Two Incumbents, One District, and a Big Headache for the GOP

GOP Rep. Mary Miller made herself known—and not in a good way—her very first week in office last January. At a Moms for America rally on January 5, one day before the storming of the Capitol, she said, “If we win a few elections, we’re still going to be losing unless we win the hearts and minds of our children. This is the battle. Hitler was right on one thing. He said, ‘Whoever has the youth has the future.’”

She later apologized. But it’s a gaffe that could come back to haunt her now that Illinois’ new congressional map forced her into a primary race against a fellow Republican incumbent—a primary that reflects the party’s internal divisions.

On November 23, Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker, a Democrat, signed off on a new congressional map that carved up Miller’s current district, forcing her to choose between two districts featuring high-ranking Republicans in a June 28 primary matchup. Rep. Mike Bost, the top Republican on the House Veteran Affairs Committee, will be running in the new 12th district and Rodney Davis, the top Republican on the House Administration Committee, will run in the new 15th.

Armed with former President Donald Trump’s endorsement, Miller opted on January 7 to challenge Davis, a decision she has declined to discuss at length. “I represent the district—the district is very conservative,” Miller told The Dispatch in a brief interview last week at the U.S. Capitol. Miller and her husband, a member of the Illinois House of Representatives, live just outside the new 15th District, which is safe Republican territory. 

The primary is in many ways a microcosm of a larger House GOP rift between the performative politics of the House Freedom Caucus—of which Miller is a member—and the more institutionalist, nose-to-the-grindstone style of GOP legislating that predominated before the Donald Trump era. 

Davis, a five-term incumbent who voted to certify the Electoral College results after the 2020 election and who is set to chair the House Administration Committee next year if House Republicans take back the majority, definitely represents the latter camp. Miller, meanwhile, voted to decertify the Electoral College results during her first month in Congress, and was one of 19 Republicans to vote against the National Defense Authorization Act in December. 

Miller’s predecessor certainly sees the race in those terms. “She thinks it’s easier to portray Rodney more as an institutional conservative Republican versus a chaos Republican,” said former GOP Rep. John Shimkus, who held Miller’s current seat for 12 years before his retirement last year and who has endorsed Davis, his former staffer of 16 years.

The contest will also be a prime test case for the former president’s lingering influence on the party, as fellow Illinois Republican Reps. Bost and Darin LaHood—not to mention a hefty proportion of county chairmen and state legislators—have already opted to throw their weight behind Davis.

Broadly speaking, November is shaping up to be a favorable midterm cycle for House Republicans. Soaring inflation, President Joe Biden’s declining popularity, and the White House’s stalled domestic agenda have made it all but certain that House Republicans will retake the lower chamber with ease. 

House GOP leaders are dreading this particular showdown, having reportedly urged Trump December not to make an endorsement in the race, per CNN. But the contest is catnip for the Illinois Democrats, who control the state legislature and relish the opportunity to pit Republicans incumbents in their state against one another.

“I think that is going to be an important decision for the Republican primary electorate to make,” Democratic Rep. Bill Foster of Illinois told The Dispatch. “Do they want to be represented by an obstructionist? Or someone who I personally don’t agree with on everything, but is willing to get things done?”

That’s the strategy Davis is running on. “I stick to my core values and principles, but as you can tell by my record over the last nine years, I actually come here to put new conservative solutions forward and I get s–t done,” Davis said in an interview with The Dispatch on Wednesday.

Meanwhile, Miller is expected to deploy the traditional MAGA playbook ahead of the June primary, and will likely try to leverage her vote to decertify the Electoral College results in Arizona and Pennsylvania in the coming months to boost her support among voters who still see Trump as the leader of the Republican Party.

“I was pretty sure they were going to try to make all the Republicans as miserable as possible and give them unfamiliar electorates, and that’s what they did,” said Brian Gaines, a politics professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, about the Democrats’ redistricting map. “I think the general feeling like Illinois has become a dark blue state and Republicans are really up against it [in 2022] is stronger.”

“Rodney didn’t do this—none of us did this to each other, to throw each other against each other. That was the Democrats in the state of Illinois that did it,” said Bost, who endorsed Davis before the new maps were announced and made clear in an interview last week that he stands by Davis no matter the challenger. “I hope that it doesn’t get personal, because they’re both good people. But Rodney is the better choice.”

With the rest of Illinois’ Republican congressional delegation already backing her opponent, Miller has enlisted the help of out-of-state Republicans to boost her national profile and distract voters from last year’s gaffe. “Knowing Mary like I do, I don’t think she meant anything by it,” said GOP Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, a fellow Freedom Caucus member who attended a fundraiser for Miller’s campaign in July. “I think it was probably a mistake. I think she’s apologized for it. And I don’t think anybody even remembers that.” 

But the probability of a friendly primary is looking less and less likely by the day, leaving most members of the House GOP conference already bracing for the worst. “I hope it doesn’t get nasty,” Greene said.

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