One possible path to the House majority for both parties lies through a C-shaped congressional district in northwestern Illinois and its swathes of crop fields, waning manufacturing bases, and scattered urban centers.
A blue district back to the 1980s, the 17th congressional district broke and voted for former President Donald Trump twice, largely due to a high rural turnout, defecting union Democrats, and a sometimes dimmed urban turnout.
Nationwide, it was one of only seven districts that went for Trump while picking a Democrat for Congress in 2020—a rare breed in the increasingly polarized county.
That year, Cheri Bustos, the five-term Democratic incumbent, barely fended off a challenge from Trump-supported Republican Esther King, at four points—the smallest winning margin she ever had.
Bustos, a moderate Democrat, chose not to run for reelection, leaving an open seat that has attracted a crowded field of Democratic candidates vowing to keep the seat blue. They are aided by a more favorable district map drawn by Illinois’s Democrat-controlled legislature last year.
On the other hand, King is running again, having far outraised any other candidates in both parties and earning recognition by her party leadership as one of the prime candidates to take back the House.
Energizing Party Loyalists in Primary
“Can we count on you to vote blue in the primary? Do you know where you can drop off your ballot?” Jackie McGowan, one of six Democratic candidates vying for Bustos’ seat, said to voters as she canvassed in Peoria, Illinois’s seventh largest city.
It was a get-out-to-vote campaign organized by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. Each volunteer had an assigned list of registered Democrats, knocked on doors, and reminded voters of the upcoming primary and ways to vote.
If a voter appeared to have more time, McGowan would talk about the recent mass shootings, the pending Supreme Court decision on Roe v. Wade, and the ongoing January 6 Committee public hearings—issues that she thinks will energize the party base.
“The stakes are high, and I think it’s more important for the party to keep the House and flip the Senate than my own campaign—what if I don’t make it, you know?” McGowan told The Epoch Times.
Unlike other candidates, McGowan, who lived in California for a long time, didn’t live in Illinois prior to the campaign. However, she thinks her experience as a stockbroker in a high-pressure working environment and as a cannabis expert lobbying state lawmakers makes her a unique candidate for the open seat.
In a May Triton poll commissioned by candidate Litesa Wallace, most voters said they had never heard of any of the six Democratic candidates. In the survey, 22 percent went for Wallace, 19 percent for Sorensen, and the other candidates got only single-digit support.
In terms of fundraising, Eric Sorensen leads at $450,665, according to early June finance data published by Federal Election Commission (FEC.) A meteorologist at several local stations for 20 years, Sorensen also started off with better name recognition than others. His top issue is climate change, according to his campaign website.
Jonathan Logemann, a teacher, former Rockford alderman, and veteran, raised $375,563, according to the FEC. As a pro-union Democrat, he scored two dozen union endorsements, including from the Illinois Education Association and Illinois AFL-CIO. His top issue is job development, according to his campaign website.
Angie Normoyle, a university professor and Rock Island County board member, raised $202,780, and Litesa Wallace, a former state representative and former Lieutenant Governor candidate, raised $179,172.
However, their fundraising was dwarfed by the $2.75 million raised by King, according to FEC.
Top donations to her campaign came from political action committees such as Take Back the House 2022, Friends of GOP Winning Women 2022, and WINRED.
Last November, House Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy introduced King as among the first eight “young guns”—the most promising group of midterm Republican candidates in the eyes of the party leadership.
The Young Guns program was established by McCarthy and others in 2007 to showcase strong candidates in tough House races. Candidates must reach certain benchmarks in fundraising, messaging, and communications to quality for the multi-tier program—”young gun” status being the highest tier.
In 2020, 25 of 36 “young gun” candidates were elected to Congress.
King is the only Illinois Republican candidate granted “young gun” status.
At a Republican candidate greet-to-meet event in Coral Valley, a small suburban town on the state’s western edge, King tried to energize party loyalists by tapping their aversions to Democrats President Joe Biden and Governor J.B. Pritzker.
“How many of you are happy with the direction of Illinois? How many of you are happy with the direction of the country?” King asked a few dozen Republican attendees at a local pizza restaurant. She reminded them of the competitiveness of the district, through which the balance of the House could very well be tipped.
State representative Daniel Swanson, who is running for reelection in a state district that overlaps the 17th congressional district, reinforced King’s point.
