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  • May 15, 2021

Exclusive: Democratic Rep. Cheri Bustos retires as Illinois prepares to lose a House seat

 Exclusive: Democratic Rep. Cheri Bustos retires as Illinois prepares to lose a House seat


One Republican isn’t waiting to see what will happen next, though. 2020 nominee Esther Joy King, who held Bustos to a 52-48 win last time, confirmed she would run again Friday shortly after the congresswoman said she would retire. King said that, while she had been planning to make this declaration “in a couple weeks,” Bustos’ retirement led her to move up her announcement.

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That 2020 contest was also Bustos’ closest race in her political career. Bustos first won office in 2007 when she was elected to a seat on the East Moline City Council, but her roots in politics go back much further than that. Her grandfather was a state representative while her father, Gene Callahan, served as chief of staff to Sen. Alan Dixon and later as Major League Baseball’s first lobbyist. Callahan also served as a mentor to now-Sen. Dick Durbin during his rise, and Bustos herself used to babysit Durbin’s children.

Bustos, who was still serving as an alderwoman, sought a promotion in 2012 when she took on freshman Rep. Bobby Schilling, a Republican that Democrats very badly wanted to beat. Schilling had won the ancestrally blue 17th District during the tea party wave the previous cycle, and Democratic map makers did their best to make sure that would not happen again

Bustos ran in the primary with the support of Durbin and EMILY’s List, and she got some very good news when her main intra-party opponent, state Sen. Dave Koehler, dropped out; Koehler would soon say that he left the race right after Durbin told him he was about to endorse the alderwoman. Bustos had no trouble winning the primary, but she faced a tougher contest against Schilling in a race where outside groups on both sides spent heavily. Barack Obama carried the 17th District 58-41, while Bustos won by a 53-47 spread.

Schilling sought a rematch in 2014, but while this proved to be an ugly cycle for Democrats both in Illinois and nationwide, national Republicans largely refrained from spending on his behalf this time. Bustos, by contrast, benefited from over $1 million in support from the DCCC, and she defeated Schilling by a larger 55-45 margin.

Bustos considered running against Republican Sen. Mark Kirk in 2016 but decided to seek re-election instead, and she earned her third term 60-40 against an underfunded Republican. Her wide win, though, came as Donald Trump, buoyed by his strong performance among white working class voters, carried her seat 47.4-46.7, a narrow but shocking victory in a district that Democrats had drawn to be safely blue turf just a few years before.

Still, Republicans were slow to give Bustos, who considered but ultimately passed on a 2018 race for governor, a serious opponent, and she easily won re-election once again. Those twin victories gave Bustos a strong pitch when she successfully campaigned to chair the DCCC for the 2020 cycle, as she argued her history of winning a suburban and rural district made her best-suited to help defend other members in Trump seats.

Bustos spent most of the next two years looking safe at home against King, who initially raised little money, as she focused her attention on aiding Democrats nationwide, but all that began to change in the final weeks of the campaign. The NRCC and its allies at the Congressional Leadership Fund each released a poll in October giving the incumbent only a modest lead over King, and CLF backed up its talk with action when it spent around $500,000 on ads during the final days. Bustos’ DCCC didn’t end up deploying resources here, but its allies at House Majority PAC did spend $1 million to defend her.

Democrats had hoped that the 17th District would snap back to the left after supporting Trump four years before, but he instead won it by a larger 50-48 spread. House Democrats also unexpectedly took losses in a cycle where they’d expected to grow their majority, but Bustos held off King 52-48—a victory that made her just one of seven Democrats to prevail in a Trump seat.

Election Recaps

 TX-06: The all-party primary to succeed the late Rep. Ron Wright took place Saturday, and his fellow Republicans secured both spots in the upcoming runoff. The congressman’s widow, party activist Susan Wright, led with 19%, while state Rep. Jake Ellzey edged out 2018 Democratic nominee Jana Lynne Sanchez 14-13, a margin of 354 votes.

This seat, which covers much of the city of Arlington, supported Donald Trump just 51-48 four years after it backed him 54-42, but Republicans have continued to be the dominant party down the ballot. That held true on Saturday as the 11 Republicans on the ballot took in a combined 62% of the vote, while the 10 Democrats clocked in at just 37%. 

The runoff, which has not yet been scheduled, will be the second bout between Ellzey and the Wright family: Ron Wright defeated him 52-48 in the 2018 nomination battle to succeed longtime Rep. Joe Barton, which was a surprisingly close victory for the heavily-favored future congressman. Ellzey looks like the underdog again, though, as Susan Wright has the backing of Donald Trump and the anti-tax Club for Growth.

