Considered one of the country’s most hotly contested House of Representatives races, Illinois’ 17th district is gridlocked as incumbent Bobby Schilling and Democratic challenger Cheri Bustos attempt to gain an edge over the other in a traditionally Democratic district that went red in 2010.
Nonpartisan polling groups show that the race is dead even. Congressional Quarterly has declared the contest a “toss-up,” while polls have Bustos winning the election by as little as two-tenths of a percentage point.
“She [Bustos] came to campus last year, and it was interesting to see how fired up she was then vs. now,” president of the Knox Democrats senior Gretta Reed said. “I haven’t felt her presence as much in Galesburg. I’ve definitely seen more Schilling lawn signs.”
Both campaigns have received national attention: national Democratic organization EMILY’s List has donated over $100,000 to Bustos, and Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-OH) has selected Schilling as one of 13 Republicans to participate in his Wire-to-Wire initiative, which focuses on fundraising through digital platforms. Many Republicans consider the IL-17 race one of several contests in Illinois crucial to retaining control of the House of Representatives.
Neither candidate brings significant political experience to the table. Prior to his election to the House in 2010, Schilling worked in financial services and owned a pizzeria in Moline, Ill. Bustos previously served as an alderwoman in East Moline and has worked in journalism and the health care industry.
Bustos faces the additional challenge of being comparatively unknown to voters. According to the conservative polling group Public Opinion Strategies, 84 percent of IL-17 residents recognized Schilling’s name in early August. Only 49 percent recognized Bustos.
“We need to get out and get our message out there,” Bustos spokesman Arden Manning said. “Crossing this district takes four hours from one corner to the other, so she [Bustos] spends a lot of time doing that.”
On Monday morning, Bustos held a press call focusing on offshoring and the Maytag plant that moved from Galesburg to Mexico in 2004. She was also in town on Monday, Sept. 10 to meet with seniors.
Schilling, who has an office in Galesburg, was in town on Sept. 4 to discuss his pro-life status on abortion. He will also be making an appearance on the Knox campus soon, according to president of the Knox Conservatives junior Alex Uzarowicz.
Galesburg has traditionally leaned Democrat in both local and national races. In 2010, the city voted solidly for Democratic incumbent Phil Hare, whom Schilling unseated. It was the first time since 1983 that a Republican won the seat.
Since his election, Schilling has pushed hard for fiscal responsibility measures. He was among the group of Republicans who opposed raising the debt ceiling in the summer of 2011 and also sponsored a bill that would have prohibited Congress from adjourning for more than three days if it did not pass a continuing resolution funding measure to keep the government running.
Bustos has also spoken out strongly in favor of better management of the country’s spending, although her suggestions for how to do so have focused on ending the Bush tax cuts rather than the spending cuts that would have been necessary to keep the debt ceiling at its previous level. She has also placed heavy emphasis on jobs — an emphasis that, she feels, zeroes in on middle class wants and needs.
“Our campaign has been focused on job creation from day one,” Manning said. “Everywhere, she [Bustos] hears the same thing: people are concerned about jobs.”
Critiques about policy have come down on both sides. Predictably, Galesburg Democrats have taken issue with Schilling’s stance on the Affordable Health Care Act (he supports repealing it) and social issues. However, some Democrats also have criticism for Bustos.
“She doesn’t have much knowledge about politics,” Knox Democrats treasurer junior Josh Fishman said. “When we met with her last year, she had to keep asking her campaign manager what her answers should be.”
Both candidates’ knowledge will be tested again in two televised debates this fall. The first will occur on Thursday, Oct. 11 on WQAD-TV in the Quad Cities with the second occurring on Thursday, Oct. 25 on WTVP-TV in Peoria.