“Let’s get Pritzker out. Let’s get Biden out. You did it, and you can do it again,” he told attendees.
Jan Weber, the Republican state central committeewoman of the district, stood up to remind fellow Republicans that the primary would take place on June 28.
“I know how much you like to vote on election day, but please, if you have a vacation planned on that day, make sure you vote early,” Weber said.
Illinois’s primaries typically take place in March. But last year, state lawmakers passed a bill to move it to June to allow them time to redraw district maps based on the delayed 2020 Census data.
Weber told The Epoch Times that inflation and the economy are top national issues that energize Republicans.
The district has a strong agricultural element, with vast corn, soybean, and hog farms joined by clusters of agriculture equipment facilities owned by industry giants John Deere and Caterpillar.
Weber and her husband farm about 1,000 acres of soybeans and corn seven miles north of Genesco in Henry County.
“Agriculture is struggling. We are paying nearly double what we were paying two years ago on fuel,” Weber said. “When you live in a small town, farmers are the major mover of everything. If farmers don’t do well, car dealerships will not do well, clothing stores will not do well.”
Weber said those who vote in the primaries care about and follow party politics. If Republicans demonstrate strong turnout this primary, it will help build momentum for the general election, she said.
According to Swanson, after the primary is the time for the winning candidate to reach out to Independents and Democrats who don’t go strictly by party line.
The district has a sizable manufacturing base. In the last two presidential cycles, many union Democrats defected and voted for Trump—one of the key reasons why he turned the district red for the first time in decades.
“These Democrats might be cautious in voting in a Republican primary, but many might cross over to vote for Republican candidates they like in the general election,” Swanson said.
In a way, whether the district could be flipped red is a question of whether the winning formula of Trump could be recreated at the district level even when Trump is not on the ballot: a high turnout of rural Republican voters plus enough support from working-class Democrats that crush the Democratic party’s advantages in urban centers.
A Miniature: Waning Unions, Rising Farms
In a lot of ways, what happened in Knox County resembles changes in the district.
During the last century, the political alignment of Knox County has gone through several cycles, according to lifetime resident and Knox County Republican Party chairperson Phil Anderson.
It was solid red until the 1960s, when it elected its first Democratic sheriff. Then, gradually, the county went blue. The major force driving the change is the union power, Anderson said.
But as railroads and factories waned, unions weakened, and many union Democrats, losing hope in the Democratic Party, became politically disengaged, or even became Independents or Republicans, he said.
In the book “Boom, Bust, Exodus,” author Chad Broughton paints the decline of Knox County’s largest city, Galesburg, as factories moved south of the border into Mexico. The most agonizing episode was the closure of the Maytag refrigerator plant, the city’s largest employer in the early 2000s.
“With unions losing power, the rural agriculture is becoming more powerful,” Anderson said.
When Trump came along in 2016, his appeal to rural voters and working-class Democrats helped him tip the political scale, becoming the first Republican presidential candidate to carry the county in almost five decades.
In 2020, Trump repeated his victory in Knox County by five points, almost doubling the 2016 winning margin.
John Shotts, an auto repair shop owner in Galesburg, charted one trajectory of a former union Democrat.
A former factory worker at a local pottery plant for 13 years, he opened his own auto repair business in the early 1990s. He was not personally hurt by the downturn of manufacturing jobs in the area, and his problem with the Democratic party is rather that it has gone too far left for him.
“The Democratic Party left me,” Shotts told The Epoch Times. He is now an Independent.
He said he has no problem with early-stage abortions but opposes late-term ones; he’s not against the LGBTQ community, but he doesn’t like being pushed to support agendas such as transgenders competing in women’s sports; he’s fine with immigrants but opposes unrestricted illegal immigration.
He stopped voting for Democratic presidential candidates when Barack Obama ran. Shotts voted twice for Trump.
“I will vote for a Democrat if I think he is honestly going to do the country good. But I don’t see that happen for a long time,” Shotts told The Epoch Times.
Boons and Woes of Gerrymandering
Nationwide, Knox is among 206 pivot counties that voted for Obama twice and then for Trump twice. Most of them cluster around the failing industrial cities along the Mississippi river in midwestern states like Iowa and Illinois.
Illinois has 11 pivot counties, most of them in the 17th district.
To keep the district blue, the Democrat-controlled state legislature cut from it a handful of Republican strongholds and added Democratic-leaning urban centers.
