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Bost-Kelly race in Metro East could be key in determining control of the U.S. House

Congressman Mike Bost and St. Clair County State's Attorney Brendan Kelly are engaged in one of the most competitive congressional race in America.
Jason Rosenbaum I St. Louis Public Radio
Congressman Mike Bost and St. Clair County State's Attorney Brendan Kelly are engaged in one of the most competitive congressional race in America.

Even though there are roughly 434 other options, there may not be a more compelling House race in the nation than the contest for Illinois’ 12th Congressional District.

The contest between incumbent Republican Mike Bost and Democrat Brendan Kelly features two candidates with impressive track records of public service. While Republicans have gained ground in the district in recent years, the 12th District, which includes the Metro East, has a rich Democratic legacy and political infrastructure that gives Kelly a fighting chance.

Democrats see the 12th District as a building block to get back into the majority, which is why the party is investing lots of money toward defeating Bost. But unlike some other areas of Illinois, the 12th District hasn’t necessarily soured on President Donald Trump. In fact, his trade policies are popular in some parts of the district such as Granite City, where tariffs on imported steel are credited with reopening local mill jobs.

As the Bost-Kelly contest takes a combative tone of the airwaves, there may be things other than the national environment that decide the outcome. That includes Green Party candidate Randy Auxier, who will likely receive a solid slice of the vote — which will likely help Bost.

The high national stakes and the unpredictable factors that may determine the outcome is one of the reasons national prognosticators are watching Illinois’ 12th District race closely.

If Kelly prevails, Kyle Kondik of Larry Sabato’s Crystal Ball said it will be “a sign of how quickly things can change in these midterm elections compared to presidential years.”

“The electorate is a lot more flexible than I think some of us give it credit for,” Kondik said. “And I think particularly across the Midwest, you’re seeing that the Midwest is kind of reacting negatively against Republicans after being so supportive of Republicans just two years ago.”

The incumbent

U.S. Rep. Mike Bost, R-Murphysboro, prepares for his guest appearance on St. Louis on the Air in 2014.
Credit St. Louis Public Radio file photo
St. Louis Public Radio
U.S. Rep. Mike Bost, R-Murphysboro, prepares for his guest appearance on St. Louis on the Air in 2014.

Bost isn’t exactly a stranger to tough elections.

The Murphysboro native and Marine Corps veteran started running for office in the 1980s, a time when Republicans weren’t exactly popular in parts of southern Illinois. When he ran for state representative in the 1990s, he literally put his foot in front doors when he was campaigning.

“And they would say ‘Republican or Democrat?’ And I’d go ‘Republican.’ They’d try to shut the door and my foot was already in,” Bost said. “I said ‘hear me out. I’m pro-life. I believe very strongly in the Second Amendment. I believe less government is better. And I believe local control is better. And many of them would go ‘well, you believe like I do.’”

Ultimately, Bost won election to the Illinois House in 1994. He served there for about 20 years, spending the majority of his time in Springfield as part of the minority. After serving in House leadership, Bost decided to challenge incumbent Congressman Bill Enyart in 2014 — a race that he ended up winning by more than 10 percentage points.

Since entering the U.S. House, Bost has spent all of his time in the majority. And he said that’s provided him the opportunity to make an impact on agricultural, transportation and veterans policies.

“It is the ability to grab legislation that you can see that is good that can make things better for your children and grandchildren,” Bost said. “And you can see that and move forward.”

Bost touts legislation that passed the House, overhauling how human resources officials at the Department of Veterans Affairs are hired. He also pushed through legislation that would provide a cost-of-living increase for wartime disability compensation.

If he’s re-elected and Republicans hold control of the House, Bost said he wants to make some of the 2017 tax cuts permanent. He also wants Republicans to overhaul parts of the Affordable Care Act — a policy goal that’s proven to be elusive since Trump became president. One thing he supports is creating pools for specific industries aimed at making it easier for employees to receive insurance.

“We do need to be working together to come up with a cure for health care,” Bost said. “That is an issue. I mean, it’s a serious issue.”

The challenger

St. Clair County state's attorney Brendan Kelly holds a photo of Quiantez Fair, who was killed in East St. Louis in October. Kelly and law enforcement officials are asking people to help them solve the murder of Fair and 25 other people in the city.
Credit File photo I Rachel Lippmann | St. Louis Public Radio
St. Clair County state's attorney Brendan Kelly holds a photo of Quiantez Fair, who was killed in East St. Louis. Kelly has served as the chief prosecutor in St. Clair County since 2010.

While Kelly hasn’t been in public office as long as Bost, he’s been a fairly high-profile political figure in the St. Louis area for some time.

Kelly, who served in the Navy and received his law degree from Saint Louis University, became St. Clair County state’s attorney in 2010. That’s given him a public platform in one of the 12th District’s largest counties.

Some Democrats suggested that he run for Congress before 2016, but Kelly demurred — citing family commitments. He decided to take the plunge this year after expressing dismay about the state of federal politics.

