metro East.

“I still have to work with Bill Enyart,” Shimkus said. “We all understand that this is a 'big boy' business. No one should be deceived that I’m a Republican because I believe in Republican principles and I want Republicans to stay in the majority. So I have to be part and supportive of that team. But I have to do that in such a way so that I don’t destroy the bonds for my colleagues who are across the river or next door to me so that we can still work together.

“Even though I wish Congressman Enyart were a Republican, he’s not,” he added later. “And so I’ll have to be helpful to Mike. But I have to do it in such a way that’s respectful to Bill and to make sure we still have a working relationship if he were to be re-elected.” 

He noted that all members of the Illinois delegation still meet monthly for lunch. And he emphasized that even through tough debate, he is still friendly with many Democrats.

One example: When Health and Human Services director Kathleen Sebelius was testifying at a congressional hearing, Shimkus asked a question about insurance coverage of abortion procedures. Right before Shimkus asked his question, a microphone caught one of his colleagues – identified as U.S. Rep. Anna Eshoo, D-Calif. – uttering ‘oh, here we go.’

“That voice is a very good friend of mine, but she is pro-choice,” Shimkus said. “So sometimes constituents don’t understand that even though we have such diversity of beliefs, that we still can be friends.

“That’s why I appreciate that people come from all parts of this country,” he added. “So even though we can disagree on public policy, we can still be cordial.”

Beacon political reporter Jo Mannies contributed information for this story.

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