As a result, Weber’s farm, which sits in a heavily Republican area in rural Henry County, no longer belongs to the 17th
district. Weber herself is running for the Republican central committee in the neighboring 16th district this year.
A big chunk of McLean County’s twin cities, Normal and Bloomington, has been added into the 17th district.
So, the new 17th district would have been carried by Biden, not Trump, at about a seven-point margin.
The same tactic was used ten years ago, successfully. During redistricting in 2012, the Democrat-controlled legislature added parts of two big cities, Rockford and Peoria, to the new map and successfully booted out one-term Republican congressman Bob Schilling.
In a way, if the Democratic candidate can turnout enough urban voters, they can help offset any rural advantages and any defecting working-class Democrats voting for the Republican candidate.
Statewide, redistricting also reshaped the primary battles in four other competitive Illinois districts.
For instance, in the 6th district, which covers southwestern suburban Chicago, incumbent Marie Newman and Sean Casten were forced to face each other in the primary—the only Democratic incumbents’ face-off in Illinois.
Also, the 13th district in central Illinois annexed new urban areas and became more Democratic-leaning, prompting Republican incumbent Rodney Davis to abandon the district and run in a nearby district instead.
Illinois lost one seat due to population loss. Its current congressional delegation has 13 Democrats and 5 Republicans.
The gerrymandering also caused much confusion on the ground.
It is challenging for candidates to reach out to voters in 7,000 square miles of land drawn in a long C shape. Plus, a lot of voters do not even know of the map changes.
A few weeks ago, McGowan planned a breakfast event in Illinois’s fourth-largest city, Rockford, part of which sits in the 17th district. However, just the day before, half of the registered attendees found out they no longer lived in the district—the new map made twists to the district boundary line that runs through the city.
At a recent local yard sale event in Peoria, McGowan handed out a flyer to an attendee, and they had an engaged conversation, only to find out that the attendee doesn’t live in the new district.
“This map is slight, it is long, and it is jagged,” Pamela Johnson, Knox County Democratic Party chairperson, told The Epoch Times. She has been door-knocking in the district for her race to become the 17th district’s Democratic central committee chairperson.
She said she wants to get the voices of organized labor, women, and minorities to be reflected in the party’s platform and priorities. When asked about farmers, Johnson said she wanted to reach out to them too; though she acknowledged that she sometimes had difficulty understanding them.
“We have to reach out to them and make that connection, to tell them that we have been there for you, we are there for you, and we will continue to be there for you,” Johnson said.
“Cheri Bustos kind of did it best. I mean, she had that relationship with them,” she said.
That’s a key reason why Bustos was able to keep the seat twice against strong Trump headwinds.
In fact, Bustos did so well in 2016—carrying the district by a 21-point landslide—that she was elected that December by her colleagues to a leadership role on the Democratic Policy and Communications Committee, tasked with improving the party’s connections in the rural areas.
Her rising as a moderate within her party reached a milestone in 2019 when she was elected the leader of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC.) In that role, she was responsible for recruiting candidates, raising money, and setting core campaign messages for 2020 House races.
However, Democrats performed poorly in 2020, going from a 15-seat advantage down to a mere six-seat advantage. Bustos herself almost lost her reelection bid, too.
The, she resigned from the DCCC. Soon, she announced that she would not seek reelection.
But apparently, she still wants to pass on her advice about how important it is for her party to continue to look out for demographics that are trending away from them: the working-class and rural voters.
Several months after her retirement announcement, Bustos published a report based on interviews with 25 Democratic House Representatives and state representatives who held onto their seats despite their districts voting for Trump as president, in the hope to help Democrats win majorities in Congress and state legislatures in 2022.
The report, a collaboration between Bustos and her advisor, political science lecturer Robin Johnson, is titled “How Dems Win in Trump Districts.”
The tips are to meet rural and working-class voters and listen to them, to focus on bread-and-butter issues rather than social issues, and to have the courage not to vote just according to party lines.
“The Democratic Party was caught off-guard by the Trump victory in 2016 and by his strength with working-class voters,” Bustos wrote in the report.
“This is about a few small blue islands in the big red sea of the Heartland. The lessons here are important—critical even—to keep the Democratic Party in the majority.”
Bustos was able to keep her seat despite Trump because of her relationships with rural and working-class voters.
But just like Trump, she won’t be on the ballot this year either.