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Trump backs Mary Miller over Rodney Davis

Second Amendment


ELDRED, Ill. — It was a Friday fish fry night at American Legion Post 1135 and about three dozen people had gathered at the invitation of local Republicans to talk politics and candidates over cold beer, fried buffalo fish and baked beans.

The Legion hall was situated in the tiny town of Eldred, located in the ruby-red part of southwestern Illinois about 50 miles from St. Louis. A framed American flag adorned one wall of the hall, while a Confederate flag was encased in a sideboard, beneath a poster for its Queen of Hearts lottery drawing.

“You come down here and you see the rebel flags and good ol’ boys sitting up at the bar drinking and they’re all rednecks and they’re all conservative,” said Greene County Board Chairman Mark Strang. “It’s just, we’re a very conservative part of the state.”

It is the calibration of conservatism versus practicality — and the depth of devotion to former President Donald Trump — that will be measured in Illinois’ lone matchup of Republican incumbents in Congress on June 28. The battle features five-term Rep. Rodney Davis of Taylorville taking on freshman Rep. Mary Miller of Oakland in the newly drawn 15th Congressional District.

The winner of the primary contest is virtually assured of reelection in November in a district that leans more than 67% Republican as it stretches through 35 counties from Collinsville in the Metro-East region near St. Louis, northeast to just outside Champaign, then southwestward to Alton before hugging the Mississippi River bluffs north to the outskirts of the Quad Cities.

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The head-to-head contest is an offshoot of new congressional boundaries drawn by state lawmakers in Springfield following the federal census and Illinois’ loss of one of its current 18 U.S. House seats. Miller’s home was narrowly drawn into a district with another Republican, U.S. Rep. Mike Bost of Murphysboro, but she opted instead to challenge Davis. Members of Congress do not have to live in the district they represent.

“I’ve got to be a realist. Rodney has a tough district,” said Strang, adding that the county traditionally was a staunch backer of Davis, 52, when it was part of the 13th Congressional District.

“Rodney isn’t as conservative as I would like for him to be,” he said. “I would like to see him be more of a Trump supporter and things like that and he can’t take my thoughts and go run in Champaign County because they don’t think like we do over here.”

Trump and his continued influence among Republicans hangs heavy in the district, with Miller winning the former president’s endorsement while Davis touts how he supported administration initiatives during Trump’s term in the White House.

Trump will travel to the Adams County Fairgrounds outside Quincy on June 25 for an evening “Save America” rally to tout his support for Miller. He previously held a Mar-a-Lago resort fundraiser on her behalf in April.

Miller, 62, is a devotee of the GOP’s far-right extremes, a factor in winning Trump’s endorsement. She is a member of the House Freedom Caucus, which was established out of the Tea Party movement and evolved to push Republicans further to the right. Mark Meadows, a former Trump chief of staff, was an early chairman of the caucus.

Miller was born and raised in suburban Naperville and is married to state Rep. Chris Miller. In the legislature, Chris Miller is part of the ultraconservative, informal Eastern Bloc of Republicans who have advocated an evangelical populist agenda that includes Chicago’s separation from the rest of the state along with opposition to taxes, abortion and pandemic mitigations.

In 2020, Mary Miller overwhelmingly won a four-way GOP primary with more than 57% of the vote and took nearly 74% of the vote in the general election to succeed Republican U.S. Rep. John Shimkus, who retired in 2021 after serving 24 years in Congress.

But only days into office, Miller faced calls for her resignation after delivering a speech to the conservative group Moms for America in which she said “Hitler was right on one thing” in reference to winning “the hearts and minds of our children” to determine the future.

She subsequently offered an apology but at the same time accused critics of “trying to intentionally twist my words to mean something antithetical to my beliefs.”

Miller has been a close ally of controversial conspiracy-spinning Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia, who, among other things, has sought to perpetuate Trump’s baseless claims that the 2020 presidential election was stolen from him. Miller and Bost were the only two Illinois Republicans to vote to object to the certification of Electoral College votes on Jan. 6.

Greene, who was stripped of her committee assignments by the House over her bigoted rhetoric, was the keynote speaker at a Miller fundraiser in Effingham in July of last year, where she said she and Miller “aren’t the popular girls in Washington” and are “not considered nice girls in the swamp.”

