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The House Races That Tell a Bigger Story

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The House Races That Tell a Bigger Story

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Reliably Democratic Illinois is nobody’s idea of a swing state.

But three heated House primaries in the Land of Lincoln next week illustrate the broader vulnerabilities of both major political parties going into the general election: age, extremism and immigration. In today’s newsletter, I’m going to tell you about some fascinating primary races that will shed light on some broader trends in U.S. politics.

Let’s start with Illinois’s 12th Congressional District, in the southern part of the state. Mike Bost, a Republican and Marine Corps veteran, was first elected to the House in 2014. Democrats tried to tar him as “Meltdown Mike,” highlighting his angry outbursts in the State Legislature and warning, “He’d make Washington worse.”

Well, those were simpler times. A decade later, Bost is what passes for an establishment Republican. He is the chairman of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs and sits on the committees on agriculture and transportation, from which he can steer money and projects to the largely rural district that stretches across the bottom third of the state.

His primary opponent, Darren Bailey, is proving that in the era of Donald J. Trump, there may be no limits to the G.O.P.’s rightward drift. Bailey, as you might recall, was the ardent, pro-Trump Republican whom Illinois’s Democratic governor, J.B. Pritzker, spent big money to elevate in the Republican primary for governor in 2022, figuring he’d be easy to beat — which he was. Pritzker won by nearly 13 percentage points.

Bailey is calling Bost “Amnesty Mike,” an insufficient apostle of Trump’s “America First” agenda. But Bost has Trump’s endorsement. And to make matters even more interesting, Bailey has been endorsed by Matt Gaetz, a high-profile Trump ally and firebrand, who has had heated run-ins with Bost. It’s all enough to spin heads.

Democrats have their own issues that are captured in races in their stronghold of greater Chicago. Let’s start with age: Danny Davis has represented a swath of Chicagoland stretching from Lake Michigan to the western suburbs for nearly 28 years, and at 82, he’s determined to stay in Washington.

Chicago’s treasurer, Melissa Conyears-Ervin, and a youthful community organizer, Kina Collins, would like to send him to a well-deserved retirement on Tuesday.

But to the Democratic establishment, “age” is a word not spoken aloud, not with President Biden in the White House. Davis is a year older than the president, and the Democratic elite, including Pritzker, have rallied around him once again. The governor cited Davis’s “steadfast commitment to serving the people of Illinois with integrity, compassion and dedication.”

In an interview with The Chicago Tribune, even Conyears-Ervin took pains not to question Davis’s age. “It’s the energy, it’s the vision, it’s the relevance,” she said.

Just up the road, in Illinois’s Fourth Congressional District, two Mexican American Democrats, Representative Jesús “Chuy” García and Alderman Raymond Lopez of Chicago, are squaring off in a primary that has revolved around immigration and the influx of migrants — many of them bused or flown into Chicago by Republican governors.

No issue has dominated Chicago politics in the last year like the influx of migrants who have overwhelmed shelters in Chicago and its suburbs.

Lopez has pressed for the revocation of Chicago’s sanctuary city status and much tougher border security, positions that would have once been unthinkable in his progressive city. García, holding fast to the more traditional Democratic position, wants more work permits for migrants, the decriminalization of undocumented immigrants and a pathway to citizenship for those brought to the country as children.

The divide in the Mexican American community matches the divisions among Hispanic voters nationally, one that Republicans hope to exploit, as my colleagues Jennifer Medina and Ruth Igielnik reported yesterday.

Ultimately, the powers of incumbency and money mean that Bost, Davis and García are all likely to survive, though there are no certainties. And whoever wins, it almost certainly won’t shift control of the House, since they represent districts that are well out of reach for the opposition party.

But similar issues driving their primary fights will play out in swing House districts and swing states across the country. Republicans from Trump on down the ticket will play up immigration, border security and their notion that Biden is just too old for another term. Democrats, meanwhile, will paint the G.O.P. as a party too extreme and authoritarian to be handed the reins of governance.

In that sense, the Illinois primaries are a test run. Tune in on Tuesday for the results.

Political antennae these days have grown extremely sensitive to oddities in House campaigns, especially résumés that feel off and campaign finance disclosures outside the norm. So eyebrows were raised early this year when a political unknown, Krystle Kaul, took the fund-raising lead in the wide-open Democratic primary to succeed Representative Jennifer Wexton in the Virginia suburbs and exurbs of Washington, D.C.

The race in the Democratic-leaning seat has 13 candidates, including the former speaker of the Virginia House, Eileen Filler-Corn, a state senator, Jennifer Boysko, and an Army combat veteran turned Virginia delegate, Dan Helmer. In early January, after the 2023 fund-raising deadlines had passed, Helmer thought he won last year’s prize when he announced he had raised more than $600,000.

Then two days later, Kaul, a defense and communications contractor running as a “national security Democrat,” bested him with $604,000, of which $447,800 came from her own pocket in the form of a loan to her campaign. Her personal financial disclosure showed her earning around $302,000 last year — well-off but not rich by political standards. Her total net worth is somewhere between $490,000 and $1 million, according to her financial disclosure, which lays out a range of values for a candidate’s assets.

Kaul speaks proudly of her Indian heritage, especially the side of her family that is Hindu Kashmiri, and she has received the financial backing of South Asians, a significant voting bloc in Virginia’s 10th District. But she is not the only Indian American in the race. Suhas Subramanyam, a state senator with far more political prominence, is also in the Democratic pack. But his fund-raising totals — $271,902 as of the end of 2023 — fell far short of Kaul’s.

In an interview, Kaul bristled at questions over her fund-raising numbers, but acknowledged the unusual size of her loan to her campaign. It is, she said, a big bet.

“To be very clear, like, I’m not a millionaire, so to put in that money, yes, you’re right, it is a large sum. It is most of what I have,” she said, saying it all came from her own bank account. (A loan from an undisclosed donor would violate campaign finance law.) “But that’s because I believe strongly in wanting to create a safer America.”




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