The new 15th Congressional District borders three states, encompasses one-third of Illinois' counties, is overwhelmingly Republican and is the new battleground between two GOP incumbents: Rodney Davis and Mary Miller.
"Conventional wisdom says this is Rodney Davis' race to lose, but I'm not so sure. I wouldn't write Mary Miller off. She has the endorsement of Donald Trump," said Mike Lawrence, former director of the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute and a longtime observer of Illinois politics.
Lawrence, a usually diplomatic former senior adviser to Gov. Jim Edgar, added that he does not consider Miller to be a "nice person." He said he bases this assessment on her incendiary public statements.
On Jan. 5, 2021, two days into her House term, Miller gave a prepared speech to the group Moms for America. She said, "Each generation has the responsibility to teach and train the next generation. You know, if we win a few elections, we're still going to be losing unless we win the hearts and minds of our children. This is the battle. Hitler was right on one thing: He said, 'Whoever has the youth has the future.'"
She later apologized for quoting the Nazi leader and murderer of millions. The remark was condemned by Jewish and civil rights groups.
Illinois Democrats who controlled the redistricting process placed Davis in the horseshoe-shaped 15th District that stretches across wide swaths of south-central Illinois – all or part of 35 of Illinois' 102 counties. They drew Miller's Coles County residence into a district in southern Illinois where Congressman Mike Bost, R-Murphysboro, also lives.
The U.S. Constitution only requires members of Congress to be residents of the state, not necessarily the district they represent.
Taylorville resident Davis is in his 10th year in Congress. Miller, who lives near Oakland, is finishing her first term in the U.S. House. Both identify as "conservative." But Davis fits far more into the mainstream of the party, said his campaign manager, Matt Butcher of Rochester. Recent polling shows voters breaking more toward Davis' style of conservatism, he said.
"The question has been: 'Are you part of the Republican Party because of Donald Trump or because of Republican principles?' And the Republican principles number has been increasing over the past six months," Butcher said.
Miller is a member of the hard-right House Freedom Caucus along with others including Marjorie Taylor Greene, a Georgian known for comparing COVID mask mandates to steps the Nazis took to control the Jewish population during the Holocaust. Greene is said to have lobbied Trump to endorse Miller.
U.S. Rep. Cheri Bustos, D-Moline, is a Springfield native and had this to say of Miller: "She's a Marjorie Taylor Greene aficionado. She spoke favorably of Hitler within days of being sworn in. That's not in sync with the kind of people we are in Illinois."
Representatives of Miller's campaign did not immediately respond to interview requests from Illinois Times. But Travis Akin, a GOP political consultant based out of Marion and a Miller supporter, came to her defense.
"Where the Republican Party right now is, where the energy is, where the momentum is, is with people who are on the conservative side. Mary speaks to those voters in a way Rodney just can't. It's more than just Donald Trump. People are tired of the Washington establishment attitude that conservatives just have got to be tolerated. They want somebody who's going to not only understand where they're coming from, but take action on it and vote the right way. ... When you go out and embrace people like (U.S. Rep. Liz) Lynne Cheney, you're sticking it to the base of the party.
Cheney, a conservative Republican from Wyoming, voted to impeach Trump. Afterwards, in a vote seen by many as a litmus test to members' fidelity to the former president, fellow Republican House members removed her from leadership.
Davis refused to participate in the vote and issued this statement afterwards, "Liz is a good friend, and I thought she did a good job as conference chair. I'd like to thank her for her leadership."
Davis voted in the House to sustain President Joe Biden's Electoral College wins in Pennsylvania and Arizona. Miller voted to overturn Biden's victories in those states.
Both Miller and Davis have been supportive of Donald Trump's domestic agenda and neither voted for his impeachment. But on New Year's Day, the former president chose to endorse Miller's candidacy against Davis.
In a prepared statement Miller issued at the time of the January endorsement, she said, "President Donald Trump inspired me to run in 2020 because our country needs principled conservatives in Congress who always put America First. Today, President Trump is endorsing me because I am a conservative fighter who is not afraid to take on the DC swamp."
Robin Johnson, a Monmouth College political science lecturer and an expert on rural voter behavior, said, "Trump is the 800-pound gorilla in Republican primaries, and his endorsement could mean a lot. But the open question is: Will his bedrock supporters who don't normally vote, now vote in any significant numbers if he's not on the ballot?
"I haven't seen evidence of that. That would tell me that Davis would be the favorite. Now, if Trump were to come into the district and make an appearance on her behalf, that might make some difference. We saw evidence of that when Trump came into certain areas; the numbers and turnout went up. Barring that, I think it will take on the character of a conventional race where Davis' name identification and contacts with the Republican establishment give him the edge."
Democrats who oversaw the redistricting process sought to concentrate as many Republican votes as possible into three of the state's 17 congressional districts, and the 15th Congressional District is one of them. Quincy is the largest city in the sprawling district that borders Indiana, Iowa and Missouri.
But what does this mean for those living in Sangamon County? The county is divided between two congressional districts. Most of the city of Springfield and Chatham will be in the 13th Congressional District, which leans Democratic. Most of the rest of the county is in the 15th.
The Princeton Gerrymandering Project says the 15th Congressional District will likely vote 67% Republican. This means it is unlikely voters will have a choice of viable candidates in general elections. The next representative for the district almost certainly will be determined in the June 28 primary.
Scott Reeder, an Illinois Times staff writer, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.