U.S. Rep. Davis draws new Democratic challenger as he weighs political future

Politics

SPRINGFIELD, Ill. (NEXSTAR) — Democrats are lining up for a chance to challenge five-term incumbent Congressman Rodney Davis (R-Illinois 13th) before the new district map lines have come out.

On Tuesday, labor activist Nikki Budzinski entered the race. Her last two jobs were chief of staff in President Joe Biden’s Office of Management and Budget and senior adviser to Governor J.B. Pritzker. As the lead negotiator on the fight for a $15 minimum wage in Illinois, and at the head of a the federal office implementing the American Rescue Plan, she helped each of the Democrats navigate legislative hurdles to pass milestone economic measures early in their first term.

David Palmer, a Champaign financial analyst who played college basketball for Iowa, announced his primary bid earlier this summer, calling for green infrastructure, guaranteed universal pre-K, lower insulin costs, and expanded rural broadband.

Palmer cast Budzinski as a carpetbagger and questioned whether primary voters would embrace someone who just moved back to the district last month and registered to vote in Springfield two weeks ago.

“I didn’t know that Nikki lived in this district,” Palmer said in a phone call Tuesday afternoon. “I think people here want someone who lives in the district currently, but she’s done a lot for the district with labor and I have a lot of respect for her.”

The Davis campaign shot back at Budzinski, labeling her as “a lifelong Democrat political operative who is steeped in corrupt, Madigan-style politics.

“When she was a top staffer for Governor Pritzker, she helped Mike Madigan put his allies in patronage jobs throughout state government,” Davis spokesman Aaron DeGroot said. “Illinois voters have had enough of corrupt Madigan Machine politicians like Budzinski.”

Senator Dick Durbin (D-Illinois) and his longtime political aide Bill Houlihan are helping to pave the way for Budzinski early in the primary. The Davis campaign said Durbin’s preferred candidates are so far 0-5 against him, though each of those elections were under the old maps that have trended toward Republicans.

Betsy Dirksen Londrigan, who ran against Davis and lost in 2018 and 2020, cheered Budzinski’s entry into the primary race and said she would not be running again in 2022.

“I’m very happy to see Democrats stepping up to unseat Rodney Davis,” she said in a text message. “I loved my time on the campaign trail and the people I met along the way. I’m carrying their stories with me as I pursue a different path.”

The new district lines remain unclear as the Illinois General Assembly has yet to debate or pass a Congressional map with the updated U.S. Census data. Illinois will lose one of its 18 seats in Congress in the next election, and Democrats are widely expected to maximize their political advantages by dividing up voters to pack swing districts full of more Democratic voters.

Political analyst Dave Wasserman provides a hypothetical example of how Democrats might divide up new Congressional maps to maximize their political advantage in Congress for the next decade.

In her campaign launch video, Budzinski highlighted her local central Illinois roots growing up in Peoria, and challenged Davis on an area he considers one of his strong suits: his ties with trade unions and organized labor.

“I’m running for Congress because in Illinois, the middle class is slipping away and Rodney Davis isn’t doing enough to protect Illinois working families,” she said.

The latest AFL-CIO scorecard gives Davis a 57% rating for his voting record on labor issues, which is the sixth highest rating of any Republican in Congress and 26% higher than the average House Republican.

Last week, at an agricultural policy forum on the Illinois State Fairgrounds, Davis said he still has unfinished business on Capitol Hill, and would like to keep his job long enough to move up in the ranks behind U.S. Rep. Sam Graves (R-MO), the ranking Republican on a key transportation committee that handles road and infrastructure projects important to trade unions.

“After our term limits expire with me and with Chairman Graves, I would like to be chairman of Transportation and Infrastructure in Washington D.C.,” he said.

“The blue collar worker is coming into the Republican party in droves,” Davis said, “and we’ve got to recognize that as Republicans, and we’ve got to continue to push the policies of common sense.”

While Davis says his voting record is one of the most bipartisan on The Hill, he also demonstrates a clear desire to score political points in attacking Democratic leadership on optics. In April, Davis was quoted in a Politico newsletter for tangling with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s staff over whether or not she was following the security protocols she put in place after an angry mob stormed the U.S. Capitol to interrupt the certification of President Biden’s election victory on January 6th.

“I love fighting with my colleagues, Darin LaHood, and Mary Miller, and the rest of the Republicans in Washington to drive Speaker Pelosi absolutely nuts every day. Just a few months ago, her spokesman called me the most desperate man in Washington,” he said, referencing the security spat. “I like that, especially coming from them. That means we’re living rent free in Speaker Pelosi’s head, and that means we’re doing something right.”

Davis has spent his political career almost exclusively in Congress, first as a staffer, then as a campaign worker, and then as U.S. Representative. But he has sharpened his attacks on Governor Pritzker in recent months, raising speculation that he could still enter the Republican primary to run statewide.

“It’s been pretty clear to me over the last few months that there are a lot of people who want me to remain in public service,” he said last week. “So we’ll make that decision once those maps come out.”

The fifth-term incumbent is still holding out hope that Springfield legislators or the courts can pry the map-drawing pen out of the Democrats’ hands and give Republicans a chance to draw lines through a bipartisan commission, which the constitution calls for if the General Assembly can’t agree to a map before a June 30th deadline.

The House and Senate are scheduled to return to Springfield next Tuesday to update the maps they approved in May with new census data.

“They’re going to have to go back to the drawing board,” Davis said. “And I certainly hope that we get to a commission that should be in place because this map is in question post-June 30.”

Budzinski is scheduled to appear on Capitol Connection for the first television interview of her campaign this Sunday at 10:30 a.m.

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