Politics & Policy

The Establishment and the Tea Party Face Off in Illinois

Darin LaHood and Mike Flynn
In a special-election primary this summer, a candidate representing each faction will vie for the House seat vacated by Aaron Schock.

This year’s first big confrontation between the GOP establishment and the party’s restless grassroots will be held this summer in an Illinois special-election primary. The smart money is betting on the establishment’s choice, but dissatisfaction with attempts to force-feed that choice on voters, together with the performance of the new GOP Congress in fighting President Obama, could give an insurgent a real shot.

Former Republican House member Aaron Schock of Illinois resigned last month under a cascade of controversy about questionable expenses for which he had been reimbursed by his campaign or taxpayers. Even before the announcement was official, Illinois power brokers were moving to anoint state senator Darin LaHood as his successor in a special election. 

Schock’s Peoria-based district is a Republican stronghold, the product of a Democratic gerrymander so extreme that Mitt Romney carried it by 24 points in 2012. That effectively means the winner will be decided in the July 7 GOP primary. 

LaHood is about as establishment a choice as one could imagine. He is the son of Representative Ray LaHood, the very moderate Republican who represented about half of the current district in Congress until 2009. He then left office to become President Obama’s Transportation Secretary, where he promoted pork-barrel spending and dubious high-speed-rail projects. His son’s supporters say his politics are distinct from those of his father, but clearly the LaHood name will be a mixed blessing in a primary. On the one hand, it brings strong name identification for Darin LaHood. But on the other, it leaves many of the district’s conservatives looking for a fresh, non–status quo alternative.

Mike Flynn plans to be that alternative. A 47-year-old political activist, he played a major role in exposing the scandals that brought down the leftist group ACORN and went on to edit the Big Government website founded by the late Andrew Breitbart. The site has been a go-to source of stories exposing the politically correct obsessions of liberals and the non-confrontational habits of Republican leaders. 

Flynn is currently circulating petitions to enter the race, and he is getting an earful from voters who are tired of professional politicians.

“People don’t think politics should be a family business, handing over seats like an inheritance,” he told me. “Darin LaHood lost a state’s attorney race, was appointed to a safe state senate seat, and has been just waiting to run for Congress. Conservatives can do better and send someone who has already proven they want to challenge Washington’s ways.”

The oddsmakers certainly are still in LaHood’s corner. While the establishment’s choice can be criticized as undistinguished, Flynn hasn’t lived in the district for 20 years and has to build his political network over the next three and a half months. LaHood will also have access to the extensive fundraising network that helped Republican governor Bruce Rauner in his race last year. On the other hand, a summer primary is likely to be a low-turnout affair of the kind in which party activists often dominate (see Eric Cantor’s stunning loss last year in Virginia). In addition, LaHood’s state-senate district covers only a little over 40 percent of the congressional district, meaning that he will have to introduce himself to a lot of new voters. 

The GOP special-election primary in Illinois may take place smack in the middle of fierce public-policy debates. It’s possible that, just a few days before voters go to the polls, the Supreme Court will have declared Obamacare’s exchange subsidies unconstitutional in 36 states. A federal circuit court may have declared Obama’s executive actions on immigration similarly illegal. And, of course, Republicans on Capitol Hill could be in the middle of debating a smoke-and-mirrors budget that doesn’t balance even a decade from now but is nonetheless backed by congressional leadership. 

It’s a safe bet that Mike Flynn will be drawing a sharp contrast between his approach and that of business-as-usual Republicans in Washington. We’ll have a real test on July 7 in Illinois as to which approach Republican primary voters are attracted to. 

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