In her early spring campaign appearances, Miller would tell audiences, “A politician is known by their votes and who they hang around with.”

Miller, Greene and 19 other Republicans voted against legislation awarding the Congressional Gold Medal to law enforcement officers who defended the Capitol during the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection aimed at blocking the Electoral College vote certifying Joe Biden as president.

But Greene isn’t Miller’s only controversial associate.

Miller is a Sunday school and vacation Bible school teacher who often touts her support for child protection issues. But in May, St. Louis TV station KSDK reported that a Miller campaign volunteer who helped obtain her candidacy petition signatures and drove her around for campaign events was convicted in 2004 for soliciting a child for sex while using the internet.

Miller has not answered repeated questions about the campaign volunteer — or most matters involving her candidacy or voting history. The campaign does not advertise her events and in cases where reporters learn of them, staffers rebuff attempts to ask her questions by hustling her to an awaiting vehicle. Her campaign did not respond to Tribune requests for an interview.

She also has declined public forums or debates with Davis.

Instead, she campaigns largely as the Trump-endorsed candidate and uses TV ads to attack Davis as “RINO Rodney” — using the acronym for “Republican in Name Only.”

One of her latest ads criticizes Davis for supporting the concept of a “red flag law” that allows for the removal of guns from people who pose a risk to themselves or others. Davis voiced support for the idea after Trump, as president, embraced it following mass shootings at a Walmart in El Paso, Texas, and a bar in Dayton, Ohio, in August 2019.

“RINO Rodney Davis claims to be a conservative, but he votes like a liberal. Rodney Davis sided with Joe Biden, voting for red flag gun confiscation that allows the government to seize your guns,” a narrator says in the Miller ad. “That’s why President Trump endorsed Mary Miller for Congress. Mary is A-rated by the NRA (National Rifle Association).”

The ad has prompted a complaint to the House Ethics Committee for using House floor footage for political purposes, in violation of congressional rules, in showing Davis with former President Barack Obama following a State of the Union address. Responding to the complaint, Miller accused Davis of trying to “beg one of (Democratic House Speaker) Nancy Pelosi’s House committees” to block conservatives from seeing the footage.

With Congress’ attention focused on a response to recent mass shootings that killed 19 children and two teachers in Uvalde, Texas, and 10 people in a Buffalo, New York, supermarket, Miller earlier this month said she opposed new gun laws.

“We cannot let those who are trying to destroy our society’s central pillars of faith, family and freedom succeed,” she said at a Washington news conference as a member of the House Second Amendment Caucus.

“Young men need fathers at home. So do our daughters. Our country must be guided by our Judeo-Christian faith,” she said. “The Second Amendment Caucus will continue to fight to defend our Second Amendment rights and we will continue to speak out about what really ails our country. We need to go back to God.”

Davis, who has a permit to carry a concealed firearm, is an NRA member who was graded A-minus by the rifle association. On June 14, 2017, Davis was batting during a congressional baseball practice for Republicans when James Hodgkinson of Belleville opened fire at the Alexandria, Virginia, ballpark. Hodgkinson shot and wounded House Majority Whip Steve Scalise of Louisiana and two others. Davis was not wounded.

“As a victim of gun violence, I know how important firearm ownership and the Second Amendment are for self-defense,” Davis said in voting against a Democratic gun regulation bill earlier this month. “Taking guns away from law-abiding citizens will not stop gun violence from happening. It only hinders those citizens’ ability to protect themselves.”

“We need to support law enforcement, enforce our laws on the books, get tough on criminals who commit violent crimes, give our schools the resources they need to harden and protect their facilities, and rethink how the federal government administers mental health programs,” he said.

Davis grew up in Taylorville and graduated from Millikin University in Decatur in 1992 and was a staff assistant to then-Secretary of State George Ryan. In 1996, he lost a bid for the state legislature before joining Shimkus’ staff. He first worked for the congressman’s 1998 reelection and then was a projects director until 2012 when he ran for Congress.

Local county GOP chairmen nominated Davis to serve as the nominee to replace GOP U.S. Rep. Tim Johnson after he announced he would step down after winning renomination.

