Tom Kacich: 15th District a $2 million primary

Tom Kacich: 15th District a $2 million primary

The Republican candidates in the 15th Congressional District primary — incumbent Rep. John Shimkus and challenger Kyle McCarter — are leaving little to chance in their effort to win the overwhelmingly Republican district.

Shimkus, who hasn't faced a challenge like this since 2002 when he and another incumbent, Democrat David Phelps, were drawn by redistricting into the same district, has spent almost $1.5 million in this election cycle. That includes $785,554 in the 55 days between Jan. 1 and Feb. 24.

McCarter can't match Shimkus' spending, but he's raised enough to worry the incumbent. McCarter's received almost $350,000 in "independent expenditures" from the conservative, Washington-based Club for Growth. And the state senator from Lebanon has loaned $100,000 in personal funds to his campaign.

Overall more than $2.14 million has been spent by both sides and by independent groups, according to reports to the Federal Election Commission.

Shimkus hasn't been in a race with such big spending since his 2002 showdown with Phelps — a full, two-year election cycle — when expenditures exceeded $3.4 million.

Both sides have done polling of the race but they aren't talking about the results. McCarter says only that he believes it's close; Shmikus' campaign manager, Kayleen Carlson, says the congressman "has always taken this challenge seriously and our campaign operation reflects that."

John Jackson, a visiting professor at the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University and an observer of southern Illinois politics for more than 45 years, said he thinks Shimkus is safe in his enormous district that stretches from Ford County on the north to the Ohio River on the south to the Illinois suburbs of St. Louis on the west.

The incumbent is just being cautious, Jackson insisted.

"I think the smart candidates always run scared. No matter how long you've been there you should run scared," Jackson said. "But I don't buy that it's a real threat.

"I don't think Shimkus is in any big trouble myself. If he is it's going to be really under the radar."

But maybe it is, at least in parts of the 33-county district that includes parts of Champaign County, plus all of Vermilion County and areas south.

Jackson said he watches a lot of television and noted that he hadn't seen any ads for either Shimkus or McCarter.

"I don't get a sense that McCarter's campaign has jelled that effectively. I'm in the media market for that district but I've seen zero advertising. You can't beat an incumbent without massive television, and you can't beat an incumbent without there being a story about a legitimate, terrible thing that an incumbent has done," he said.

Neither McCarter nor Shimkus has run any commercials on over-the-air television in the southern Illinois market.

But both have been heavy into the Champaign and Terre Haute markets — two of the five TV markets with at least some reach into the 15th District.

At WAND-TV in Decatur, for example, the Club for Growth paid for almost $40,000 of ads that are mostly anti-Shimkus.

"He's one of the most liberal Republicans in Congress," the ad says of Shimkus. "McCarter knows the country's in trouble and a guy who's been in D.C, for 20 years ain't gonna fix it."

Club for Growth had more ad time reserved on McCarter's behalf but apparently has pulled out of the race and sold its time to two other groups: Marco Rubio's Conservative Solutions PAC and the Liberty Principles PAC.

Shimkus, meanwhile, has bought almost $70,000 of spots at WAND, including one that is hilarious for its negative and ironically anti-Washington tone in defense of a 10-term congressional incumbent who has received $1.3 million in political action committee money in the last 14 months.

"It's Washington versus you. Washington insiders picked Kyle McCarter," a voice says. "It's Kyle McCarter and the Washington insiders versus John Shimkus."

Although he said he hadn't seen the commercial, Jackson got a chuckle out of that notion.

"There was no more insider than when Denny Hastert was the Speaker of the House and his right-hand guy was John Shimkus. There was nobody closer to Hastert than Shimkus was, for crying out loud. So that's a tough sell," Jackson laughed. "But it's been a long time since (Shimkus has) made any really big mistakes and none of those that he made when he was Hastert's guy really stuck to him over the long haul."

Even if McCarter loses — even if he loses handily — Jackson said the effort will have been worth it to the Club for Growth.

"That's what keeps these (congressmen) in line. If nothing else Club for Growth will have spent their money well because they will have frightened an incumbent who may occasionally have an urge to not vote their line," he said. "That's what the NRA and the Club for Growth both do tremendously well, even though they don't often win. They scare these guys back into line."

And the challenge will benefit Shimkus too, he said.

"He'll scare off anybody from now on if he wins this one, because McCarter is a credible candidate, there's no doubt about that," he said. "This shows how much money he is able to raise and the multiple resources that incumbents have in order to scare off any challenge."

Winning the Republican primary in the 15th District is tantamount to winning the general election. No Democrat has filed to run in the district and it's such a GOP stronghold that Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner — who will do a campaign swing with Shimkus on Monday — got nearly 71 percent of the vote there in 2014.

"Democrats are almost certainly not going to win it or even challenge it very effectively in the fall, so here's the fight," said Jackson.

Tom Kacich is a News-Gazette reporter and columnist. His column appears on Wednesdays and Sundays. He can be reached at 351-5221 or at kacich@news-gazette.com.

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