Republican hopefuls state their case at forum

Republican hopefuls state their case at forum

URBANA — The Republican Party will have to appeal to independent voters to win the newly drawn 13th Congressional District, three of the four candidates vying for their party's nomination said Saturday night at a forum in Champaign.

About 250 people attended the two-hour session at the Hilton Garden Inn Conference Center, organized by the Champaign County Republican Party. The forum was part of a condensed campaign effort organized by the 14 county chairmen in the district who need to find a replacement on the general election ballot for U.S. Rep. Tim Johnson, R-Urbana. Johnson decided last month not to seek a seventh term in Congress, just after winning the March 20 primary election.

The county chairmen are scheduled to meet next Saturday to select their candidate from among Jerry Clarke of Urbana, Rodney Davis of Taylorville, Erika Harold of Chicago and Kathy Wassink of Shipman.

Clarke, a longtime Republican strategist who currently is chief of staff to U.S. Rep. Randy Hultgren, R-Wheaton, and who formerly served the same role for Johnson, said he disputed claims that the congressional district, which stretches from Champaign-Urbana down to the Illinois suburbs of St. Louis, leaned Democratic.

"It's probably a 50-50 district," Clarke said. "It probably leans a little bit Republican. So I think any of us can overcome what the Democrats have done here."

He said he thinks Illinois Democrats "overreached here" in drawing what they believe to be a district favorable to Democrats.

"This isn't just about Republicans and Democrats," he added. "There are probably a lot more independents here than Republicans or Democrats. You just have to get out the message to appeal to independents."

But he said he believed any of the four GOP hopefuls would beat the choice of Democratic voters, David Gill, a Bloomington emergency room physician.

"I can guarantee it," said Clarke.

Davis, also a top Illinois GOP political strategist and now an aide to U.S. Rep. John Shimkus, R-Collinsville, called the 13th "a very competitive district."

Repeatedly invoking the name of former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Davis said that she "cannot return to power without winning districts like this."

But he noted that Republican gubernatorial candidate Bill Brady got 53 percent of the vote within the district two years ago, and that GOP Senate candidate Mark Kirk got 52 percent.

"In a year like 2010, a landslide year where we elected five new members of Congress, a U.S. senator and two constitutional (officials), those aren't that good a numbers," he said.

"We need a candidate who's going to be able to reach out beyond Republicans and Democrats. Republicans and Democrats don't decide elections," Davis said. "Without you we can't win. Without you we can't convince those independents to vote our way."

Harold, a Chicago attorney who recently moved back to her parents' home in Urbana to run her congressional campaign, said Republicans "have to focus like a laser on building coalitions because the reality is oftentimes there are people who tune out Republican buzzwords and Republican slogans. And we have to actively reach out to people who do not traditionally vote for this party and ask for their vote."

Harold said she would use strategies she learned working in the George W. Bush campaign "to build those coalitions.

"We have to be very intentional. I think there's often this belief that we can put forth a positive message, people will understand that it appeals to their interest and vote for us. The reality is that people who do not vote for Republicans need to see that we are willing to go to their comfort zone and humbly ask for their vote. One of the things that is essential is not assuming that people will just say, 'I agree with you and I'm going to vote for you.'"

Harold, a Harvard law school graduate and a past Miss America, said Republicans need to ask voters: "What can we do to try to serve you? What are the things that maybe our party has done that has created a divide? How do we bridge that divide?'"

Wassink, who owns and operates a business that serves special needs children in central and southern Illinois school districts, said she's already reaching out to conservative voters.

"We have the forces. We have the groups. We have the motivation. We have the passion. We have the skills. We have the team. We have the plan," she said. "It just has to be ignited."

On most issues, including abortion, gun rights and improving the business climate, the four candidates were in lockstep.

But they differed slightly on some energy issues. Clarke said he favored drilling for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska, and in offshore areas.

"As far as energy policy, I think we have to put everything on the table," Clarke said.

Wassink called ANWR "a desolate wasteland" and said "there are no caribou there." She insisted that Congress "get the EPA off of our back and let these companies do what they're supposed to do. The crisis that happened in the gulf, that's what it was a crisis. These companies are very, very well fine-tuned about what they need to do when they drill and how they can be safe in the environment."