Davis won his first election by 1,002 votes and became a target of Democrats in subsequent elections, winning his 2018 bid by 2,058 votes against Democrat Betsy Dirksen Londrigan and by nearly 30,000 votes in a rematch in 2020.

“I’ve had primaries that I’ve run in, in my current district, where I’ve been called ‘not conservative enough,’” Davis said during a recent tour of the Growmark grain elevator facility outside Champaign. “And you look back at the campaigns where Nancy Pelosi and the Democrats have spent (millions) against me, telling constituents that I’m an evil Republican, that I’m too conservative. I’m just me. I’m going to stand by my record.”

Davis’ reelection has been backed by Shimkus, Bost and neighboring Republican U.S. Rep. Darin LaHood of Peoria, 17 current and former GOP state legislators in the district, as well as 31 of the district’s 35 GOP county chairmen.

On the campaign stump, Davis portrays himself as a doer in seeking to advance conservative Republican policies and notes that his seniority would make him the next chairman of the House Administration committee if the GOP retakes the House. He paints Miller as a carpetbagger for running in a district where she does not live and operating a “basement campaign” where she does not face voters or reporters.

“I want to go out and learn about areas of my district, companies like this that are in my district that are really serving my constituents. I want to know why multimillion-dollar investments are made in facilities like this,” he told reporters after visiting Growmark. “Part of that, though, is actually answering questions and showing this facility off to the rest of my district, to the constituents that view your programs, read your papers, that listen to your radio shows.”

Davis points to his work as a senior GOP member of the House Agriculture Committee in writing and negotiating two farm bills while Miller, whose family farm business has received more than $1 million in federal subsidies, has as her largest contributor the Club for Growth, which opposes federal farm subsidies. Davis has been endorsed by the Illinois Farm Bureau’s political arm.

Davis also criticizes Miller for being the lone Illinois delegation member to vote against a $40 billion aid package to Ukraine and for not speaking out against Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion and war. Miller has argued federal resources should be used for domestic issues, including tightening the nation’s borders.

“We’re diminishing the value of our dollar, number one, and we’re not taking care of the immediate needs, the things that Americans care about, like funding our EMT or our police or our schools,” she told paramedics at a recent visit to a Menard County emergency services facility in Petersburg.

Miller also twice voted against the National Defense Authorization Act, the legislation that funds the military as well as border security operations. While professing her support for the military, she said her vote was in part due to Biden’s “disastrous” withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan and for various COVID-19 vaccine provisions for the military that were incorporated within it.

Miller also attacked House Democrats for failing to advance for a vote a Senate-passed plan to increase security for Supreme Court justices. But when Democrats put it up for a vote and it overwhelmingly passed on Tuesday, Miller missed the vote while she was campaigning back in her district.

But the Trump factor is never far away. Lacking the former president’s endorsement, Davis notes in 2020, he was one of four co-chairs of Trump’s presidential reelection bid and was among the group of Republicans who helped write Trump’s tax cuts in 2017, which Davis wants to make permanent.

“Look, I’m proud of my record working with President Trump and his administration. Many of the policies that backed our law enforcement officers during the Trump presidency were policies that we worked with the administration on,” Davis said recently as he received the endorsement of the Illinois Fraternal Order of Police in Springfield.

The senior GOP member of the House Committee on Administration, which has oversight of Capitol security, Davis was one of 35 Republicans to back a bipartisan independent 9/11-style commission to investigate the Jan. 6 insurrection at the Capitol, but that plan was rejected by the Senate. The House approved its own select committee and Davis was named to it by House Republican leader Kevin McCarthy. But McCarthy yanked his five picks after Pelosi rejected two of them and Davis labeled Pelosi’s panel a “sham.”

Miller also has assailed the House committee looking into the insurrection, calling it “the sham” Jan. 6 “witch hunt” against Trump. She has criticized Davis’ support for the 9/11-style independent commission, saying “President Trump’s supporters remember his betrayal and will not be fooled.”

Back at the American Legion fish fry, the Republican chairman of the Greene County Board pondered aloud how he believed the contest was shaping up.

“I think she’s probably more conservative, but I think it’s going to be a tough sell around some of those bigger towns,” Strang said of Miller’s chances and strategy. “I think she needs to get her message out more to the people.”

rap30@aol.com

jgorner@chicagotribune.com



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