Three days into her uphill campaign for the Republican nomination for Congress, Urbana attorney Erika Harold got a taste of what big-money politics is like today.
Harold, who is challenging U.S. Rep. Rodney Davis, R-Taylorville, for the GOP nomination in the 13th Congressional District that includes Champaign-Urbana and a big chunk of central Illinois to the southwest, saw her first campaign "tracker," an anonymous young man with a video camera who records every statement — hoping for a gaffe or maybe a flip-flop on a position — and other behaviors by a candidate.
Sometimes, as in the case of the tracker in Clinton and Bloomington last Thursday, he follows the candidate to the car and shouts out, "I just want to ask you a question. Why won't you answer my question?"
When the candidate continues to the car without responding, the tracker has the nugget he wanted: a candidate seemingly afraid to answer a question, slamming a car door and driving away.
Some people might be persuaded to vote against Harold simply because of that video. You can imagine how it would be set up in a commercial: What's Erika Harold afraid of? What is she running from? Why won't she answer questions? What does she have to hide?
I asked the tracker for his affiliation.
"I'm just a college student," he said.
"He's not with us," Andrew Flach, a spokesman for Davis, said the next day.
The tracker could have been with the Republicans, the Democrats, even one of the "independent" groups that inevitably will get involved in the 13th District election next year.
Harold isn't the first local candidate to get the tracker treatment. Davis and his Democratic opponent last year, Bloomington physician David Gill, also were stalked by them.
But it was somewhat surprising to see one following Harold — who has no paid staff, no money and no endorsements yet — so early into her campaign.
Someone obviously views her as a viable political threat.
She really didn't look the part last week, drawing meager crowds at her campaign appearances. There also were newspaper and TV stories quoting central Illinois Republicans who said they had hoped Harold wouldn't challenge Davis and would seek another office instead.
As campaign rollouts go, this one could have been better.
But Harold is committed to the race, and she's just beginning a campaign that undoubtedly will draw attention — and presumably some money — nationally.
The former Miss America is scheduled to be on a Fox News program Monday morning and has been contacted by other national programs including "The Today Show" and Piers Morgan on CNN. Stories about her candidacy already have appeared in the Washington Post, USA Today, a number of conservative newspapers and blog sites and even Pravda (where the politically premature headline was "US Congress to become much more beautiful").
"I didn't know what level of interest there would be because I won the pageant about a decade ago. So I guess it's gratifying that people still have an interest after all of these years," Harold said.
But she is definitely the underdog. Davis has incumbency, at least a half a million dollars, and the backing of the Republican National Campaign Committee and of many state GOP power brokers.
"I think I can raise enough money to be able to wage a credible campaign," she said. "I know that historically the person who raises the most money wins, but there are times when that doesn't hold true. And oftentimes it's when there's something else that is driving that race."
Hers will be a grass-roots campaign that apparently will be about expanding the Republican base, with an emphasis on outreach to nontraditional Republican voters without abandoning conservative principles.
Harold acknowledged, for example, that she is pro-life and believes "that marriage is defined as between one man and one woman." She thinks those values and fiscally conservative principles must be explained to new groups.
"I hope to run a primary that actually reinvigorates the party brand. My main message will be that you can both have solid views on conservative issues, but take those issues to people who don't traditionally vote for Republican candidates," she said. "In this way I actually think that it's very invigorating and reaffirming of the party brand because I will be talking to people who don't necessarily engage with us on a consistent basis."
She said she wants to have debates and forums, something the Davis campaign said it would support as well.
"I do think a big part of this is ... which one of us will be the strongest general election representative, and which one of us will be most likely to be a great representative going forward?" Harold said.
A little more than a year ago, the Republican county chairmen in the 13th District chose Davis over Harold and several other contenders to be the party's candidate for Congress. That came after U.S. Rep. Tim Johnson, R-Urbana, who had won the primary election, withdrew from the race.
Harold said the "process was fair last time. It was a process that had to be. But I think everyone at the time acknowledged that it would be best if the voters themselves were deciding."
That, she said, is why she is running.
It's not because Johnson or members of Johnson's old congressional staff pushed Harold into the race, said Joan Dykstra, a former Champaign County Board member who was district director for Johnson.
"She called me," Dykstra said. "Anyone who says that I'm behind some effort to talk her into challenging Rodney doesn't know what they are talking about. This young woman is strong and smart and focused. She knows what she wants. She is unlike any other political candidate I've ever been around."
Dykstra said she is helping Harold "as a friend" and isn't getting paid.
Johnson has stayed out of the Harold campaign, at least visibly. Harold said, though, that "I hope that I would be able to earn his support because he's somebody who I think served this area very well."
If Johnson endorses Harold, the race could get even more interesting than it already is. Johnson never endorsed Davis last year and at last report still had about $250,000 in his campaign fund. The most he could transfer to Harold, however, is $5,000.
Tom Kacich is a News-Gazette editor and columnist. His column appears on Sundays and Wednesdays. He can be reached at email@example.com or at 351-5221.