On a late September day in Granite City, U.S. Rep. Bill Enyart was in his element. He was presenting a big ceremonial check to Chestnut Health Systems, symbolizing a grant to help homeless veterans.
While standard fare for members of Congress, these kinds of events represent a big change of pace for Enyart, who was the leader of the Illinois National Guard before he ran for Illinois’ 12th congressional district seat in 2012.
Enyart quipped that he sometimes wonders what he got himself into by trading his military career for the sometimes chaotic arena of national politics. But he added that being in Congress is an extension of his public service.
“In a lot of ways, it was a lot more fun to be a general,” Enyart said. “But in seriousness, I felt like this was something that was important, that needed to be done. It was a way to continue in service. We’ve seen so much discord in Congress and so much partisanship. And my entire adult career has been cemented in trying to solve problems.”
Enyart's re-election campaign against Republican state Rep. Mike Bost is one of the most competitive contests in the nation. Enyart's name can now be seen on on lists of the most endangered congressional incumbents in the country.
While Democrats portray the feisty Bost as an unhinged and ill-tempered hothead, the Murphysboro native could very well parlay nationwide frustration about discord in Washington, D.C., into electoral success.
“They’re going out there and representing their own interests and just sitting there. And doing nothing,” Bost said. “I’m not going to be a person who goes there and sits and does nothing. And if you want a person who goes and sits and does nothing and not argue on your behalf, then I’m not your guy.”
A new battlefield
When Illinois’ primary season concluded in 2012, Enyart wasn’t originally the Democratic nominee. But after Democratic nominee Brad Harriman unexpectedly bowed out due to a medical condition, Enyart was unanimously picked as the Democratic nominee. He then defeated Republican Jason Plummer and Paula Bradshaw. (Bradshaw is also running for the seat this year as the Green Party candidate.)
Enyart entered Congress with several disadvanrages. He lacked the seniority of his predecessor — former U.S. Rep. Jerry Costello, D-Belleville. He also was in a Democratic caucus firmly entrenched in the minority, which gave him and his colleagues few opportunities to influence legislation.
“Of course we’ve seen a lot of gridlock,” Enyart said. “They like to talk about all of the problems. But we have had some successes. I like to think that I’ve been part of the successes.”
Enyart said he’s made a mark on the House Armed Services Committee and the House Agriculture Committee. He noted that both of those committees passed out major bills that made it to President Barack Obama’s desk.
“I remember during the last election cycle, I was asked ‘are you a liberal or a conservative,’” Enyart said. “And I said ‘well, I really don’t like either one of those labels. I like to think of myself as a pragmatist.’ I like to think of myself as someone who works to get a job done. I try to evaluate every situation. I try to evaluate every vote on its merits.”
If re-elected, Enyart said he’d continue to build up Scott Air Force Base — a 12th District-based facility that’s a “major economic driver for the region.” He’d also like to continue his contributions to the agriculture and armed services committee.
“Because of my military background — the fact that I’m the only retired two-star general in Congress — I have a great deal of credibility on that committee,” said Enyart, referring to the Armed Services Committee. “I provide input that someone who doesn’t have my background wouldn’t necessarily have. Congress’ role is that of oversight. And if you don’t understand the military, it’s hard to provide the oversight.”
Between campaign stops, Bost sat down to chat at an International House of Pancakes in O’Fallon. Between sips of iced tea, the Marine corps veteran and firefighter said how the uncertain direction of the country compelled him to run against Enyart.
“I’ve got nine grandkids,” Bost said. “I’m afraid if somebody doesn’t start standing up for the jobs and for the future of this United States, we’re not going to have the United States that was handed off to us by our parents. And our grandparents. That’s why I made the decision to run.”
After serving in the Marines, Bost worked for his family’s trucking company and operated a beauty salon. After unsuccessfully running for the Illinois House in 1992, he successfully nabbed a southern Illinois-based seat that had long been in Democratic hands in 1994.
