You’d assume she’d be a shoo-in for The Hill’s “50 Most Beautiful People” list. Erika Harold, a.k.a. Miss America 2003, is vying with incumbent Rodney Davis in the Republican primary for the chance to represent Illinois’s 13th congressional district. And while the move has left some Republican observers baffled, Harold holds that she’s best equipped to win the general election.
Harold, who will be the first female African-American Republican in Congress if she wins, grew up in the district and tells me she entered the Miss America pageant to help pay her tuition at Harvard Law School. She tells me she wasn’t part of the kind of kiddie pageants popularized by TLC shows. She doesn’t watch Here Comes Honey Boo Boo, and she says she watches Toddlers and Tiaras “with great fascination and sometimes horror.”
Harold, an attorney, says that she’s always been interested in politics and that as a young girl she watched both parties’ presidential conventions.
“I found them to be inspirational,” she says, “the idea that individuals within our democratic process could run for political office to try to make a difference, and that, regardless of their background, if they were able to convince the members of their party that they could best represent their ideas, then they had the opportunity to do so.”
Her family wasn’t particularly political, she says, and she became a conservative in college by reading the Constitution, The Federalist, and other founding documents.
“Being able to appreciate the genius of those documents, and the importance of preserving the constitutional liberties enshrined within the Constitution and the restraints on government that are recognized within the Constitution — that made me more of a conservative,” she says.
After college, she served as the youth coordinator for a Republican gubernatorial candidate in Illinois and was on the national steering committee of George W. Bush’s W Stands for Women committee during his 2004 reelection bid. And she spoke about faith-based and community initiatives at an evening session of the Republican convention that year. She says she’s always been interested in running for higher office, and this seat seemed like the right time and place.
Harold’s main criticism of Davis is that she thinks his shot at winning the general is less than hers. It’s not their first face-off; in 2012, then-incumbent Tim Johnson won the primary but afterward announced that he would retire. Under those unusual circumstances, state law dictated that the Republican-party chairmen for the 14 counties in the district vote to choose a new nominee. Harold sought the spot but ended up losing out to Davis. She tells me she hears it was by only one vote, and now she’s gearing up for a rematch.
She says she’s not sure how her political philosophy differs from Davis’s. When asked what stances he holds that she disagrees with, she tells me that he supports the Internet sales tax, which she opposes. She added that in a few cases she would have cast her vote differently from the way he did but that this isn’t the reason she chose to challenge him.
I spoke with a handful of Republican insiders in the district (they preferred to go unnamed), and they tell me that many Illinois political insiders are baffled by Harold’s decision to challenge Davis. The concern is that Harold doesn’t have a shot at winning the primary and that both candidates could emerge bruised. And while none of the people I spoke with questioned Harold’s ability to be an effective member of Congress — some had been hoping she’d run for lieutenant governor — they felt her entry into the race reflected poor judgment.
However, not all the district Republicans are against Harold. One source told me that at the Champaign County Fair, the Republican booth had signs for Harold, and no literature for Davis. He described her as “kind of a folk hero” in Urbana but struggling to gain name recognition elsewhere.
One consultant who spoke on the record, Travis Akin, said that while many were “puzzled” by her choice, it could work out well for her in the end regardless of the race’s outcome, since she’ll gain more prominence and name recognition.
Thus far, her fundraising numbers have been underwhelming, according to Roll Call. Abby Livingston writes that Harold “should have been prepared for a stronger showing against Davis, a prolific fundraiser, to show her force in this potentially competitive primary. Davis raised $455,000 for the quarter and reported $702,000.”
A We Ask America poll from June has gloomy numbers for Harold: Of 1,178 likely GOP voters, only 16.38 percent said they’d vote for her if the primary were held that day. And though three times as many respondents had never heard of her, 6.98 percent say they disapprove of her, while 6.16 percent disapprove of Davis. That’s despite the headline-grabbing resignation of Montgomery County Republican chairman Jim Allen, who made racially charged comments about Harold that put her in the national news cycle.
It remains to be seen whether Harold can translate her pageant victory into an electoral one. But if she’s going to swing it, she has some work to do.
— Betsy Woodruff is a William F. Buckley Fellow at the National Review Institute.