There are good reasons Republicans aren’t eagerly lining up to jump into the race to succeed veteran U.S. Rep. John Shimkus in a congressional district exceedingly large and exceedingly Republican.
It won’t be the same district in two years. It likely will be even bigger.
In the week since Shimkus announced his retirement, only two people — one Republican and one Democrat — have filed as candidates to replace him. A third person, Republican state Rep. Mike Marron of Fithian, has formed an exploratory committee.
Compare that with the April 2012 announcement by U.S. Rep. Tim Johnson, R-Urbana, that he would not run for re-election. Within weeks there were eight Republican candidates for the Johnson seat in a marginally GOP district. Ultimately the nomination went to Rodney Davis, now the 13th District congressman.
Also, the current 15th Congressional District encompasses all or parts of 33 counties and covers 14,696 square miles, or about one-quarter of the land mass of the state of Illinois. It stretches from Gibson City to the Ohio River, more than 250 miles north to south. And at its widest it measures about 150 miles.
And because Illinois is certain to lose at least one of its 18 congressional seats, all of the districts — especially those in no-growth downstate Illinois — likely will become larger.
That’s one reason state Sen. Chapin Rose decided against running for the Shimkus seat in the 2020 Republican primary.
“I spent (last) weekend thinking about it and I’m not thinking about it anymore,” said the Mahomet Republican, who has built a loyal following and substantial name identification after 16 years in the Legislature.
“Ten counties (in my state Senate district) versus 33 counties. That’s my answer,” Rose said. “One of the things I’ve learned and that I didn’t fully factor into the calculation when I ran for the state Senate was going from five counties to 10 counties. The I’ve-got-to-be-everywhere-at-once feeling. Or when I say ISU here it’s Illinois State, but when you say ISU in Paris (Ill.) it’s Indiana State.
“This weekend I have four or five parades on Saturday, just in the 10 counties I’ve got. I didn’t even bother to calculate how many there would be in the 15th Congressional District. I’ve got 48 or 49 school districts right now, and I’ve been to every single one of them more than once. It’s important to me that I do those things because that’s how you stay in touch with people. And that’s how you know what’s on the minds of your constituents and your voters. Now, in Congress, you’ve got more people staff-wise to help out, but still, that personal interaction is huge.”
Another factor for Rose is his young family.
“And two kids in high school and two kids in fourth grade,” he explained. “Right now, I’m going to my kids’ (elementary) school to be their guest at lunch. And after that I’m going back to work.
“Those are things I would be missing for the next 13, 14 months. Then you’re there (after being elected), and you’re going nonstop for two years after that. If it had been 10 years ago or maybe a couple years from now, it could be a different story.”
Then there’s the issue of a one-term district. The current 15th District won’t be the same in two years after the 2020 Census and congressional redistricting.
“I guarantee that is some amount of the factor here. There’s no doubt about that,” he said. “But I also think the national political climate is a factor, and I think you’re seeing that not in the 15th Congressional District, but you’re seeing across the country. It’s getting harder and harder to get good people to run for office. Being in the minority (for Republicans) is another factor.
“In two years, there will be a new map. I’m not saying never to running for Congress. I’m just saying right now this is the wrong time for my family.”
Still, at least three people are beyond the exploratory committee stage: Democrats Kevin Gaither of Charleston (who ran against Shimkus in 2018 and lost by more than 40 percentage points) and John Hursey of Collinsville, and Republican Alex Walker of Mattoon.
Walker, 33, is an interesting candidate. He is a gay Air Force veteran who is pro-life, pro-guns, pro-border wall and pro-Trump. He said he works at the Herff Jones plant in Arcola and has lived in the 15th District for many years.
He is on the executive board of the Illinois chapter of the Log Cabin Republicans, a group of conservatives who advocate for gay and lesbian rights. The national group recently endorsed President Donald Trump for re-election.
“They also asked for each chapter’s opinion on that, and I voted to endorse him,” Walker said. “There were some on board who did not, but I pushed to endorse him.”
Walker said, “I don’t buy into the theory that he is anti-LGBT. I don’t believe it at all. I think he has done more for the gay community than any other Republican president. He has appointed openly gay ambassadors. He’s appointed LGBT judges. He has said he’s proud to get the LGBT endorsement.”
Walker said he even supports Trump’s effort to ban transgender people from the military.
“That’s something that may not be popular among the Log Cabin Republicans, but I support that because I believe that allowing transgender people in the military affects morale. Studies have shown that. Let’s say I decide to join the military today as a man and tomorrow I decide I’m a woman. That will have an effect on morale.
“I see it as cost too, because if you join the military and decide you want to change your reproductive organs or something like that I believe that would be something they would expect us to pay for and that would be costly as well.”
Finally, for what it’s worth, Shimkus spokesman Jordan Haverly said that he does not expect his boss to make an endorsement in the primary. But he included the proviso “at this time.”
Tom Kacich’s column appears Sundays in The News-Gazette. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.