MENDON, Ill. – Standing alongside former President Donald J. Trump at a crowded rally on a sweltering evening here in the fields of west-central Illinois, Rep. Mary Miller roared the stakes of his primary election.
“My friends, this race is between MAGA and a member of the RINO establishment,” Ms. Miller said, using the shameless acronym associated with Mr. Trump’s political movement and the derogatory one intended to tarnish a “Republican by name.” only”.
Four years ago, it was Ms. Miller’s main opponent, Representative Rodney Davis, who stood with Mr. Trump to receive his endorsement when the then-president came to the state to rally his supporters.
But that was before the Democratic-led Illinois legislature gerrymanded the state’s congressional districts, turning Mr. Davis’ purple district, once a top Democrat target, into a deeply conservative that spans about a third of the state, and leaving Ms. Miller without a seat.
Now the two Republicans find themselves pitted against each other in an extraordinary incumbent vs. incumbent battle that has forced Mr Davis to embrace his conservative credentials – after nearly a decade of being a political liability in a district equally divided by Republican and Democrats – and left it open to attack from Ms Miller, who ridiculed her efforts to cross the aisle to pass legislation and her drive to certify President Biden’s election victory in 2020.
The contest, which culminates in Illinois’ Tuesday primary, is a test of the strongest strength in today’s Republican Party: Mr. Davis’ traditional conservatism and pragmatic style, or call arsonist of Mrs. Miller, with Mr. Trump as godfather. , on the right flank.
“Do they want someone who is going to stick to their core values and principles, but who is also going to govern?” Mr. Davis asked in an interview at his Springfield campaign office. “Because there is a clear difference between my opponent and me when it comes to a legislative record. I want Washington to actually work for every American.
The congressional careers of Ms. Miller and Mr. Davis are a study in contrasts. Mr. Davis, a four-term congressman who got his start in politics working in the constituent services, defends his legislative record and mastery of the Farm Bill, a multi-year law that allows policymakers to set priorities for farmers. food and agriculture sectors and a crucial piece of legislation in a predominantly rural district.
He is deeply conservative, punctuating his remarks with asides condemning the defunding of the police movement and of President Nancy Pelosi, a California Democrat. But he has successfully fended off Democratic challenges for years by touting his bipartisan work on issues such as agriculture and student loans.
“The difficulty in this race is that Rodney has run in a 50-50 district for the past eight years,” said Rep. Darin LaHood, an Illinois Republican who endorsed Davis. “He had to be moderate. He had to rule in the middle. And so pivoting and then going to one of the most conservative rural Trump districts in the country is really tough for him.
For Ms. Miller, whose campaign did not respond to requests for an interview or comment, such a pivot is not even necessary.
A first-term congresswoman who owns a beef and grain farm, she is a member of the far-right Freedom Caucus that has adopted Mr. Trump’s grievance-steeped way of speaking and once spoke approvingly of Adolf Hitler. . During the campaign trail, she made endorsing the former president the centerpiece of her speech and frequently denounces how “cheating” in elected office has “betrayed” the American people.
At the rally here Saturday night with Mr Trump, Ms Miller’s campaign played videos of Mr Davis wearing a mask at the height of the pandemic, saying he was ‘proud’ to meet Mr Biden to discuss infrastructure projects to benefit her district, and embracing Rep. Liz Cheney, Republican of Wyoming, who helped lead the House inquiry into the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol.
“The global elites are determined to destroy our way of life, including the family farm,” Ms Miller told the crowd. “We will not let them destroy us. We are American. This is our beautiful country, and we will never surrender to the Marxists in Washington.
Later in the speech, Ms. Miller called the Supreme Court’s decision on Friday invalidating Roe v. Wade of “victory for white lives” in a clip that circulated widely after the rally. Ms Miller’s campaign said she misinterpreted her prepared remarks to mean ‘right to life’. But he recalled an earlier episode shortly after Ms Miller was sworn in to Congress, when she was forced to apologize for saying: “Hitler was right about one thing: he said, ‘Whoever to the youth, to the future.'”
On Monday, she sought to defend herself from a wave of criticism after her remarks at the rally, telling a local radio station: “I’m not racist.”
To rally the kind of far-right voters who run for primary elections, Ms Miller also claimed that Mr Davis had “betrayed” Mr Trump on January 6, first by refusing to overturn the electoral victory of Mr. Biden, then later. voting with 34 of his fellow Republicans to establish a bipartisan commission on Jan. 6 made up of nonpartisan experts to investigate the attack on the Capitol.
“He voted to certify the election,” Ms Miller told a crowd of retirees at a campaign event in Lincoln, describing Mr Davis’ perceived sins. “Then for those of us who were calling for audits, he said we were spreading false information.”
Mr. Davis, in his role as the top Republican on the House Administration Committee, initially worked with Democrats to set up an independent commission to investigate the Jan. 6 riot, but Republican leaders eventually abandoned that effort and opposed the creation of such a survey, prompting Democrats to form their own nominating panel.
As his primary contest heated up, Mr. Davis became increasingly vocal in criticizing the select committee, accusing its members of pushing “one-sided debate” and inaccurate allegations about Republican lawmakers taking their constituents to visit the Capitol. before Jan 6 study the layout of the building.
He said the accusation “literally makes my blood boil”.
But Ms Miller ignored those nuances on the campaign trail, telling voters that Mr Davis ‘voted for the Jan. 6 Witch Hunt Commission’.
“He doesn’t have good endorsements,” she added.
In fact, Mr. Davis was endorsed by 31 of the district’s 35 Republican county chairmen, two of the three Republican members of the state’s congressional delegation and the state’s Farm Bureau, all nodding who, in most races, would be considered critical. But Ms. Miller was probably referring to one mention in particular: that of Mr. Trump.
“I’ve seen Congresswoman Miller in action a lot during this campaign at several different events,” said Tim Butler, a state senator who supports Davis. “The only thing she talks about is Trump. It’s the only thing she talks about. And that’s great. President Trump continues to enjoy great popularity in Republican circles. is all you have, I think that shows how superficial the campaign is.
Still, that may be enough for many Republican primary voters, especially in the newly drawn and deeply conservative district. Several attendees at Saturday night’s rally said they planned to vote for Ms Miller, but did not know enough about her to feel comfortable giving an interview about why they supported her .
“She’s Trump-endorsed – that’s good enough for me,” said a man who declined to be named, who wore a shirt emblazoned with a picture of Mr Trump’s face and the caption “I love it.” still missing?”
Supporters of Mr. Davis who were going to knock on doors for him received a very different pitch at his campaign office in Springfield on Saturday, just hours before Ms. Miller’s meeting with the former president.
“I think we have a great record in defending life, defending the Second Amendment — the fundamental values and principles that make us Republicans,” Mr. Davis told a group of volunteers dressed in sneakers. “But as Tim said, we actually have to get things done. There is a big difference between my opponent and me. And when you’re at the gates today, don’t be afraid to remind them of these glaring differences, because I think they want us to work too.
Stacked on tables in the office were pamphlets that volunteers handed out to voters as they canvassed, containing a list of Mr. Davis’ accomplishments in office.
At the top of the pamphlet was a large image of Mr. Davis standing next to Mr. Trump at the 2018 rally, captioned: “Rodney Davis was proud to work with President Trump.”
Reid J. Epstein contributed reporting from Lincoln, Illinois.