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."