Senate

FL-Sen: Florida Politics reports that Democrat Aramis Ayala, who previously served as state’s attorney for the Orlando area’s Ninth Circuit, is considering taking on Republican Sen. Marco Rubio, though she hasn’t said anything publicly yet.

Ayala was elected in 2016 to a seat that covers both Orlando’s Orange County and neighboring Osceola County, and her criminal justice reforms quickly brought her into conflict with the GOP-dominated state government. After Ayala announced that her office would not seek the death penalty, then-Gov. Rick Scott transferred 23 first-degree murder cases to a considerably more conservative state’s attorney in another jurisdiction. The Florida Supreme Court sided with Scott after Ayala sued over this, and Gov. Ron DeSantis continued to remove first-degree murder cases from her jurisdiction.

Ayala did not seek re-election last year and instead supported Monique Worrell’s successful campaign to succeed her.

GA-Sen: The Daily Beast writes that political observers are skeptical that former Republican Sen. Kelly Loeffler will seek a rematch against Democratic incumbent Raphael Warnock, who beat her in January. The prospect of Loeffler staying out may not bother many GOP operatives, though: One of them told the site, “If I’m a Georgia Republican, you want either a woman not named Kelly Loeffler or someone of color.” The story also name-drops Rep. Austin Scott, who is not a woman or person of color, as a possible Senate candidate, though there’s no word if he’s interested.

The GOP field currently consists of only businessman Kelvin King and banking executive Latham Saddler, and it may stay that way until former NFL running back Herschel Walker makes his plans known. The Daily Beast confirms CNN’s recent report that most Georgia Republicans are still waiting to see if Walker, who is currently a Texas resident, comes back to Georgia to run for the Senate. Trump has continued to heavily push Walker to run, though this new story says that “even the state’s most plugged-in Republicans are largely in the dark about what he will do.”

IA-Sen, IA-Gov, IA-04: The Des Moines Register‘s Brianne Pfannenstiel surveys the potential Democratic field in Iowa for Senate and governor. Both Rep. Cindy Axne and state Auditor Rob Sand have previously expressed interest in both statewide races, and a few other Democrats told Pfannenstiel they were also considering each.

State Rep. Ras Smith, who is one of only six Black state legislators in Iowa, said he was “definitely looking at running for higher office,” though he seemed to be leaning far more towards governor than Senate. Smith declared, “For me, it’s hard to see myself living anywhere where I can’t throw my dog in the back of the truck, my shotgun and a box of shells and drive 20 minutes in any direction and do some pheasant hunting or some turkey hunting.”

J.D. Scholten, who was Team Blue’s nominee for the 4th Congressional District in 2018 and 2020, also said he was thinking about running for Senate or governor, though he said he could also wage another campaign for the district or seek the lieutenant governor’s office. Scholten, who also said he didn’t know if he wanted to seek anything next year, added that he won’t decide on anything “until after July 4.” He also didn’t sound like he wanted to go up against Axne, whom he called “the Democratic leader right now in the state of Iowa.”

2018 secretary of state nominee Deidre DeJear also said of her plans, “There is nothing that I’m not considering.” Like Smith, though, DeJear sounds like she wants to remain in the state rather than go to D.C., saying, “Staying in Iowa—it calls my heart. I’ll tell you that much.”

For now, though, there’s plenty of uncertainty surrounding 2022. Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley has said he’ll only decide whether to seek re-election in “September, October, or November,” though he’s revised his timeline plenty of times already. And as Scholten noted, no one knows what the new congressional map will look like: The once and maybe future candidate said, “So I think a lot is waiting on what the congressional districts look like before people ultimately make the decision on what they want to do.”  

About the only thing everyone anticipates is that Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds will campaign for a second full term. Reynolds has not yet announced her plans, but she’s been raising money for another race and talked about “a lot of things I’m still working on that I haven’t finished.”

NC-Sen: The Republican firm Spry Strategies, which says it “is not connected to any political campaign,” has released a GOP primary poll showing former Gov. Pat McCrory beating ex-Rep. Mark Walker 41-11, with Rep. Ted Budd taking 5%.

PA-Sen, PA-Gov: Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney still hasn’t ruled out seeking the Democratic nomination for either the open Senate or governor’s seats, but he doesn’t sound very excited about the idea of seeking a promotion.

