She reigned for a year over the entire country, but Erika Harold now would happily settle for representing just the 13th Congressional District in Illinois.
Ms. Harold wowed the judges to take home the tiara as Miss America a decade ago, but she may face a tougher audience as she takes on a sitting congressman in the March 18 Republican primary.
Because Democrats have a top-tier recruit in the swing district in the center of the state, the conservative Weekly Standard says Ms. Harold’s upstart challenge has created “the most interesting House primary of the 2014 cycle.”
The 33-year-old Urbana lawyer does not fit the outdated stereotype of a beauty queen: Of mixed black and American Indian ancestry, Ms. Harold chose anti-bullying and abstinence as her primary issues as the 2003 Miss America and used the scholarship proceeds from her win to put herself through Harvard Law School.
She also is running in the face of strong opposition from the local Illinois Republican establishment, which fears a divisive primary could damage the chances of freshman Rep. Rodney Davis, who eked out a victory in a district that Barack Obama won in 2008 and ran neck and neck with Republican challenger Mitt Romney in 2012.
The Republican establishment’s open hostility to Ms. Harold’s race already has cost Jim Allen his job as Montgomery County Republican Party chairman. In an email that surfaced, he slammed Ms. Harold as a racial quota beneficiary who was “being used like a street walker” by the Democratic Party to divide the Republican ranks. Mr. Davis and other party leaders quickly condemned the email, and Mr. Allen resigned. Republican officials insist they would be happy to support the young, articulate Ms. Harold as a candidate — just not in a contested district with a Republican incumbent.
“We’ve got some old guys in this party who really don’t get it,” Doug Ibendahl, a onetime general counsel to the state Republican Party, told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. “If they don’t like a little competition, then they’re in the wrong party.”
Ms. Harold rejects the notion that she is a party crasher.
“It’s time for the next generation of leadership within the Republican Party to step up,” she said in an interview. “In so many ways, our party is not really reaching out to people who share our values, who may be turned off by some of the branding issues we have.”
Ms. Harold, who would be the first black Republican woman elected to Congress, argued that her experience reaching out to other women, youths and minorities places her in a good position to engage voters in the general election. The onetime Miss America also has not been shy about calling out party elders for trying to make the primary race essentially a beauty pageant in which only her opponent is allowed on the catwalk, denying her access to voter lists and limiting her speaking time at major party functions.
“Members of the Republican establishment continue their attempts to make this primary a coronation,” she said in a press statement in October. “From Day One, party leaders have angled to ensure that Congressman Rodney Davis is the only one on the Republican primary ballot.”
Robert Bradley, a former professor in the politics and government department at Illinois State University, said Republicans are eager to hold the seat in part because the area has sent only one Democrat to Washington since the Great Depression. “The primary is more interesting between the Republicans” because of that, he said, adding that some GOP activists see Mr. Davis as “too moderate.” How involved the state and national parties will be in shaping the race could be critical, he said.
Mr. Davis — who became the newly drawn 13th District’s Republican candidate when the first nominee dropped out abruptly — has tried to stay above the fray. He said he is concentrating on his work in Washington and played no part in any effort to undermine his opponent’s campaign.
“Throughout my first 12 months in Congress, I’ve lived up to the promises I made to the hardworking taxpayers of the 13th District,” he said. “I’ve voted to cut government spending and address the national debt while advancing legislation to put Americans back to work and get our economy moving again.”
Mr. Davis said it is unfortunate that “in today’s political environment, campaigns never end,” but “my focus has been and will continue to be to make Washington work for the families of the 13th District.”
Ms. Harold quickly dispels any negative stereotypes about beauty queens, focusing her campaign message on expanding the economy and controlling the ballooning national debt.
“Right now, we have a burgeoning national debt and it poses economic problems to us. It also makes us indebted to other countries,” she said. “It doesn’t put us on the right path to be able to grow economically, and we’ve seen a lot of government by crisis and continuing resolutions, and that’s not the way to move forward with prosperity.”
She also argues that she is a better congressional fit for the district than Mr. Davis.
“It takes a unique set of principles and values to represent this district effectively,” she said. “You have to be someone who both is a proponent of strong fiscal ideas, but can also engage democratic and independent voters. I think some of the ideas I have in terms of criminal justice reform, those can engage voters who may not ordinarily vote for a Republican candidate.”
Sam Haskell, chairman and CEO of the Miss America Organization, said politicos should not underestimate the people skills and social poise it takes to win a highly competitive beauty pageant.
“The Miss America program provides personal and professional opportunities for young women to promote their voices in culture, politics and the community,” he said. “During her year of service as Miss America 2003, Erika embodied these ideals by interacting with legislators and testifying before Congress, which provided her with a foundation to pursue a career in the field of politics.”
Surpassing Mr. Davis in the primary will be only half the battle, analysts said. The favorite in the Democratic Party primary is former Illinois 3rd Judicial Circuit Court Judge Ann Callis, although physics professor George Gollin also is making a strong bid for the nomination.
Despite her high profile, Ms. Harold faces daunting numbers with less than three months before the primary.
A poll conducted for the Davis campaign by the Republican Party survey firm Public Opinion Strategies showed the incumbent with 63 percent of the vote among Republican voters, with Ms. Harold at only 15 percent. Numbers from Springfield polling firm We Ask America gave Mr. Davis a 53.5 percent to 16.3 percent edge.
Despite her unusually high profile, the challenger also faces a steep funding disadvantage. According to the latest reports, Mr. Davis has a nearly 9-1 edge in fundraising with $882,000 in the bank, compared with $99,000 for Ms. Harold.