This is the first installment of “Blue Wave Survivors,” a series analyzing whether House Republicans who survived the 2018 blue wave that swept Democrats into control can win against the same opponents in 2020.
Brian Gaines, a political science professor at the University of Illinois, made a prediction just after the 2018 elections: If the local congressman, Rep. Rodney Davis, could survive that year’s Democratic wave, then the Republican would be safe through 2020.
Now Gaines has lost confidence in his prognosis.
“I still think that’s true, but I’m a little more inclined to think he could lose this election,” said Gaines, a professor at the Institute of Government and Public Affairs at the university, who recently ventured out of Urbana-Champaign and into the district’s more rural parts.
“I was surprised how few Trump signs I saw,” he said.
President Donald Trump carried the 13th District — a largely agricultural enclave that stretches from the state capital of Springfield to the Mississippi River and down toward the suburbs of St. Louis, Missouri — by 5 points in 2016, but the area may have soured on him. Davis, an honorary chairman of the president’s reelection effort, faces the same Democratic challenger, Betsy Dirksen Londrigan, as he did in 2018. Most polls show a race within the margin of error with a recent Democratic survey giving the challenger a 5-point lead.
Dirksen Londrigan lost by a little more than 2,000 votes two years ago. And like other Democrats, she has carried her 2018 message of expanding health care coverage and protecting insurance for people with preexisting conditions into the current cycle.
The presidential race also looms over the congressional rematch.
“The people who like the president, obviously, that helps me,” Davis said. “People who don’t like the president, they came out in droves in 2018 by voting against me.”
This year, though, Davis notes that if his constituents are unhappy with the president, they can vote against Trump himself.
“Last time, we were the only way somebody could voice displeasure with the president,” he said. “Now, they’ve got an opportunity to, if they don’t like him, they can also balance out their votes.”
Dirksen Londrigan says the COVID-19 pandemic has given her health care message more urgency than two years ago. “Going into this race in 2020, health care was still the overarching issue, and if anybody had a question about that, COVID has answered it,” she said.
She got into the 2018 race after watching Davis join Trump and other Republicans cheer a May 4, 2017, House vote to repeal the 2010 health care law.
“Rodney is one of the guys who celebrated on the White House lawn,” she recalled. “I will never forget it. … I thought, ‘Oh, my God, either these people don’t know or they don’t care, what this is going to do to families.’”
Dirksen Londrigan says her motivation is personal and stems from a frightening episode when her then 12-year-old son spent nearly a month in the hospital with Rocky Mountain spotted fever, a life-threatening tick-borne illness. He required surgery, a ventilator and received his last rites — twice.
“It was terrifying,” Dirksen Londrigan said. He is now healthy at age 24.
“If we had not had access to that care, we would have lost our son,” she said. “If we had not had good insurance, it would have bankrupted us.”
Davis says that he supports protecting coverage for people with preexisting conditions, and adds that it’s personal for him, too, as his wife survived colon cancer.
Gaining from experience
Dirksen Londrigan says she gained something during her experience running in 2018 — about organizing volunteers and raising money, in particular.
For the 2020 campaign, Dirksen Londrigan took a pledge to reject donations from the PACs of businesses and corporations. It’s a largely symbolic move for a challenger — most corporate PACs donate to incumbents anyway — but it signals support for overhauling other campaign finance issues and can help gin up support from small-dollar donors, which have fueled the coffers of so many Democratic challengers this cycle.
Dirksen Londrigan’s campaign has criticized Davis for his own donations from the PACs of pharmaceutical and insurance companies.
As of midyear, both campaigns had raised about $3 million. Dirksen Londrigan had $2.2 million in cash on hand to Davis’ $1.9 million. Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales rates the race Tilt Republican.
“There’s a lot of people who saw how close we came, including the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee,” she said. In the last cycle, the DCCC disclosed spending more than $750,000 in the race, while it’s already spent more than $1.1 million this cycle.
She put a lot into organizing turnout on college campuses, an effort whose benefits are uncertain amid the pandemic.
Students are on campus at the University of Illinois, but it’s not a normal school year, as Gaines can attest. He said that while many students are on campus, it’s not the full contingent. He predicts a possible “slight slump” in the student vote, but he notes that some could vote absentee even if they didn’t return to campus.
For Davis, he says he’s running on his record.
“You always run the same type of campaign because it’s based on your record if you’re an incumbent,” he said. “At this point, I think there’s so much excitement on both sides, we will have record turnout.”
Coming next: The rematch in New York’s 24th District between Republican John Katko and Democratic challenger Dana Balter.