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Bost's Speechifying Becomes Target -- And Asset -- In Nationally Watched Illinois Contest

Illinois state Rep. Mike Bost's impassioned floor speech from 2012 is getting some attention. Democrats are using it to paint him as an ill-tempered extremist, while Republicans say it showcases his passion for his constituents.
Mike Bost's campaign

On the surface, Mike Bost and Moses don’t have that much in common. But some not-so-flattering political ads may create a different impression.

Bost – a Republican state representative from Murphysboro – is engaged in a highly competitive race against U.S. Rep. Bill Enyart, D-Belleville, for the 12th congressional district seat. It’s become vigorous enough to force the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee to spend lots of money to paint Bost in a bad light.

The ads that have played widely in the St. Louis media market resurrect a speech -- now gone viral -- that Bost made a few years ago about a pension bill. During the speech, Bost literally tried to punch a stack of papers and yelled, “LET MY PEOPLE GO!”

It's not surprising that the Democrats have revived the speech, especially since Bost himself says national and international media contacted him after it was delivered. And the Democrats are highlighting other instances that play on that theme of the hothead legislator -- including an acrimonious exchange Bost had with another legislator over conceal and carry legislation.

But the twist here is Bost is actually embracing the speech, too. In his view, it demonstrates his passion for defending his constituents. He’s even included it in his ads.

“I didn’t hurt anybody. I yelled. I threw papers. I expressed myself at a point that people understood what I was saying,” Bost said during a wide-ranging interview about his campaign. “Many of my constituents say ‘yeah, why aren’t the rest of them doing that?’ Washington, D.C., is failing so bad; maybe it’s because there’s not enough of them out there standing up for what we believe.”

Bost's embrace of the ads may indicate that the ads are backfiring. For one thing, Congress isn’t exactly popular right now – and Bost’s fiery speeches may connect with disaffected voters.

Moreover, Bost was speaking out against Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan and, perhaps tangentially, Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn. Illinois' state government isn't exactly popular at the moment, especially in the largely rural 12th District. The fact that Bost was fighting against political figures who have clashed with southern Illinois interests in the past may actually be a positive for potential voters.

“The people are frustrated. Was I upset? You’re doggone right I was upset,” Bost said. “Sure. As well I should have been.”

Enyart has a different take on the matter. While emphasizing that he has no influence on what the DCCC puts in its ads, the first-term lawmaker said, “People are tired of the yelling and screaming and the arguing and the government shutdowns.” 

Credit Jason Rosenbaum, St. Louis Public Radio
U.S. Rep. Bill Enyart is one of the most endangered incumbent congressmen in the country.

“People don’t want to see government shut down anymore. People want to see government get a job done,” Enyart said. “And it’s awfully hard to reach across the aisle and talk to someone when they’re screaming at you or flinging papers. That’s not conducive to having an adult conversation.”

Kyle Kondik is the managing editor of Larry Sabato’s Crystal Ball, one of the country’s chief prognosticators of federal congressional races. He said the attacks on Bost’s fiery speeches play on a broader Democratic theme.

“This Bost blowup plays perfectly into the playbook the Democrats use in every race. And that is that Republicans are extreme,” Kondik said. “Bost gives them some ammunition with that floor speech. It feels like an issue specific to that race, and yes this sort of variant on that issue is specific to that race. But, the extreme tag is sort of used in every race basically.”

“The Bost speech is unique, but the tactics in how the Democrats are attacking him over it are not,” he added.

So will this strategy actually work? It’s tough to say. Both Kondik’s publication and D.C. political standards such as Roll Call rank Enyart as one of the most endangered congressional incumbents in the country. But Kondiksaid the fact that Bost had to respond to the ad directly is telling.

“You don’t respond and bring up the ad unless you yourself feel like you’re being damaged by it,” Kondik said. “It’s kind of like when there’s a well-established incumbent facing a challenger and the incumbent names the challenger in an ad, it’s sort of an indication that the race is competitive.”

Divide and conquer

While Missouri is going through one of the sleepiest election cycles in decades, the opposite is the case in Illinois. 

Credit Jason Rosenbaum, St. Louis Public Radio
Most political watchers expect U.S. Rep. Rodney Davis, center, to survive his re-election bid against former Madison County Judge Ann Callis.

In addition to a highly competitive gubernatorial contest, at least five congressional races in the Land of Lincoln are at least somewhat competitive. That includes the potentially tight re-election bids of Democratic Reps. Brad Schneider and Cheri Bustos in northern Illinois.

(Many political prognosticators expected a close race between U.S. Rep. Rodney Davis and former Madison County Judge Ann Callis. But that contest has been trending Davis’ way for the past few weeks.)

Kondik said Illinois’ congressional races wouldn’t necessarily tip the balance of power in the House of Representatives, since it’s widely assumed Republicans have the edge in keeping their majority. Rather, the state may help each party prepare for 2016 – an election year where turnout will almost certainly be more robust.

“It is important in that Republicans want to add as many seats as possible so that they’re well prepared to continue on their majority,” Kondik said. “And likewise, I think, Democrats are hopeful that if Hillary Clinton’s at the top of the ticket in 2016, it’ll be a better environment for them potentially. If they limit their loses in this election, maybe they can recapture the House in 2016.”

He went onto say that the 12th District race is the best opportunity for Republicans, since the conservative-leaning district may be easier to keep in better Democratic years.

“Is it all that meaningful whether Republicans have 245 seats as opposed to 240? Not really,” Kondik said. “It doesn’t make a huge difference. But it does matter for the next election.”

Check back tomorrow for an overview on the battle between Bost and Enyart.

On the Trail, a weekly column, weaves together some of the intriguing threads from the world of Missouri politics.

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