Davis said he favored construction of the Keystone pipeline from Canada to Texas, and would be a proponent of the use of Illinois coal.

"The only way to make sure that we have low-cost energy is to jack up the supply. It's simple economics," he said. "If we allow the administration to continue to attack coal-fired power plants our energy costs are only going to go up. As your congressman I will immediately make it one of my top priorities to ensure that the EPA cannot continue their attack on America's energy choices."

Harold, though, said "that nothing should be off the table but it has to be done responsibly," noting the Gulf of Mexico oil spill.

She said that energy policy also has foreign policy implications. "There are implications of not being energy independent," Harold said. "I think it's important to place a priority on that, not just because it would reduce the gas prices but because it would make us freer and safer as a country."

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alabaster jones 71 wrote on May 13, 2012 at 8:05 am
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I'm confused...Davis says the party needs a nominee who can relate to Democrats and independents, yet he works for a guy like John Shimkus?  A nominee like Shimkus will not win in this district.  This district is so split between the two parties that it pretty much demands a pragmatic, moderate representative regardless of party.  Someone in the mold of Tim Johnson, basically.

Clarke is fairly delusional if he thinks this district "leans Republican."  The numbers cited by Davis tell you everything you need to know about that.  If anything, it pretty clearly leans more Democrat than Republican.  It also figures to become a little more Democratic over the next decade, unless somehow there is more population growth in the rural areas than there is in the urban areas.

Bottom line is this, if these committeemen want their nominee to beat Gill in November, and to win future elections down the line against stronger Dem nominees than Gill, they should pick Harold.  She has way more name recognition and way more potential to reach voters outside her base.  Given the mess surrounding this nomination process, and given the general anti-Washington mood of voters across the nation, a lump of coal might be more appealing to voters than another Washington D.C. retread like Davis or Clarke.

If the committeemen's line of thinking is that they can get away with not picking the most appealing candidate to the voters (almost certainly Harold) just because Gill is such a weak nominee and will lose anyway, that would be very shortsighted.  Whoever the Democrat nominee might be in 2014, he or she would figure to be stronger than Gill.  The nominee almost certainly would have been stronger than Gill this year if the Democrats knew ahead of time that Johnson would stepping down.  Likewise, I imagine Gill would have a hell of a time defending this seat in 2014 against what would likely be a much stronger and more well-known GOP candidate than any of these four, with the possible exception of Harold.

Finally, I want to know...what happens if Gill wins this November and Clarke's "guarantee" fails?  Maybe he should make it a money back guarantee if he feels so certain about it!  As in, if I lose to Gill, I pay back everyone for anything they contributed to my campaign!  What good is a guarantee without some stakes?

Sid Saltfork wrote on May 13, 2012 at 12:05 pm

How about a candidate who says that they will compromise with the other side for the good of the country?  The Independent vote is the decider in this one.  People are getting fed up with the two established parties.  Their corruption, gridlock, and fingerpointing have frustrated the citizens; and crippled the country.  Otherwise, ex-Miss America is just as good as the rest of the candidates.  Heck, an actor from Illinois became president.  Why not an ex-Miss America in congress?  

tundraRV wrote on May 13, 2012 at 1:05 pm

Wassink called ANWR "a desolate wasteland" and said "there are no caribou there."

According to http://arctic.fws.gov/wildlife_habitat.htm:

"The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is home to some of the most diverse and spectacular wildlife in the arctic. The Refuge's rich pageant of wildlife includes 42 fish species, 37 land mammals, eight marine mammals, and more than 200 migratory and resident bird species."

Including some 123,000 caribou.

Guess that would make Meadowbrook Park a wasteland too. Pity there's no shale deposits underneath, Urbana could join OPEC.

 

alabaster jones 71 wrote on May 13, 2012 at 4:05 pm
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now tundraRV, don't let something silly like facts from the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service get in the way of the nice argument for continued fossil fuel dependency that Ms. Wassink made.

who cares that it's a finite resource and that we on the wrong side of the bell curve?  the politicians from both parties who receive fat checks from oil lobbyists know what's best for us.

johnny wrote on May 13, 2012 at 5:05 pm

Clarke was the only candidate to suggest this was a sure win.

Clarke was the only candidate repeatedly to receive no applause from the audience.

Clarke will be the choice of the Champaign Co. GOP as decided before Harold even got in.

Yay!