U.S. Rep. John Shimkus is facing a primary challenger for the first time in his 20-year congressional career, as one of several Republican congressmen to see challengers from the right in this election.
State Sen. Kyle McCarter, R-Lebanon, is challenging Shimkus for the Republican nomination, alleging that the longtime congressman is a “cushy careerist” who has been in Washington too long. Shimkus, R-Collinsville, recently endorsed by Gov. Bruce Rauner and several metro-east mayors, is focused on his record of fighting the EPA and pushing for ethanol and biodiesel legislation this term.
McCarter’s challenge isn’t as much of a surprise as it might seem, according to David Yepsen of the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute.
“It is unusual, but not for this year,” Yepsen said. “All across the country, you’ve had longtime Republican congressmen and senators challenged by more conservative, Tea Party Republicans. It’s an argument over whether the incumbent has compromised too much, working with the other side too much.”
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Yepsen said it is the same argument that upended John Boehner as Speaker of the House.
“I call it the Tea Party Republicans: These are energized, passionate activists who are not happy with the direction of the country, who are very conservative and think their party has become too moderate and too accommodating,” Yepsen said. “It’s not some fringe candidate; it’s a serious challenge and I think Shimkus is taking it seriously.”
According to McCarter, that’s an accurate description of his reason for running. He said no one approached him about running, but it was something he and his wife, Victoria, decided after thinking and praying about it.
“I am not a gambler, I’m a calculated risk-taker,” he said. “I have a clear pathway to victory, and I think people recognize that… I represent more than just the Tea Party. I represent every citizen who’s had enough with the parties in government. The reason the Republican establishment is against me is because they know I’ll be an independent voice for the people.”
There was a time in our party when we valued workhorses, not showhorses.
U.S. Rep. John Shimkus
Shimkus said he has been part of a conservative groundswell in Southern Illinois, where he said there’s been a shift from conservative Democrat to solid Republican territories.
“Before I was elected there was no Republican (congressman) south of Springfield; now we have three,” he said. “We get a lot of credit for that.”
And yet, the Washington Post recently identified Shimkus as one of four endangered incumbents in the primary season. Shimkus dismissed the article: “I don’t read the Washington Post,” he said, laughing. “There was a time in our party where we valued workhorses, not showhorses. Workhorses don’t pound their chests and say ‘me, me, me,’ you don’t tell the story about your accomplishments.”
In the most recent term, Shimkus said, he has been focused on reducing the size of government, reining in the EPA and cutting their budget with staffing levels down to 1989. “They’re relentless in their attack on jobs in our country,” Shimkus said, listing Supreme Court rulings that affect coal mining, the Waters of the U.S. bill and other EPA regulations.
“They do have jobs and responsibilities like Superfund sites,” he said. “But I’m trying to get them out of micromanaging the economy.”
There has been recent criticism of Congress as obstructionist, on consistently blocking proposals from the executive branch. But Shimkus said he doesn’t see that as dysfunction.
“The public put Republicans in control of the legislative branch; we are the conservative party of the country,” Shimkus said. “We have a Democrat as president who is a liberal. There are clashing ideas about what is the best system for the average American to achieve the American Dream… Sometimes those get reconciled by compromise, sometimes they don’t.”
But McCarter believes that on the contrary, the Republican Congress has been too conciliatory to the executive and compromised too much.
“We need people who know how to negotiate and make a deal,” McCarter said. “We’ve got people in Congress who’ve never had to negotiate with their own money in their lives. There are times to walk away from the table and get more for the American people, and I haven’t seen that.”
Giving away the store
Specifically, McCarter said he believes the omnibus spending bill approved by Congress last year “gave away the store.”
“They left money on the table that I could spread around to my employees and the community,” McCarter said.
“They need to be fired. They went in with a majority in the House and the Senate and then approved Obama’s and (Minority Leader Nancy) Pelosi’s budget, which paid for Planned Parenthood and illegal immigration.”
Shimkus disagrees with that assessment, pointing out that the bill that funded the Department of Health and Human Services was the same bill that funded the Department of Defense. Far from funding Planned Parenthood, Shimkus said, his vote funded Scott Air Force Base.
As far as the subject of Planned Parenthood, Shimkus said it is the states who decide whether Medicaid goes to the national provider of women’s health services. For himself, he said, he is “totally opposed” to funding Planned Parenthood. “There are better healthcare delivery programs through community health clinics that provide a greater avenue of care for women than Planned Parenthood,” Shimkus said.
McCarter has also criticized Shimkus on his decision not to term-limit himself, as he had said when he first ran in 1996. Shimkus then said he would not serve more than five terms, but later changed his mind. He said he was twice asked by then-President George W. Bush to continue to serve, and did so out of respect to the president.
“This issue has been litigated in five elections since,” Shimkus said. “It’s the public’s choice whether I serve or not, not any arbitrary statement by anyone… The Constitution provides term limits in the form of elections every two years. If they thought term limits were required, they would have inscribed it in the Constitution.”
But McCarter said he believes the founding fathers did not intend Congress to be a career. Elected to the Illinois state Senate in 2009, McCarter said he will not run again in 2018 “no matter what happens,” and if elected to Congress, he will not serve more than five terms, or 10 years.
“If it takes you 20 years to get to the point where you can get something done and become the chairman of a committee, you are not the right guy,” McCarter said. “He’s made a promise and he broke that promise. I made a promise and I’m keeping it… He’s used the power of the incumbent to bully people like me. (Voters) are fed up with career politicians and they want someone to speak straight to them about the issues. This is why I believe we will win this race. They want people who will fight for them, and then come home.”
If it takes you 20 years to get to the point where you can get something done and become the chairman of a committee, you are not the right guy.
State Sen. Kyle McCarter
If re-elected, Shimkus said he would focus on addressing and debating the national debt and deficits, repealing and replacing the Affordable Care Act with a market-driven system, and making sure rural areas have access to high-speed internet.
“The only way you actually turn the tide… is addressing the actuary changes to our mandatory spending programs,” Shimkus said. “Getting the country on a solvent path is critical… With a Republican president, we can roll back the Clean Power (Plan).”
If elected, McCarter said he would focus on veterans’ rights, advocating a forensic audit of the Veterans Administration for waste, fraud and abuse.
“We’re using a World War II archaic health care system to give to people to whom we should be giving the best,” McCarter said. “Every veteran should have a gold medical card like Congress has, and go to any doctor they want. We need to shift from this old paradigm of health care and make this right for our veterans.”
Shimkus said he believes he has been able to look at his record and defend it.
“Any time you’re a candidate you have to look into yourself and see if the fire in the belly is still there,” Shimkus said. “There is no greater honor than to be an elected member of Congress and represent the people of Southern Illinois. No matter the long hours and time spent away from home in D.C., I thank the voters.”
For the record, neither candidate endorsed a Republican contender for president. But McCarter said he liked what is happening in the Republican presidential primary because it is creating a strong debate.
“Some of these things we wouldn’t be talking about if it weren’t for (Donald) Trump,” McCarter said. “Any of these men could help make America great again. At least we’re having open debate: It’s brought up immigration, which is important to me. I support legal immigration, I support a wall, and we have to make tough decisions to protect American citizens and the economy.”
Shimkus said he had not chosen a presidential candidate to endorse, but would support whomever is nominated by the Republican Party. Both agreed, however, that if a Democrat should win the presidency, they had no preference between U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders or former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.