He is a top Democratic recruit, a man party officials have eyed for years and who is now running in one of the most competitive districts in the country. And on a Thursday night in late May, he stood before a room of irate Democrats, defending Donald Trump.
“Let me say this in response a little bit: I think there’s a lot of anger in the country,” Brendan Kelly told the gaggle of grizzled attendees here in southern Illinois’ 12th congressional district, as anti-Trump barbs began to fly.
The town hall gathering, held in a fluorescent-lit, wood-paneled meeting room where a Bud Light-emblazoned clock kept the time, was supposed to be about Social Security, pensions and Medicare. And for awhile, it was. But then the Trump-bashing began from the audience: “No one is a bigger liar in the country than the President or Sarah Sanders.” Trump is “an immoral, draft-dodging punk.”
At first, Kelly, a burly Navy veteran and current state’s attorney, tried to engage, aware that the insults represented a minority viewpoint in this district that backed Trump by 15 percentage points: “I’m running in a district that voted for President Trump, and also for [Democratic Sen.] Tammy Duckworth overwhelmingly. The same people. Why do you think that is?”
But the complaints continued, and so Kelly pushed back.
“The circumstances we find ourselves in are about more than one person, more than one office,” he said. “It’s about a whole lot of things that have been done wrong to southern Illinois for about 20 to 30 years.”
“We’ve gone from hating Bush to hating Obama to hating Trump,” he added. “We’ve been hating for a long time, and I’m not sure that has necessarily helped anybody, particularly here.”
The 12th district of Illinois, like so many old industrial hubs, is struggling economically. White working-class voters here helped President Barack Obama twice win the district—Mitt Romney, the 2012 GOP nominee, was considered the candidate of the rich—before it flipped for Trump. Indeed, this is one of 21 districts that voted for Obama in 2012 and Trump last time, contributing to full GOP control of Washington and scrambling traditional Republican and Democratic coalitions.
[For more coverage of 2018’s bellwether districts, check out our Ground Game page.]
In 2018, as Democrats fight to retake control of the House and begin to mull the next presidential campaign, Kelly is testing whether the results of 2016 in districts like this—where strongly pro-union, pro-gun rights voters from Minnesota’s 8th District to Iowa’s First District abandoned their longtime historical ties to the Democratic Party—were a Trump-fueled aberration or a realignment reality.
And the results of his race will show whether Democrats here and nationally have any prayer of winning those voters back.
The race for the 12th district is already shaping up to be an epic battle between two men with distinctive personalities, deep ties to the area and a shared willingness to break, at times, with their respective party orthodoxies—and it’s already drawing big national spending.
Congressman Mike Bost, 57, the Republican incumbent and a former union firefighter, represented a slice of the district in the Illinois statehouse for around 20 years. He won the longtime Democratic congressional seat in 2014, in part by touting pro-labor convictions, in a break with many Chamber of Commerce-type Republicans—at least pre-Trump.
That year, Democrats dubbed him “Meltdown Mike,” a knock on his record of emotional outbursts, including a fit thrown on the floor of the Illinois statehouse after not receiving enough time to read a bill on pension reform.
Yet that only played to Bost’s advantage in a district where disillusioned voters want leaders who feel their pain—and, as Trump channeled so effectively, their anger, too.
While Bost seems less angry these days, given his party now runs Washington, he is still a human explosion of energy on the campaign trail. Bost is a glad-hander and raconteur with an impish grin who, even when listening, often cycles through a range of facial expressions and hand gestures at a frenzied pace.
He has 11 grandchildren and longstanding family links to the area, and for nearly every policy he’s discussing, there’s a family member’s story (for example: He got comfortable supporting a ban on bump stocks for guns, he says, after a cousin who owns a gun shop in southern Illinois said they shouldn’t be sold). The implicit message: This is a man with authentic connections to Illinois-12.
