Elections

Two Democrats are challenging Mike Bost in 2020. Do either of them have a chance?

There are two Democratic hopefuls looking to take on U.S. Rep. Mike Bost, R-Murphysboro, in the 2020 general election, but will anyone on the national political stage notice?

Even though national Democrats don’t have Illinois’ 12th District on their radar screen, it hasn’t discouraged Joel Funk, of Mascoutah, and Ray Lenzi, of Makanda, from wanting to become a congressman from southwestern Illinois.

After Bost, with a margin of more than 16,000 votes, defeated former St. Clair County State’s Attorney Brendan Kelly, who was a top Democratic recruit for the 2018 cycle, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has not listed the 12th District as a targeted GOP-held or open district to win in 2020.

In contrast, Illinois’ 13th District, held by U.S. Rep. Rodney Davis, R-Taylorville, is on the Democrats’ list of targeted districts.

“While each of these districts is as unique as the candidates who will rise to win them, 2018 revealed several commonalities among districts where Democrats will be most competitive in the 2020 cycle,” DCCC Chairwoman Cheri Bustos wrote in a memo with its initial list of targeted districts. “Many of the districts on our list have big suburban populations; many have also experienced rapid population growth in recent years — particularly in diverse communities. This leaves Democrats with a large number of ripe pick-up opportunities.”

Rapid population growth and suburban areas aren’t attributes used to describe Southern Illinois. Couple with that the difficulty of beating incumbents, especially by candidates that have political experience.

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Ray Lenzi, of Makanda, is a Democratic candidate for Congress in the Illinois 12th Congressional District. Joseph Bustos jbustos@bnd.com

The 12th District likely isn’t going to see another Green Party candidate as in previous years. In 2018, Green Party nominee Randy Auxier received less than 5% of the vote in the district. Falling below that threshold means if anyone wants to run under the Green Party banner, he or she would need to gather 13,077 signatures — a much higher threshold than for established parties.

“We do not currently plan to attempt that this time around, although if a candidate with ready-made substantial financial and human resources were to come to us by next March, we might revisit it, but that’s extremely unlikely,” said Rich Whitney, co-chair of Illinois’ Green Party.

Auxier garnered roughly 7,900 votes in the 2018 election, votes that Lenzi believes will come to the Democratic candidate.

“In my mind that cuts the margin to 8,000 votes. Now we have to have a bigger turnout in St. Clair County, bigger turnout in Madison County,” Lenzi said. “(President) Trump is losing some of this base, because he’s acting so erratic, so crazy with all these treaties he tears up.”

Funk also is confident the district is worth paying attention to, despite what party strategists may think.

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Joel D. Funk, a Mascoutah Democrat, is planning a run against U.S. Rep. Mike Bost, R-Murphysboro, in the 2020 election in Illinois’ 12th Congressional District. Provided photo

“The 12th District is a competitive district,” Funk said. “Congressman Bost … this would be his fourth time running. I’m coming into this with a different background, with a different knowledge base, a drive and a will I don’t think he’s ever been up against before. It’s not going to be easy. If it’s going to be easy, it would have happened in the past. I’m very committed to making this happen and see real significant change happen in the 12th District because we’re suffering.”

Can they make connections in conservative areas?

The 12th District is comprised of areas in southwestern Illinois that stretch from Alton in Madison County to Cairo in Alexander County. The district includes all of St. Clair , Monroe , Randolph, Jackson and Williamson counties, among others.

In order to do well in the district, a Democratic candidate would need make some gains in its rural parts south of the St. Louis area.

Funk and Lenzi both are touting their rural credentials and say they can connect with people in conservative areas.

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The layout of Illinois’ 12th Congressional District, which stretches from the metro-east to the Kentucky border. Illinois State Board of Elections

“I grew up in the country. I’m actually a country kid,” Lenzi said. “I come from country people. I love country music. I get choked up even talking about listening to Willie’s Roadhouse on Sirius radio. … My dad’s favorite music was Hank Williams. I still have guns. I think I can connect.”

Funk grew up on a Mascoutah farm and served as an aviator in the U.S. Army with deployments to Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and Colombia.

“With my background coming from a rural community, having been raised on a farm, being in the military, I can speak to people who might not have been open to a Democrat in the past,” Funk said. “I can at least have a conversation with them and show that we have a lot of things in common and won’t just dismiss me from the get go.”

Being from a conservative area, Funk was previously a Republican and voted in the GOP primaries in 2010 and 2012, according to St. Clair County Clerk’s Office records.

“I am a Democrat. I was raised in a conservative household in a conservative community, but I changed and I don’t think there are very many people that change their registration or affiliation while they’re sitting in a joint operations center in Afghanistan. ... I looked upon myself, what I valued, and saw I was no longer aligned with that other party,” Funk said.

“My understanding of socioeconomic issues, I’ve always been a very staunch supporter of personal liberty and so I was in a conflict there with the sometimes more conservative wing of the Republican Party. Even when I was, I wasn’t a straight-ticket voter.”

BEHIND OUR REPORTING

Why did we do this story?

The November 2020 election may be more than a year away, but candidates are starting to organize and begin the process to appear on the ballot. On Sept. 3, candidates were allowed to begin collecting signatures on petitions that are required to appear on the March 17 primary ballot. Official filing of petitions is scheduled from Nov. 25 through Dec. 2. The BND will cover the important steps leading up to the election as part of our role in giving you information that will help you participate in civic life and be a watchdog of the candidates and the election process.

