Will The 16th District Be Competitive In 2018 In Primary Or General Election?

Feb 9, 2018

WNIJ News continues its look at important primary election races in northern Illinois. In this Friday Forum, WNIJ’s Dan Klefstad talks with Northern Illinois University Prof. Scot Schraufnagel, chair of the Department of Political Science, about the contests in both parties in the 16th Illinois Congressional District, which covers about half of the WNIJ listening area.

The incumbent in the 16th District is Republican Adam Kinzinger, who first entered the House from the old 11th Illinois Congressional District in 2003. Two years later, in the redrawn 16th District, he mounted a primary challenge to longtime Republican Representative Don Manzullo and beat him.

Kinzinger also won the general election and has been undefeated in this heavily Republican district since. In 2016 he faced no opponent in either the GOP primary or the general election. This time he has both a primary opponent and a few Democratic challengers as well.

U.S. Rep. Adam Kinzinger, left, and primary challenger Jim Marter

Oswego resident Jim Marter is the primary challenger. He also ran a primary challenge to U.S. Sen. Mark Kirk in 2016 and lost. Marter actually lives in the 14th Congressional District. He runs an information technology business and is chairman of the Kendall County Republican Party.

NIU political scientist Scot Schraufnagel doesn’t see Marter as a serious threat to the incumbent.

“The primary election, I would imagine, will go to Kinzinger,” he said. “Marter represents a more extreme element within the Republican Party, which does turn out at a higher rate in party primaries, and so that works to his advantage.

“But people are going to be strategic in who they choose to vote for, and Republicans in that primary are going to want their best chance in the general election, and I suspect that’s going to sway votes in Kinzinger’s favor,” Schraufnagel said.

The fact that Kinzinger had no primary opponent in 2016 but now does is a sign that there is some dissatisfaction among GOP voters in the district, Schraufnagel agrees. Kinzinger actually had a second GOP challenger who withdrew after his nominating petitions were questioned.

“Kinzinger is noted for having gone on MSNBC and speaking out against Donald Trump in the 2016 election cycle,” Schraufnagel explained. “He’s since been moving more to the right, saying nicer things about President Trump – probably because of this primary challenger.”

Kinzinger does have the “incumbency advantage,” but that has been shrinking, and politics in general have become more nationalized over the last three or four election cycles, according to Schraufnagel.

“But to say the incumbency advantage is shrinking is not the same as saying it’s gone away,” he added. “Kinzinger still will have certain institutional advantages – staff and so forth – that Marter won’t have.”

The winner of the Republican primary will face a Democrat chosen from among four primary candidates. They are Beth Vercolio-Osmund, Neill Mohammad, Sara Dady, and Amy “Murri” Briel.

But it’s hard to tell who’s out in front, Schraufnagel explained. “Right now there’s not a lot of polling for this particular primary,” he said, “so it’s really a guessing game. We don’t know who really is ahead.”

16th Illinois Congressional District Democratic candidates, from left: Beth Vercolio-Osmund, Neill Mohammad, Sara Dady, and Amy "Murri" Briel
Credit Chase Cavanaugh/WNIJ

Here are Schraufnagel’s comments on each of the four:

Neill Mohammad – “An interesting candidate in that he’s got local connections. His mother was a secretary at NIU, and his father was a Pakistani immigrant. He’s been a hospital management consultant and very well-schooled in issues of healthcare policy and so forth.”

Sara Dady – “[She] runs her own law firm and focuses a lot on immigration law, and so she would be very well versed in those sort of issue areas."

Amy “Murri” Briel – “Probably the more moderate of the candidates, at least based on her website. She’s a soccer coach, wants to fix Obamacare -- not advocating for a single-payer healthcare system the way Mohammad was.”

Beth Vercolio-Osmund – “She’s a sustainable farmer in Ottawa. She entered the race late and collected all the signatures she needed in just a few days. Usually those entering a race late are at somewhat of a strategic disadvantage.”

Schraufnagel noted that Mohammad appears to have raised the most money to date, and Dady also has “considerable money.”

“This election is shaping up to be possibly competitive in the general election,” Schraufnagel said. “Republicans who are thinking strategically are going to want to hang onto this seat, support Kinzinger in the primary. If Marter were to win, I suspect they’re opening the door to a possible turnover with the Democratic candidate being successful.”

Schraufnagel sets a couple of conditions for the 16th District seat to flip from Republican to Democrat.

“In order for Democrats to take this, I think it would have to be Marter and then it would have to be reasonably high voter turnout,” Schraufnagel said. “When we say it’s a safe Republican district, those lines were drawn seven, eight years ago. It’s a dynamic population; people don’t stay put.”

“The dynamic nature of the Illinois population,” Schraufnagel said, means that we don’t know exactly how safe the district is in 2018.

“It was safe in ’16 because [Kinzinger] went unchallenged. That made it safe,” Schraufnagel said. “We don’t know what the vote totals would have been if he had quality challengers, someone who had previously held public office.”

The Illinois Primary Election will be held March 20. Early voting, which was scheduled to begin Feb. 8, has been delayed in some jurisdictions due to challenges to a candidate for Illinois Attorney General.