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Kinzinger Hopes a Fresh Face Trumps Halvorson’s Union Base

NEW LENOX, Ill. — Republicans throughout Illinois and in Washington, D.C., introduce House candidate Adam Kinzinger as one of their top recruits. But the boyish 32-year-old has some introducing to do himself in order to unseat Democratic Rep. Debbie Halvorson in this swing district.

“Who is that?” one woman asked at the Harry E. Anderson VFW Post 9545 last week.

“I don’t know him,” another said.

“Yeah, I’ve heard of him. He’s the guy with the American flag signs,” a younger man, taking tickets for a Friday night fish fry, finally responded.

The National Republican Congressional Committee tapped Kinzinger, whose political résumé includes a five-year stint on the McLean County Board as one of their “Young Guns,” and last week he won the endorsement of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. He has raised more than $1 million, and according to a Public Opinion Strategies poll conducted earlier this month for his campaign, Kinzinger leads his Democratic opponent 51 percent to 40 percent.

“The feeling on the ground is incredible,” Kinzinger said in an interview at the VFW hall as New Lenox residents ordered platters of fried fish and sipped complimentary cups of coffee. “Everyone that runs for office is going to tell you that, but the feeling is incredible. People are ready to take their country back.”

But for all his good deeds and a ripe political climate in Illinois, Kinzinger has some marks against him.

Some Republicans privately groan that his campaign isn’t well organized, and with just $480,046 on hand, he is not likely go up with network television ads that could make all the difference between a decisive win and a close race. But they also maintain that Kinzinger’s biography as an Iraq War veteran and Air Force pilot, coupled with his youthful energy and business-friendly politics, makes him a solid match for the 11th district and a formidable opponent against the 52-year-old Halvorson.

The 11.5 percent unemployment in this blue-collar district and its previously Republican leanings make it prime for a GOP pickup.

Halvorson, known as a fierce campaigner who easily won in 2008 against a marginal Republican candidate, was an Illinois state Senator for 12 years and the Crete Township clerk before that. That makes it easier for the GOP to portray the race as a matchup between a longtime politician and a fresh-faced upstart.

“It’s going to be a tough race, people are so anti-incumbent,” said Ron Zier, president of the Will and Grundy Counties Building Trades and a member of the ironworkers union. “I think it’s going to be a tough campaign down to the end, but Debbie deserves to win.”

Halvorson has collected close to $2 million and has $1.4 million on hand. She is a darling of organized labor, a major plus in this working class district, and as a former state Senator has a high name recognition and loyal base of voters.

“I’ve seen Debbie interact with people, and it’s almost always positive,” said John Willard, a 62-year-old ironworker from Bonfield and the chairman of the Kankakee Democratic Party. “Her opponent has been out there banging the drum and she has to work hard, there’s no doubt about that.”

The 11th district was formerly held by Republican Rep. Jerry Weller and backed President George W. Bush in 2004. It flipped in 2008 in favor of President Barack Obama, who won the district with 53 percent of the vote. While the Joliet area is union-heavy and has more Democratic voters, the southern portion of the district, which reaches down to central Illinois, is more conservative.

Kinzinger hails from that central Illinois territory and headquartered his campaign in New Lenox to focus on the more populated suburban region. He is seeking to rally GOP leaners by blasting Halvorson on her voting record, which the chamber maintains is a vast departure from supporting business. They take aim at her support for health care reform, sweeping climate change legislation and the financial regulatory overhaul bill that passed in the House last year.

“If the people of the 11th district want a candidate who supports a government takeover of health care reform, the Chamber is going to make sure that voters know Debbie Halvorson is their candidate,” chamber spokesman J.P. Fielder said.

But Halvorson backers assert that Kinzinger’s pro-trade stance will not win over swing voters and will improve turnout among union members. As one Democrat suggested, “the chamber endorsement in this union district legitimizes Kinzinger as a real-deal Republican.”

Halvorson maintains that she knows the district best and that she’s been primed for a tough race since she was first elected in 2008.

“I’ve never changed, I’ve never stopped working with everybody and people see that,” Halvorson said during a visit to the local ironworkers union in Joliet last week. “They never say, ‘I only see you when it’s election time.'”

During her visit to Joliet, union members were thrilled to put on a show for their Congresswoman. Union members chewed on Italian beef sandwiches and baked goods under a white tent while Halvorson toured classrooms inside. They heaped praise on Halvorson for helping secure stimulus money to bolster green jobs training. The ironworkers, they pointed out, are leaders in the Midwest for wind farm construction.

“We all extend our hand politically. When she came to Washington, she never forgot where she came from,” said Eric Dean, a district council president with the ironworkers. “You can’t have a better advocate who understands labor and business.”

This was an official visit, not a campaign stop. But Halvorson, who waved and hugged and called the union workers “my friends,” gave more than a subtle mention to the election she is relying on union members to help her win.

“We have a choice coming up between fair trade policies keeping jobs in America or unfair trade policies,” she said to applause. “I want you all to know I’m the one on your side.”

And while she is more seasoned than her Republican opponent, Halvorson has not been without her own drama this year. Last week she fired campaign manager Travis Worl, who earlier this summer sparked controversy by pushing a claim that Kinzinger lied about his military record. Halvorson hired Julie Merz, a staffer for Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Chris Van Hollen (Md.), to be her top aide and was promptly hit by the Kinzinger camp for “reconfirming her ties to Speaker Nancy Pelosi” (D-Calif.) with the hire.

Asked if she was concerned about the shakeup and the outcome for November, Halvorson went on offense.

“Absolutely not. If I was worried about that I’d be worried about a hundred other things, she said. “And I’m a tough cookie. If I want to do something, I’m going to do something and I’m not going to worry about what people are going to think about me when it comes to making major decisions.”

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