Going after Bost

During the launches of their respective campaigns, both Funk and Lenzi have gone hard after Bost.

Funk criticized the incumbent congressman for not holding in-person town hall meetings. It’s a criticism that was brought up during the 2018 election cycle as Bost continued in recent years to meet with constituents by telephone.

“You deserve a leader that will actually communicate with you and talk to you like this,” Funk said at his campaign launch event. “You need someone who is actually going to engage and listen, learn then lead. Not someone who sits on a chair in D.C., screens some phone calls and talks for 30 minutes, and says ‘yeah, I’m engaged.’”

Lenzi criticized Bost on his votes to repeal the Affordable Care Act and called him a rubber stamp for whatever Trump wants.

“He doesn’t represent the people of his district. He represents his donor base and he’s essentially a puppet of that donor base,” Lenzi said.

Funk also said he wants the country to leave Afghanistan, where the U.S. has had a military presence for 18 years after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. He says people should have autonomy to do what the want with their own bodies, referring to abortion, and said there is a need to invest in infrastructure.

Lenzi has touched on fixing income inequality, the need for universal background checks for gun ownership, making sure health care is affordable, and transitioning to a new energy system.

Bost responds

For his part, Bost said he did not personally know Funk, but that he is a cordial acquaintance of Lenzi.

“We have completely different political beliefs,” Bost said of Lenzi. “His ideas … probably line up with Bernie Sanders, which doesn’t line up with the Illinois 12th.”

Bost said there was no communication, such as through emails or phone calls, from Funk or Lenzi with Bost’s office until they announced their intentions to run for Congress.

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U.S. Rep. Mike Bost, R-Murphysboro, speaks with Freeburg High School students during a visit back to his district. Bost is seeking a fourth term in Congress in 2020. Derik Holtmann dholtmann@bnd.com

“Which is really strange, because if you’re that concerned about the job I’m doing, at least contact me, and neither one of these two have contacted me,” Bost said.

Bost said he gives responses to things that affect the district. He said he has tele-town halls, and when he is in the district he has meetings with different groups, such as with farm bureaus, chambers of commerce or unions.

He also called criticism for not holding traditional town halls “worn out.”

“I’m engaged, I respond back. The only thing I haven’t done — and we’ve already talked about this over and over — is have the town hall meetings where people scream and people yell,” Bost said.

“We’ve offered to anyone who wants to have those to come to my office and some of them have. But that doesn’t stop them from aggressively coming after me on social media, it doesn’t stop them from protesting outside my office. And that’s OK, that’s well within their rights. That being said, the communications I’m having are the ones that allow me the opportunity to listen as a representative of the Illinois 12th, (and) take those issues back.”

Impeachment inquiry

Current members of Congress are grappling with whether to impeach President Trump after a whistleblower reported Trump wanted the president of the Ukraine to look for information into former Vice President Joe Biden and his son, Hunter Biden.

Funk said he found the president’s actions concerning.

“If I was in Congress, I would want to see the impeachment investigation and inquiry (go) through its course and make the determination based off of the evidence,” Funk said. “If the evidence is weighted there and he is impeachable, I would vote for it and pass it to the Senate to hold a trial.”

Lenzi was more direct and said Trump has committed impeachable offenses, citing the instances of possible obstruction of justice cited in the Mueller report.

“And then beyond that, this latest incident with him soliciting the interference of the Ukrainian president and investigating and maligning Biden’s family, that is patent interference in an election and solicitation of interference in a presidential election by a foreign power, which to me is absolutely an impeachable offense,” Lenzi said.

Bost said the impeachment inquiry will prevent Congress from doing necessary work and may ultimately be seen as a waste of time, at least in his Southern Illinois district.

“Look at all the things we’ve got to get done. They say we can walk and chew gum at the same time, but we’re not. One of the most important things to my district, not only for manufacturers but for farmers, is the USMCA (United States, Mexico and Canada trade agreement, which has not been ratified). We’ve got to get that moved,” Bost said during an interview with the Belleville News-Democrat. “These are things we ought to be working on. We also need to be working on the opioid crisis.”

Can they make a difference?

Lenzi is showing confidence he can gain support around the district and said he has a solid base in Jackson, Williamson and Union counties.

“I think you will find as this race evolves, we are the strong candidate, we have the organization, we have the vision of how to win this race and we have the positions and the enthusiasm to carry this district and return it to the tradition and the legacies of people like Kenny Gray, Paul Simon, Glenn Poshard, who voted with labor, made things happen, who brought projects home for the districts and the people and stood by the low- and moderate-income people that are half of this country and need help sometimes,” Lenzi said.

Funk said he won’t focus on national politics nor the national party organization in the race.

“I’ve been talking to both leaders and activists and I’ll be honest, those and higher ups have written off the district. For me, this is a grassroots endeavor. I’m not hand-picked, I’m not recruited. I’m doing this because it’s the right thing to do,” he said.

“It’s up to me to show them this could happen and I could do it. For me, my focus is on the people who are in the district, to fight for them. ... If the powers above see something here and want to invest in this campaign, so be it, but I’m not expecting it.”

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Joseph Bustos is the state affairs and politics reporter for the Belleville News-Democrat, where he strives to hold elected officials accountable and provide context to decisions they make. He has won multiple awards from the Illinois Press Association for coverage of sales tax referenda.
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