With the exception of two years when the GOP controlled the chamber, Bost has been firmly entrenched in the minority in the House. He said that reality created challenges — and opportunities — especially because the speaker of the Illinois House, Democrat Michael Madigan, has held his post almost continuously for more than three decades.
“During the years when we at least had a Republican governor and a Republican-controlled Senate, it did work well,” Bost said. “And we were able to move things. And even being in the minority, by being able to work across the aisle, you can things done somewhat. The problem is in Illinois when you’ve had a speaker that’s been the speaker as long as Mike Madigan has, he doesn’t disobey the Constitution. But he tweaks the rules of the House to give him total power. That is a problem.”
Like Enyart, Bost said that if he is elected, he wants to focus on military issues — helping veterans and improving readiness among the armed forces. He also said he wants more congressional scrutiny over federal regulations.
“One thing that must be done and must be worked on if we’re talking about specific legislation is over-burdensome regulation that comes across from EPA and the IRS and other agencies,” Bost said.” “[They] pin people down where they either don’t want to make an investment in business and don’t want to grow jobs and don’t want to do all those things. So that will be a focus.”
On the surface, the battle between Bost and Enyart shouldn’t be that close.
After all, the 12th District has been in Democratic hands for literally generations. Enyart managed to defeat Republican Jason Plummer comfortably in 2012, even though national Republican groups tried hard to oust him. And Enyart hasn’t made any catastrophic mistakes or become embroiled in scandal.
But most national political analysts believe Enyart is one of the most endangered incumbents in the country. The reason? The 12th District isn’t as Democratic as it was when Costello was in office. And Kyle Kondik of Larry Sabato’s Crystal Ball also said a more favorable national climate for Republicans may help, too.
“House races just don’t get the attention that Senate races do,” Kondik said. “That’s not to say that Bost or Enyart has made some sort of colossal mistake, but Enyart’s a first termer and Bost is a state representative. It may be that both of them are a little generic to voters. And this is a year where Republicans are doing better on the generic ballot than Democrats are. If this turns into a parliamentary style race — just sort of generic D vs. R, you’d probably rather be the Republican.”
Both the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and National Republican Congressional Committee are spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on behalf of Enyart and Bost. And one of the worst-kept secrets in national politics is that when those committees get involved in a contest, the messaging becomes largely indistinguishable from other hotly contested races throughout the country.
The national Republican committee, for instance, is trying to paint Enyart as an out-of-touch Washington insider who won’t stand up against irksome regulation, including ones within the Affordable Care Act. The Democrats are sifting through Bost’s votes in the Illinois House to paint him as an advocate for wealthy interests — instead of the largely working class 12th District.
Still, the race hasn't totally become a paint-by-numbers affair. That’s because national Democrats are trying to make hay of angry speeches Bost made during his time in the Illinois House. (More on that strategy can be read here.)
While emphasizing that he doesn’t have any control over what the national Democratic committte does, Enyart said Bost’s conduct in the Illinois House does make one question his willingness to compromise.
“Over the course of my career, I have had to be in some difficult decision-making situations,” Enyart said. “And it always helps to have a cool head and act responsibly with folks on the other side of an issue.”
The particular speech highlighted in the ad, Bost said, was a condemnation of how Illinois Democrats put forward a large pension bill for debate without giving members a good chance to read it.
“Many of my constituents say ‘yeah, why aren’t the rest of them doing that?’ And why is it that Washington, D.C., is failing so bad? Maybe it’s because there’s not enough of them out there standing up for what we believe,” Bost said. “They’re going out there, representing their own interests and doing nothing. That’s maybe why this is resonating.”
“I’m not going to be a person who goes there and sits and does nothing,” he added. “And if you want a person who goes and sits and does nothing and not argue on your behalf, then I’m not your guy.”
Enyart, Bost and Bradshaw are expected to debate each other Wednesday in Marion and again at 7 p.m. Oct. 29, at Lindenwood University’s Belleville campus.