Dems Boost 'Conor Lamb Clone' in Illinois Race

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After Conor Lamb’s victory last month in a Pennsylvania congressional district that heavily supported President Trump, Democrats began spotlighting candidates in similar districts across the country who they believe have the credentials and connections to put tough areas in play this fall.

In southern Illinois, Brendan Kelly’s candidacy and the district he’s aiming to flip may be the party’s best opportunity to replicate Lamb’s success.

Kelly is a state’s attorney and former naval officer running in a blue-collar district that has historically been favorable to Democrats but that Trump won by 15 percentage points. The incumbent, Rep. Mike Bost, defeated an incumbent Democrat by double digits in 2014 and won last year by a margin similar to Trump’s.

“I meet a lot of guys that love their union, they support the Second Amendment and they want to be able to smoke weed without being prosecuted. That’s the kind of district I live in,” Kelly told RealClearPolitics in an interview. “It is not left versus right. It’s a much more complicated world, and we’re in the middle of the country geographically and we’re in the middle of the country politically and that’s why this is a really fun place to be able to run for office.”

Rep. Cheri Bustos, a member of Democratic leadership who is close with Kelly and represents an Illinois district Trump won, is bullish on Kelly’s chances. “He’s like a Conor Lamb clone in the sense that he fits that district like a glove,” she said.

Still, Democrats concede it won’t be easy to defeat Bost, a former firefighter and state lawmaker who represented a portion of the congressional district in the state legislature for two decades. Bustos called it “a really tough district for Democrats.”

“It’s all about jobs, and understanding what’s important to the Illinois 12th,” Bost told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch after the primary last month. “We do not need Nancy Pelosi to become speaker of the House again.”

Indeed, like most Republicans, Bost appears poised to use the House Democratic leader as a major issue in the race. On Facebook last week, he was promoting his “Say No to Nancy” tour of the district. But Kelly has already said he wouldn’t support Pelosi as head of the conference, echoing Lamb’s position. GOP attempts to tie the PA-18 challenger to his party’s leader failed to bear fruit in the special election.

Kelly outraised Bost in two fundraising quarters last year, and raised more than three times as much as the incumbent in the first two months of 2018, giving them almost identical amounts of cash in the bank. Republicans acknowledge it will be a tough race: Bost is in the Patriot Program of the National Republican Congressional Committee for vulnerable incumbents, and a super PAC allied with Speaker Paul Ryan has opened an office in the district.

Kelly said his focus is on issues that tend to cut across party lines. He emphasized that he could work with Trump and Republicans on infrastructure – though he said the funding had to be “hard dollars” rather than tax breaks and toll roads, which make up a significant portion of the president’s infrastructure plan. He also wants to find solutions to the opioid crisis, citing his work as a prosecutor suing pharmaceutical companies. He said it is vital to improve border security to stop drugs coming into the country, an issue Trump has championed, though he doesn’t agree with the way the president has approached it by demanding a wall on the border with Mexico.

“We can strengthen border security without being xenophobic or hateful towards people that want to come to this country and try to be part of the American dream,” Kelly said.

On trade, his opposition to major trade deals of the past puts him on the same side as the president. The local steelworkers union leader endorsed Kelly last month and criticized Bost over his vote to fast-track trade negotiating authority.

Bost, however, put out a statement applauding Trump’s steel tariffs early last month, crediting the decision for directly bringing jobs back to the district.

Kelly agreed with the Trump administration finding that steel imports were harming national security, but said responses should be specific to “bad actors” like China and exemptions for other countries are “appropriate.”

“We shouldn’t have a set of tariffs which are arbitrary. They need to be focused on the bad actors and in this case, with this particular industry, China is the bad actor,” Kelly said.

He also stands apart from national Democrats on gun issues. Kelly has a firearm owners ID card, and emphasized he didn’t agree with former Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens’ call for repealing the Second Amendment. Instead, Kelly said he supports improving mental health services and fixing the current background check system, things he called achievable solutions, rather than expanding background checks or banning assault weapons, two policies most Democratic lawmakers support.  

“By being honest and candid and not getting stuck in the consultant-driven boxes that elected officials are put into, I think we can actually get some things done, and that’s what I tend to focus on,” he said.

The race is likely to get national attention this fall. It’s listed as a tossup by the Cook Political Report, and House Majority PAC, a leading Democratic outside group, announced last month it would reserve more than $500,000 for advertising this fall in the St. Louis media market, which covers the district. Kelly is reserved in his criticism of Bost, citing his vote to repeal Obamacare last year and saying broadly that many lawmakers have abdicated oversight of the administration in favor of party-line politics. But even if the race begins to garner significant national attention, Kelly said one of Lamb’s successes was focusing intently on local issues, something he hoped to replicate.

“How I communicate with them does not depend on the daily news cycle with President Trump,” Kelly said of his conversations with voters. “…County by county, city by city, neighborhood by neighborhood, [I’m] focusing on local issues.

James Arkin is a congressional reporter for RealClearPolitics. He can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @JamesArkin.

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