NORMAL — Just like it was two years ago, Illinois’ 13th Congressional District is one of the most closely watched House races in the country.
It is a rematch between U.S. Rep. Rodney Davis, a Republican from Taylorville, and Democratic challenger Betsy Dirksen Londrigan of Springfield. In 2018, Davis narrowly beat Londrigan by just 2,000 votes. The race has tightened in recent weeks and is now considered a toss-up—and one targeted by national Democrats looking to expand their majority in the House.
“This year, (Davis) is up against perhaps the worst political environment for Republicans that he’s had to face,” said Dave Wasserman, the Cook Political Report’s U.S. House editor.
President Donald Trump is the big reason why. He won the 13th District by 5 percentage points in 2016, but his handling of the coronavirus and race relations has cut into his approval ratings nationally. Biden leads Trump 52% to 43% in an average of the national polls. Londrigan’s team touts an internal poll from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) showing Biden leading in the district by a 13-point margin.
“Davis may need to convince some voters to cross over from the top of the ticket and support him to remain in office,” Wasserman said.
The sprawling 13th District stretches through Bloomington-Normal, Champaign-Urbana, and Springfield down to the Metro East suburbs of St. Louis. A mix of college towns and rural areas are within its boundaries that were drawn by Illinois Democrats after the last census specifically to give the right Democrat a chance to win.
Londrigan hopes that’s her. The former teacher and professional fundraiser has essentially been running for the seat nonstop for over three years. She won a crowded five-way Democratic primary in 2018, but didn’t attract much competition in 2020. If she wins, she would be the first Democrat to represent Bloomington-Normal in Congress since one-termer Debbie Halvorson, from 2009-2011.
Londrigan has made health care the central theme of her campaign, repeatedly attacking Davis for voting 11 times to repeal the Affordable Care Act with no replacement. Davis says Obamacare has failed and, “since both parties have been unable to reform our broken health care system on their own, it’s clear that we need a bipartisan solution.”
“The Republicans still don’t have a definitive plan to replace Obamacare,” said Bob Bradley, professor emeritus of politics and government at Illinois State University. “And with the COVID crisis, that becomes even more important, because COVID creates a pre-existing condition for many, many people.”
Davis touts himself as a pragmatic House member who is willing to work with Democrats, especially now that he has been in the minority since January 2019. He often cites his No. 13 rank on the list of the most bipartisan members of Congress, maintained by the Lugar Center and McCourt School of Public Policy at Georgetown University. Those rankings are based on bill sponsorship and co-sponsorship.
Davis has won praise for helping to deliver funding for Bloomington-Normal projects, such as $13 million for the Uptown Normal underpass project and another $8 million for a planned Connect Transit transfer center downtown.
But Davis’ critics say he has too closely aligned himself with President Trump. That relationship got off to a rocky start, with Davis pulling his endorsement for Trump in 2016 after the infamous “Access Hollywood” tape became public.
But this year, Davis is an honorary co-chair of Trump’s re-election campaign in Illinois. (Notably absent from that list is U.S. Rep. Adam Kinzinger, a more frequent Trump critic than other House Republicans.) Davis voted in line with Trump’s position 96.9% of the time during Trump’s first two years in office, and that’s fallen to 84.9% since Davis was re-elected in 2018, according to voting data compiled by FiveThirtyEight.
Davis has defended that voting record, noting his support for the 2017 tax cuts.
Londrigan questioned Davis’ bipartisan record during a recent WGLT debate. In response, Davis said Londrigan should condemn the “vitriol” coming from Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, including recently calling Republicans “enemies of the state.”
“If you don’t believe that that type of rhetoric led a deranged gunman to want to take out his political grievances on me and my friends, then you’re more partisan than I thought, and that’s a pretty heavy lift,” said Davis, referring to a 2017 shooting at a congressional baseball practice.
Londrigan too is looking to win over the occasional Republican voter. Some of her policy positions set up that possibility.
Londrigan supports creating a more limited public option, not Medicare For All. She also does not support the Green New Deal, over concerns it doesn’t give central Illinois farmers “enough of a voice.”
“It’s a lane that’s not too dissimilar to what (Joe Biden) is doing … walking a very narrow line between the progressives of the party and those who are not,” said Bradley, the political scientist from ISU. “In this particular congressional district, walking that line is a fairly wise strategy because this district still is fairly conservative and has been dominated by Republicans for quite some time.”
She’s walking that line with a nice chunk of change. Londrigan has slightly outraised Davis this cycle ($4.7 million to his $4.5 million), but she’s also spending it faster than he is.
“Think about the last time a Democratic congressional candidate both outraised and outspent a Republican incumbent,” Bradley said. “I would say you’d have to go way, way back—to perhaps never happening before. That shows how much the Democratic Party and the Republican Party know this is a very important seat.”
The 13th District contains parts or all of 14 counties. In 2018, Londrigan won just three of those counties: the two big college towns (Champaign and McLean) and her home of Sangamon County. Davis won everything else, including Madison County near St. Louis and Macon County (including Decatur)—the two counties that feed the second- and third-most voters into the district behind Champaign.
It’s unclear how the pandemic might impact turnout in all those places, including in college towns where many students are learning remotely.
“I’ll be real interested to see what the turnout is among Illinois State University students,” Bradley said.
WCBU’s Tim Shelley contributed to this report.