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The Illinois primary between Davis and Miller will test Trump’s sway with GOP voters

 U.S. Representatives Rodney Davis and Mary Miller. Miller and Davis are both running in the heavily republican Illinois' 15th district, which comprises most of central Illinois.
U.S. Representatives Rodney Davis and Mary Miller. Miller and Davis are both running in the heavily republican Illinois' 15th district, which comprises most of central Illinois.

The GOP primary for Illinois’ new 15th Congressional District is shaping up to test how powerful former President Donald Trump’s sway with Republican voters is.

He has endorsed Mary Miller, R-Oakland, the current representative for Illinois' 15th District, in the primary between her and fellow GOP Congressman Rodney Davis, R-Taylorvillle, who was added into the district when new lines were drawn for the state’s congressional seats.

But this endorsement doesn’t guarantee Miller will cruise to an easy victory, even if the former president still has the backing of most Illinois Republican voters.

The massive 35-county district, which stretches from parts of the Metro East to Indiana and back to Illinois’ borders with Iowa and Missouri, includes many areas Davis currently represents or has experience with.

“This is a district where Rodney Davis should be a household name because he was running 10 years in competitive elections,” said political consultant Frank Calabrese, “10 years in multimillion-dollar congressional races. Mary Miller hasn’t had exposure to the district like that.”

Davis twice fended off challenges from Democrat Betsy Dirksen Londrigan in races that were competitive. Those races gave many constituents in the new 15th District exposure to Davis and his priorities, he said.

“While they have had me as their congressman, they recognize what we’ve done, my record,” Davis said. “That gives us a chance to walk in and not introduce myself, but instead begin talking about what they really need from me.”

St. Louis Public Radio contacted both Miller and Davis, but Miller did not return multiple requests for comment. She has dodged reporters at public events and avoided interviews with most news outlets.

To Davis, media interviews come with the territory of being in Congress.

“There’s always tough questions,” he said. "At some point you have to be accessible to answer the questions regardless of whether they're comfortable or not. That's something I've always prided myself on being able to do."

Whoever wins the June 28th GOP primary is all but guaranteed a win in November too because of how the district was drawn: 68% of the voters in the new 15th District voted for Trump in the 2020 presidential election, Calabrese said.

“Whereas the district politically might be sympathetic to Mary Miller, Rodney Davis is a pretty seasoned, experienced campaigner,” he said.

And Davis has locked up many endorsements of his own.

The Illinois Farm Bureau’s political action committee has endorsed Davis. This kind of move in a primary election is rare, said Ken McMillan, a former state senator and retired economics professor at Monmouth College.

“Essentially, it was unanimous among the two delegates from each of the 35 counties that all endorsed Davis in this race,” he said.

The endorsement is significant given how central agriculture is to the economy in the 15th Congressional District, McMillan said. It also shows how Miller and Davis have separate approaches to legislating.

“The difference in many cases is having worked for things like improving the lock and dam systems,” he said. “Being a strong advocate for biofuels. Making sure the farm bill, when it’s written and passed includes provisions for sound crop insurance and things of the kind.”

Davis has also drawn support because of his knowledge and familiarity with the issues in the district.

Republican state Sen. Jil Tracy, who represents Quincy and surrounding portions of west central Illinois, said she lent her endorsement to Davis for these reasons.

“Rodney wanted to run and he called a lot of his colleagues and asked them to endorse him,” she said. “It was easy when he asked if I would endorse him because I had worked with him.”

This doesn’t mean Tracy thinks Miller is a poor candidate. She said both David and Miller espouse many of the core values her constituents and others in the district hold.

Those include views against abortion and for fiscal conservative values, limited government and 2nd Amendment rights under the U.S. Constitution, Tracy said.

“It may vary in one shape or form, but pretty much that’s what they stand for,” she said.

Davis provides stronger constituent service, Tracy said, and Davis touts this commitment to go beyond legislative priorities.

“Unfortunately, there are members of Congress, state legislators and elected officials at all levels that don’t recognize the importance of constituent service,” he said. “They only want to play in the political battlefield. There’s a lot more to being a member of Congress than just fighting for your own political party.”

Davis added that he doesn’t think Miller matches the priority he puts toward serving constituents.

But to McMillan, this is a secondary priority for a representative. The first priority is to articulate what residents in the district want and need, he said.

“Constituent service is very important but if the congressperson isn’t voting right, providing leadership on the issues, the congressman’s not doing the job for the people in the district,” he said.

Given this, McMillan said both Miller and Davis represent strong Republican voting records.

“In the district, you’ve got two people that supported essentially the ‘Make America Great Again’ agenda, but they’ve done it in different ways,” he said.

This race is one of many that tests the power of Trump’s endorsement. But Trump’s vocal support may not be enough, Calabrese said.

“He has not gone to the district yet or held a rally or press event,” he said. “I think Mary Miller really needs Trump to physically be in the district to get the full Trump effect.”

Trump is scheduled to visit the district, to speak at a Miller rally at the Adams County Fairgrounds right outside Quincy, on Saturday, three days before the primary.

Eric Schmid covers economic development for St. Louis Public Radio. He previously covered the Metro East.

Copyright 2022 St. Louis Public Radio. To see more, visit St. Louis Public Radio.

Eric Schmid covers the Metro East area in Illinois for St. Louis Public Radio. He joins the news team as its first Report for America corps member and is tasked with expanding KWMU's coverage east from the Mississippi. Before joining St. Louis Public Radio, Eric held competitive internships at Fox News Channel, NPR-affiliate WSHU Public Radio and AccuWeather. As a news fellow at WSHU's Long Island Bureau, he covered governments and environmental issues as well as other general assignments. Eric grew up in Northern Colorado but attended Stony Brook University, in New York where he earned his degree in journalism in 2018. He is an expert skier, avid reader and lifelong musician-he plays saxophone and clarinet.
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