|Phelps, Shimkus Stay Close, Perhaps too Close|
Oct. 4, 2002 -- The battle between two incumbents for a newly drawn congressional district in downstate Illinois is drawing national attention as the candidates turn up the heat on each other's legislative records and question who best represents the people of the "new 19."
Illinois lost a House seat after the 2000 Census, leading a bipartisan committee to draw a new district, the so-called "new 19." The new congressional map pits incumbent conservative Democrat David Phelps of the 19th district in a race against incumbent Republican John Shimkus of the former 20th district for representation of the new zone.
Composed of roughly 34 percent of Phelps' old 19th and 60 percent of Shimkus' old 20th, the new district appears to lean Republican, having voted for President Bush in 2000 by 58 percent.
Shimkus long surpassed Phelps in the fundraising arena -- an effort undoubtedly aided by having a Republican in the White House. The Center for Responsive Politics reports that Shimkus had over $1 million in the bank according to his June 30 FEC filings, while Phelps had some $500,000.
But Phelps, who is a member of the conservative Blue Dog Democrats in Congress, is not new to GOP-leaning districts and does not appear dissuaded by his smaller war chest. He won his district in the 2000 race by 65 percent -- an area President Bush took by a lower margin of 55 percent.
The two candidates met in mid-September for their first live debate on the campus of Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville. Media reports characterized the discussion as spirited but cordial, with candidates entertaining questions on issues ranging from education issues to slave reparations.
As reporter Dean Olsen observed in the State Journal Register, "both received loud applause by playing to their core constituencies: unions for Phelps and business interests for Shimkus."
The SIUE debate illustrated the strong parallels between the two conservative candidates -- both are anti-abortion and pro-gun rights -- but also their tendencies to differ on issues such as social security and campaign finance reform. The men sparred over the rising costs of health care and prescription drugs, an issue Shimkus called the number one problem facing the country.
"We need to look at the pharmaceutical companies that might be gaming the system and keeping patents on their drugs longer than they need to in order to recover their costs," The Telegraph quoted Shimkus as saying.
But Phelps has launched his own offensive against Shimkus on the prescription drug debate. According to the Cook Political Report, Phelps has questioned Shimkus' decision to accept some $25,000 in campaign contributions from pharmaceutical companies and another $100,000 from insurance groups.
In recent weeks, both camps have stepped up the intensity of their media campaigns. Shimkus grabbed headlines with one of his first TV ads, which accused the Phelps campaign of allegedly stalking the candidate and his family. Shimkus claims that Phelps' staffers follow him and his family while secretly filming and photographing them at public events. He challenged Phelps to clean up his campaign, saying he thought the race between the two devout Christians would be different.
Phelps responded to the stalking allegations in an early September press conference saying, "I'm sure that John Shimkus did not mean to imply that I am personally stalking him. Still he hasn't apologized to me for his absurd claim."
Phelps campaign manager Crystal Litz also defended her camp against the stalking allegations, telling the Associated Press, "The only thing that's stalking John Shimkus is his record."
in his own advertising Phelps has gone after Shimkus' voting record,
pointing out his loyalty to business interests over those of the "working
man" and criticizing Shimkus' support of a Republican tax cut plan.
But an early September poll released by the Phelps camp gave the Democrat a lead of 40 percent to Shimkus' 38 percent with 22 percent undecided. Polls from the Shimkus campaign, however, indicate that he leads Phelps 52 percent to 37 percent with 11 percent undecided according to the Illinois Leader.
"John and I are friends, " Phelps said at the end a recent debate. "We just have different ways of getting our message out to voters."