Illinois voters are headed to the polls Tuesday, and while most will focus on the GOP presidential primary, at least one other contest deserves attention.
Other Republican voters around the country are being forced to choose between two incumbents running against each other after redistricting, but in the newly drawn 16th Congressional District, the race between veteran Rep. Donald A. Manzullo and freshman Rep. Adam Kinzinger has been one of a kind.
Mr. Manzullo, a 10-term incumbent with the most conservative voting record in his state’s delegation, is being attacked as a man who has “lost his way” by young Mr. Kinzinger, who has the support of House Speaker John A. Boehner and Majority Leader Eric Cantor. Mr. Boehner has contributed to Mr. Kinzinger, and the YG Action Fund, a super PAC run by close allies of Mr. Cantor‘s, is running ads calling Mr. Kinzinger a “conservative rock in the fight against government spending.”
Two years ago, Mr. Kinzinger was a hero of the Tea Parties and of conservatives in general; today, those who were with him then are siding almost unanimously with Mr. Manzullo, contending it is not the veteran but the newcomer who has lost his way. The freshman, from the day he arrived, has demonstrated a penchant for publicity and has emerged as the favored protege of the House leadership. In the process, Mr. Kinzinger‘ s critics claim, he has forgotten in just two short years why he was sent to Washington, while Mr. Manzullo has spent 10 terms in the trenches compiling an enviable record.
After listening to Mr. Boehner’s appeal for votes in a closed meeting of the Republican caucus before the last great spending deal with the White House, Mr. Kinzinger described himself not as a “rock,” but as one of the speaker’s “sheep,” part of a flock ready to go wherever and do whatever the speaker wants. This more accurate self-description explains leadership’s willingness to play loose with the truth in urging Illinois voters to re-elect one of the “young guns” recruited by Mr. Cantor and California’s Rep. Kevin McCarthy.
Mr. Manzullo claims he confronted Mr. Cantor to ask why the majority leader was taking sides in an incumbent-versus-incumbent race and was told that it was because he already has a “major investment” in Mr. Kinzinger and is going to protect it. That may be understandable, but far less understandable is Mr. Cantor’s willingness to go “all in” for a man who is anything but the rock-solid conservative described in his super PAC’s radio ads.
Mr. Kinzinger has attacked Mr. Manzullo for voting to increase the debt limit without mentioning that he did the same thing himself or explaining why his support of organized labor and the Davis-Bacon Act has garnered him union support in a race against a conservative. A labor-financed super PAC, the Lunch Pail Republicans, has begun running ads for Mr. Kinzinger, as has another PAC that was active in supporting Ohio Rep. Dennis Kucinich’s unsuccessful effort to hold onto his seat.
Mr. Manzullo bests his opponent in the rankings of just about every conservative political organization one can name. The American Conservative Union rates him at 96, as compared to Mr. Kinzinger’s 72; the Club for Growth scores Mr. Manzullo at 85, with Mr. Kinzinger at 56; and the National Journal composite conservative score (for those seeking the judgment of a nonconservative source) gives Mr. Manzullo a 74 and Mr. Kinzinger a 58.
As a result, virtually every conservative organization that endorses candidates has spoken up in favor of Mr. Manzullo. The list includes the ACUPAC, the Freedomworks PAC, Illinois Eagle Forum, Illinois Citizens for Life, the Illinois Tea Party and dozens of others.
Mr. Kinzinger’s supporters claim - when they aren’t busy distorting the records of the two incumbents - that it’s time for Mr. Manzullo to go because he’s too old and has been around too long. Mr. Manzullo is not flashy, but solid. He knows what he believes and rarely deviates. He follows his leadership when he can but votes his conscience when he is caught between the demands of party and principle. He may lose today because Mr. Kinzinger has the money and support he needs to win, but you cannot predict the votes of men and women who want their representative in Washington to represent them rather than simply follow his party leaders - like sheep.
Mr. Cantor and his allies seem to have lost the ability to distinguish between a rock and a sheep and are simply doubling down on what has turned out to be a bad investment for voters but a good buy for leaders seeking followers who always will be prepared to do their bidding.
David A. Keene is the former chairman of the American Conservative Union and a member of the board of the ACU, the National Rifle Association, the Constitution Project and the Center for the National Interest.