The Democrat, Kelly, also has roots in the district: he grew up here, met his wife here, and has held multiple public positions, from circuit clerk to St. Clair County’s state’s attorney, that make him a known quantity in Belleville. Kelly, 42, is more low-key than Bost, with a casual manner of speaking peppered with “yeahs”—and the occasional saltier phrase.
“I still believe in this country — look at this, it’s freaking beautiful!” he exclaimed as he drove us the hour back to Belleville in St. Clair County, home of his campaign headquarters, after his town hall wrapped. The setting sun cast a glow over the rural landscape as we zoomed by in “the Beast,” the campaign’s large black Tahoe. Getting his campaign manager’s attention, he continued: “Look at this, Sam, this is a commercial! What the hell!”
Kelly is betting that what drives votes here is “not about left versus right, it’s more about up versus down.” In other words, economic anxiety rather than raw partisanship. While he is targeting more traditionally Democratic constituencies—organized labor, the African American community, women, the progressive groups that have blossomed since Trump’s election—he is keenly aware that he also needs to win Trump voters. And so he is pitching himself as an independent-minded candidate with strong personal connections to a struggling district that, he hopes, is still in the mood for change.
Much like Rep. Conor Lamb, the Democrat who won a special election in Pennsylvania in a district that Trump won by nearly 20 percentage points, Kelly highlights his willingness to break with the national Democratic brand, and like Lamb, he opposes Nancy Pelosi for House Speaker.
He takes pains to avoid antagonizing Trump supporters, both rhetorically and in his approach to some policies.
“I want the president to succeed,” he told me. “Whether Democrat or Republican, the president is the quarterback. I want the president making the big plays, I want him doing that well, he or she, whoever that is. If they’re going to do something that’s going to hurt southern Illinois, as a member of Congress, I gotta fight ‘em. If they’re going to do something that’s going to help southern Illinois, I gotta stand with them and try to support them.”
Kelly sees a need for more border security. He isn’t opposed to a border wall—Trump’s signature campaign issue—even as he stressed his support for young immigrants brought to the country illegally, known as Dreamers (last month he also expressed opposition to the Trump administration’s practice of separating children from parents detained at the border).
Asked if he would support a ban on assault weapons, Kelly, who says he owns firearms for self-defense, launched into a 12-minute discussion of gun policy and what people “living in a big city where there’s a cop on every block” miss about rural affinity for the Second Amendment.
But when pressed to say whether he would support an assault weapons ban as a congressman, he eventually replied, “I don’t think I would, no.”
Certainly, Kelly is still in agreement with national Democrats on some issues—especially health care. Like Democrats across the country, he is poised to hammer Bost over the congressman’s support for repealing Obamacare, arguing that position endangered many voters in the district.
Kelly has also received assistance from Rep. Seth Moulton, a Massachusetts Democrat who is advising veterans running as Democrats across the country, and Rep. Cheri Bustos, an Illinois Democrat who won big in a Trump district. Kelly calls Bustos his “fairy stepsister” who shares advice and encouragement.
At home, Republicans in the district who know him don’t seem to mind Kelly, who called Bost to give him a heads up that he was considering entering the race. (Kelly recalled it as a “very nice conversation,” while Bost said it was “one of the most bizarre calls I’ve ever gotten in politics.”)
“If he were my next-door neighbor, even though he’s a Democrat and I’m a Republican, we’d probably have a beer and grill some steaks on the deck,” said John Rosenbaum, first vice chair for the St. Clair County Republican Party who expects the race to be “dead-even.” “I think I would like him if he were my next-door neighbor.”
National Republicans take a less charitable view.
In a sign of just how central this Illinois contest is to the House majority, Congressional Leadership Fund—the GOP super PAC aligned with House Speaker Paul Ryan—has already reserved $2.7 million in fall TV time, has a field office in the district and had a young tracker at Kelly’s town hall, monitoring his every word.
