Over the weekend, Republicans in Illinois’ 13th District selected a replacement for Rep. Tim Johnson, who announced his retirement after the primary and thus necessitated the choice of a new meeting by party leaders. Although the GOP’s “closed-door process” of filling vacancies on the Prairie State ballot remains in place, conservatives who have long called for greater transparency and voter participation did say that the choice of nominee Rodney Davis was at least a step in that direction.
At a meeting behind closed doors in Springfield on Saturday, Republican chairmen from the fourteen counties in Johnson’s district chose from among four candidates vying for the nomination for Congress. The winner on the third ballot was Rodney Davis, top district aide to Rep. John Shimkus (R-Ill.) in the neighboring district. Davis narrowly edged out Ericka Harold, former Miss America (2003) and attorney. Both are considered more conservative than Johnson (lifetime American Conservative Union ratings: 68.27 percent), although Harold was clearly the first choice of grass-roots conservatives.
As Miss America, the 32-year-old Harold was a vocal champion for sexual abstinence. She is also strongly pro-life and involved in much community work. Had the Harvard Law School graduate been nominated and elected, she would have become the first Republican woman who is African American to serve in the House.
As much as grass-roots conservatives had their hearts set on Harold and would have preferred a primary or at least a district wide caucus to choose a nominee, most are not complaining about the nomination process. Initially, it was widely believed that Johnson timed his exit to install his longtime top aide Jerry Clarke as the nominee. The outgoing congressman was widely criticized in newspaper editorials for the timing of his exodus.
“But the party, and in particular [State Chairman] Pat Brady, realized the danger to the grass roots of going along with an insider deal like this,” conservative radio talk show host (WLS-AM 890) and 2010 GOP gubernatorial hopeful Dan Proft told Human Events on the day after the party conclave. “Instead of going along, Brady and the county chairmen slowed down the process, opened it up to any and all interested candidates and conducted a thorough but expeditious public vetting process. As anticipated, Clarke did not hold up well under scrutiny. By contrast, both Rodney Davis and Erika Harold did because both are superbly talented, young conservative leaders. Either would have been an outstanding choice.”
In a very open system, Republicans in each county held forums in which candidates for Congress appeared and took questions from local party activists. The forums were open to the press and to the public.
When the county chairmen met to choose a nominee, Clarke came in a distant third behind Davis and Harold. Proft added his belief that the party would rally behind Davis, that he would win in November over Democrat David Gill, and that “Erika Harold has a bright future.”
For years, conservatives have blamed their party’s lackluster standing in Illinois on the state GOP’s means of electing state committee members through select caucuses rather than primaries (as Democrats do) and for choosing their state chairmen with weighted votes from state committee members. This exclusive process extends to filling vacancies for nominations on the fall ballot.
Although the party did not fully open up the process in the 13th District, it did, as Dan Proft put it, “repudiate an attempt to hijack a congressional seat and constructed a fair process that the public was informed about and that produced a legitimate result. This was an instant that should encourage Illinois Republicans that their party is beginning to learn its lessons.”