“My feeling that was different this time than before was just a sense that the country is very, very divided,” Kelly said. “And these divisions that we have in the country are hurting places like southern Illinois, perhaps more than anywhere. And I felt obligated to step forward and be a candidate to try and bridge that divide — to try and fight the fights that need to be fought.”

One particular source of ire for Kelly is the avalanche of outside money that’s flowed into federal politics since the Citizens United decision, where the Supreme Court ruled that corporations, nonprofits and labor unions can run independent spending to help or hurt candidates.

“Let’s be honest about it: There’s going to be money coming in to support my opponent that we won’t know where it’s even coming from. There will also be money coming in to support me and we don’t know where it’s coming from,” Kelly said. “It’s unaccounted for. We don’t know who is influencing us. And the essence of a democracy at the end of the day is there’s transparency.”

Kelly believes that Congress needs to take a more aggressive role in crafting America’s foreign policy. He said many federal lawmakers believe “the hardest thing they’ve ever done is run for office — and the thing that’s most important to them is to just get re-elected.”

“The hardest thing I’ve ever done is some of the decisions I’ve had to make as state’s attorney. And those are very, very difficult things,” Kelly said. “It’s a lot of work running for Congress. But it’s not the hardest thing I’ve ever done. And there’s too many people that are not thinking about what’s best for the country. They’re just thinking about the next election. I think you see that reflected in the lack of our consistent foreign policy.”

Eye of the nation

President Donald Trump speaks at a Granite City Works warehouse on July 26, 2018.
Credit File photo I Carolina Hidalgo | St. Louis Public Radio
President Donald Trump speaks at a Granite City Works warehouse on July 26, 2018. Trump easily won the 12th District in 2016, even as he lost badly in other parts of Illinois.

The 12th District race is widely seen as a toss-up by groups that monitor congressional district races. And both candidates are throwing very sharp jabs.

Bost is attacking Kelly for his record as state’s attorney, contending he's been too leinient against people accused of crimes. Kelly has strongly pushed back against that claim, and in turn has sharply criticized Bost for his votes on health care.

In some respects, both candidates have sought to showcase their independence from the major parties. Bost, for instance, has sought to align himself with organized labor groups — adding that he opposes right-to-measures that would bar unions and employers from requiring workers to pay dues.

“I was one of the first ones to come out and speak about how I thought the Janus decision was wrong,” said Bost, referring to a recent Supreme Court decision barring public employee unions from requiring workers to pay union dues as a condition of employment. “And it kind of shocked a few people, I guess. But it didn’t shock the people that knew me.”

Kelly has promised not to vote for House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi to be speaker if Democrats capture the House this year.

“I think the idea that we don’t have other people that can step forward and be able to lead is not a healthy one for our democracy in either party,” Kelly said. “You have to continuously develop new leaders. I think that’s why we have some of the challenges we have in this country — it’s just the same old folks arguing back and forth.”

Both candidates generally support steel and aluminum tariffs that Trump implemented. But Kelly said he doesn’t like how those tariffs were placed on steel from allies like Canada. Bost also said that he is concerned about how retaliation from China is affecting the 12th District’s agriculture commodities.

Trump won the 12th District by a fairly significant margin in 2016, which may be why Kelly isn’t taking the tack of derisively linking Bost to the president.

“I think in this district, it’s a bit of a coin toss,” Kelly said. “There are some people who agree with what the president is doing on this issue or that issue. Some people who strongly disagree with the president with this issue or that issue. But they’re not focused on that. They’re primarily focused on what is of concern to them: They’re looking at the cost of their health care going up or the cost of their prescriptions going up.”

Bost believes that if Trump continues to retain popularity in the 12th District, it will end up helping his re-election bid. But he doesn’t back everything Trump does.

“You know what? I wouldn’t tweet like that. And the amount of constituents that I have saying ‘can you talk to him and tell him to not do that?’ And I said ‘I don’t know if you know it or not, but he doesn’t call me at 3 o’clock in the morning before he tweets,’” Bost said. “The reality is I have to look at the good things that are happening under his watch. The tax reforms, the economic growth.”

A Green wild card

Illinois 12th District Green Party candidate Randy Auxier Oct. 4, 2018
Credit Jason Rosenbaum I St. Louis Public Radio
Illinois 12th District Green Party candidate Randy Auxier

There’s a more local variable that may end up deciding the Bost-Kelly race: Green Party nominee Auxier who could siphon votes that likely would go to Kelly.

Auxier is a philosophy professor at Southern Illinois University-Carbondale. He’s been active with the Green Party since moving to  Murphysboro in the early 2000s, most recently running for a seat on the Jackson County Board.

“[Democrats] have conceded the entire left and most the center, I would say possibly all of the center, and the whole progressive vote in the district,” Auxier said. “They’ve just conceded that and assumed that those people will vote Democrat because they’re afraid of the Republican. There are differences between Kelly and Bost. But the differences are slight compared to the differences between me and the other two.”

Auxier’s platform includes an emphasis on environmental protections — and a push to eradicate corporate influence on federal politics. He’s opposed to tax cut legislation that passed earlier in Trump’s term, contending it will burden future generations with debt.

Follow Jason on Twitter: @jrosenbaum

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