The local ABC affiliate recently quizzed Kenney what he’d do after he’s termed-out of his current job in early 2024, and the mayor responded he’d like to “take it easy for a little bit and try to find a way to not publicly be so public in nature.” Kenney’s spokesperson said afterwards that “the mayor remains open” to running for either statewide post, though the Philadelphia Inquirer asked rhetorically, “Does this sound like a guy thinking about seeking higher office?”

Governors

FL-Gov: Politico wrote Friday that Democratic Rep. Charlie Crist is “expected to announce his own gubernatorial campaign as early as Tuesday.” Crist himself said the following day that he’d be making a “major announcement” on May 4.

House

AL-05: Former Department of Defense official Casey Wardynski announced Thursday that he would seek the Republican nomination for this safely red open seat in northern Alabama. Wardynski previously served as Huntsville City Schools superintendent, a post he resigned from in 2016 a month after two of his critics won school board seats. Wardynski joins Madison County Commission Chair Dale Strong in the contest to succeed Rep. Mo Brooks, who is leaving to run for the Senate, and others may join especially now that they’ve learned that Alabama will be keeping all seven of its House seats.

This will also be the first open seat primary battle in this area since longtime Rep. Bud Cramer retired in 2008, a time when the political landscape in the 5th District was very different than it is now. Democrats had represented the Huntsville area since Reconstruction, and enough voters were still loyal to the party downballot to allow Parker Griffith to narrowly prevail even as John McCain was decisively carrying that previous version of the 5th District.

The GOP took over the seat a year later when Griffith switched parties, though he was soon out of a job following his primary loss to Brooks. Griffith eventually returned to the Democratic Party for his failed 2014 run for governor, but Republicans became the dominant party up and down the ballot here without him.

IA-03: Republican state Sen. Zach Nunn has confirmed that he’s considering a bid for the Des Moines area House seat held by Democratic Rep. Cindy Axne.

MT-01, MT-02: Former Yellowstone County Judge Russ Fagg is the latest Republican to signal an interest in running for Montana’s new congressional district, saying he’s considering a bid depending on “where the lines are drawn.” Fagg lost the 2018 GOP primary for Senate 34-28 to Matt Rosendale, who lost that year’s race to Democrat Jon Tester but captured the state’s at-large congressional district the following cycle.

Fagg’s home county of Yellowstone is the largest in the state and home to the city of Billings. While the shape of Montana’s new map of course is unknown, if it winds up looking like the map the state used in the 1980s (the last time it had two districts), that would place Fagg in the same district as Rosendale, who lives in the city of Great Falls. (In the previous Digest, we incorrectly wrote that Rosendale still lived in the town of Glendive in eastern Montana; he moved last year.)

Republican lawmakers, meanwhile, are trying to assert greater control over the mapmaking process and rushed through a measure directing the state’s largely independent redistricting commission to follow certain criteria when drawing new lines. However, the state constitution was revised in 1972 to mostly take redistricting out of the hands of legislators, and similar laws attempting to shackle the commission have been struck down in the past.

Mayors

New York City, NY Mayor: The pro-charter school group StudentsFirstNY recently released a survey of the June 22 instant runoff Democratic primary from Benenson Strategy Group that showed 2020 presidential candidate Andrew Yang leading Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams 22-17; the group has not endorsed anyone, though Politico writes that both men “have spoken favorably about charter schools.” Benenson also simulated the instant-runoff voting process and found Yang beating Adams 56-44 on the seventh and final round of voting.

The only other candidate to break into double digits when it came to first round preferences was city Comptroller Scott Stringer with 11%; about a week after the survey was conducted, a woman accused Stringer of sexually assaulting her in 2001. The many contenders in the single digits, though, may have a better chance to get their names out following the city Campaign Finance Board’s Thursday decision to allow candidates participating in New York City’s public financing program to spend a maximum of $10.9 million for the primary, a big increase from the $7.3 million previously permitted.

That move came about because of the prolific fundraising of financial executive Raymond McGuire, who is the only major contender who isn’t taking part in the matching funds program. As the New York Times explained back in January, when a contender who isn’t taking part in the program “raises or spends more than half of the spending cap for program participants, the $7.3 million spending limit for primary candidates may be increased by 50 percent.” The Gotham Gazette also wrote back then, “If a non-participant raises or spends three times the limit, almost $22 million, then the limit will be eliminated entirely for all candidates.”

Grab Bag

Where Are They Now?: The Senate confirmed former Florida Sen. Bill Nelson as NASA administrator on Thursday without opposition. Nelson, a Democrat, represented Florida’s Space Coast in the House when he flew into space aboard Space Shuttle Columbia in 1986.





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