As in other GOP-held districts, Republicans — both Bost and his national allies — plan to paint Kelly as a moderate-in-name-only, one who would still vote with Pelosi, the ultimate bogeyman in a culturally conservative district, even if he opposes her for Speaker. Congressional Leadership Fund is also expected to raise questions about Kelly’s time as a prosecutor, drawing comparisons to Bost’s background as “U.S. Marine, firefighter, public servant.”
Democrats aren’t ceding the airwaves for one of their most prized recruits: House Majority PAC—the pro-Democratic super PAC—has so far reserved around $500,000 in airtime in the nearby St. Louis media market, intended to target Illinois 12.
Mike Bost was ignoring the pretzel rolls.
The congressman had broken his no-carb rule over Memorial Day Weekend, he said as we sat at a trendy, high-ceilinged pizzeria on a quiet street in O’Fallon, outside of Belleville. So he skipped the snack his chief of staff had ordered as we settled in to talk about the race.
It was a sign of willpower after a whirlwind five-stop swing through Illinois-12.
We had started at 8 a.m., meeting in a rural part of the district where Bost attended a meet-and-greet with farmers. He discussed the farm bill and trade before heading outside for group photos on a muddy driveway overlooking green fields still wet from the morning’s drizzle. Bost, a skilled retail politician, was in no rush to leave, chatting about infrastructure and agriculture and gleefully telling stories that had little to do with policy matters. He delighted and horrified a small group of listeners as he recalled the time he and his wife encountered a hissing raccoon menacing their hot tub. (“She goes, what are you gonna do? I say, I’m going in the house!” he recounted with a belly laugh.)
The personal stories—some funny, some somber, often about family—kept up all day as Bost sought emotional connections with his constituents, through stops that included a school safety forum, a tour of an equipment services company (next door was a sheet metal workers’ union hall, which displayed a Kelly sign) and a visit to the Illinois Center for Autism.
“I’m a hard-working member of Congress, I’m a lover of southern Illinois and this district,” he told me at the pizzeria.
It wouldn’t be until the next stop—an evening gathering with supporters at Bost’s campaign office, where he plucked a hot dog off a tray and ate it sans bun—that Bost would officially campaign.
But the action-packed day was a reminder of the power of incumbency: members of Congress running for reelection can raise their name ID and greet voters in the name of their day job, while challengers like Kelly scramble to introduce themselves district-wide.
And another benefit of incumbency: the ability to claim deliverables for the district.
As the co-chair of the Congressional Steel Caucus, Bost has highlighted his dealings with Trump when it comes to promoting job protections for steelworkers, cheering Trump’s push for steel tariffs and the expected addition of 800 steel-working jobs at a local plant.
It’s part of Bost’s argument that his experience in Congress and rising seniority yields tangible successes for constituents at home.
Yet even in this pro-Trump district, Bost is not immune from the broader environmental challenges confronting Republicans across the map this cycle as progressives activate to rebuke Trump.
He acknowledges that “what we have to do is build up our intensity,” and to fire up his base, he is tapping Trump.
“We make sure we deliver the message that the best way for the president to continue forwarding his agenda is to make sure the House remains in control of Republicans,” he said. “We explain that to our base and to those who may not be politically Republican or Democrat but have benefited under tax reform, have benefited under reduced overall business regulations, government regulations, that allow growth in their job, whatever that may be.”
But he is not the kind of Republican candidate who is campaigning solely on fealty to Trump. And interviews with voters on the ground revealed that a message centered on Trump doesn’t work here the way it does in more sharply partisan places, like the South.
“If someone says, ‘I’m completely with him on everything he does,’ I look at that and say, ‘Why?’ There’s got to be some disagreement,” said Chris Otten, 34, a farmer who said he voted for Obama in 2012 and Trump in 2016. He spoke with Bost at the farmers’ meet-and-greet, held at Otten’s parents’ home, and said he would vote for Bost “if the election happened today.”
But, he added, “I like to hear both sides.”