EDWARDSVILLE, Illinois — As national Republicans push to reclaim control of the U.S. House of Representatives in the upcoming November midterms, voters in the Metro East could have a hand in deciding the balance of power in Washington, D.C.
Illinois 13th Congressional District race
Democratic voters nominated political consultant Nikki Budzinski to run in the newly drawn 13th Congressional District, which voted for President Biden by a nine-point margin in 2020.
"The issue really of this campaign is inflation," Budzinski said at a campaign event in early June.
Multi-millionaire Regan Deering won a close GOP primary, beating attorney Jesse Reising for the nomination by 671 votes. Deering's campaign sees its electoral chances improving in a district where voters regularly voice concerns about the rising cost of gas prices, groceries, and rent under the Biden administration.
"We need to work on some policy issues that are getting Americans back to prices they can afford," Deering said last week.
Analysts at The Cook Political Report factored a Biden backlash into their calculations. They recently shifted the race from shading Democrats as a four-point favorite down to a three-point advantage, putting Deering within reach of a potential upset in the gerrymandered district. They still project voters in the district will "Lean Democratic."
Budzinski and Deering both list inflation as the top issue on voters' minds this fall, but neither of them is likely to personally feel the sting of inflation in the same way most working-class voters will.
About the candidates
Budzinski made $558,225 in income as a political consultant last year, according to her financial disclosure reports, which puts her just outside the top one percent of earners in the nation. She lists her assets and investment portfolio in a range worth somewhere between $700,000 and $1.9 million.
Deering, who lists her net worth between $35 million and $142 million, drew nearly all of her recent income from her investment holdings, according to her financial disclosure report. Most of her wealth comes from her family inheritance in Archers Daniels Midland stock. Her investments in ADM could be worth up to $85.3 million, according to her financial disclosure.
Budzinski boasts the backing of "electricians, plumbers, firefighters," she said during a Tuesday interview with 5 On Your Side. At least 19 trade unions and labor groups have endorsed her campaign so far.
Deering approaches the fall with farmers and agricultural executives in her corner. The political arm of the Illinois Farm Bureau endorsed her campaign during a tour across the district on Tuesday.
"Farming seems hard today," Deering told a room full of farmers in Edwardsville. "I have talked to a lot of people throughout this district that feel as though there's kind of an assault on many levels, whether it's rising costs or regulations, unrealistic goals."
While Budzinski didn't win the support of the Illinois Farm Bureau's right-leaning political action committee, she correctly identified many of the concerns that farmers would later express in their endorsement meeting with Deering.
"I'm hearing a lot about rising costs," Budzinski said. "And for family farmers, it's about high input prices and commodity prices that just aren't keeping up with those."
Budzinski said she'd support crop insurance in the upcoming farm bill in Congress, more domestic energy production, and an e15 ethanol blend she says can "reduce carbon emissions, bringing down the prices of gas as well."
An hour later, during their endorsement meeting with Deering, farmers mentioned higher input prices at least five times, referring to rising costs of fuel, fertilizer, seeds, pesticides, or other products they need to operate on the farm.
One farmer asked Deering about "our infrastructure plan for our roads."
"Our roads are nothing compared to what they were 20 years ago," he said. "They're falling apart, and they need a lot of help, especially on rural roads."
"We have the funding there," she replied. "Obviously, the infrastructure bill came out. And I have heard that there are funds available, it's just getting them in play and working towards some outcomes of fixing the roads."
But while she pointed to the bipartisan infrastructure bill as a solution, she could not say whether she would've voted for it.
"Well, I'm definitely someone that's going to vote for good bills that are going to create jobs in my district," Deering replied.
When pressed for a specific answer on how she would've voted, she parried, "Well, I'm not a current member of Congress."
And if she was?
"I didn't read all the pages," she replied. "We have bills that are thousands of pages and get pushed through in a minimum number of hours."
Nine months after the infrastructure bill passed with wide, bipartisan support, Deering said she remained undecided on the proposal, in part because she didn't know what was in it.
As a senior adviser to Illinois Governor J.B. Pritzker, Budzinski worked with labor unions and business groups as they hammered out a plan to double the state's motor fuel tax, and tie all future increases to inflation. That gas tax increase was the first of its kind in more than two decades, and became a key revenue stream to fund new infrastructure repairs.
Now, Budzinski is applauding Pritzker's six-month gas tax freeze, and calling on the Biden administration to freeze the federal gas tax "until 2023."
"I think that's a great place to start for some immediate relief," Deering agreed. "I know the state of Illinois has done that. I think it's just a couple of cents, but at least it feels like people are having their government work for them."
In June, Budzinski said the Biden administration "should be doing more" to combat inflation. Since then, the president signed the Inflation Reduction Act into law.
Nonpartisan studies from the Congressional Budget Office and the Wharton School of Business found Biden's plan would do very little to nothing to reduce inflation.
Was Budzinski satisfied with the President's Inflation Reduction Act?
"We need to be doing more, absolutely," she said. "Something that I think is critically important that was in that Inflation Reduction Act was Medicare being able to negotiate for the first time with pharmaceutical companies to lower the cost of prescription drugs. My Republican opponent Regan Dearing has come out against that."
"We should be capping the cost of insulin at $35," she said. "My Republican opponent Regan Deering does not support that."
While Deering did oppose the Inflation Reduction Act, her campaign said she "has never said that she does not support capping the cost of insulin."
Deering also criticized Budzinski's move to gradually raise Illinois' minimum wage to $15 per hour.
"Many small businesses are closing their doors or hiring less employees as a result of those increased costs," Deering said.
She also criticized Biden's plan to forgive up to $20,000 in federal student loan debt for workers earning less than $125,000 per year.
"I don't think it's a great idea," she said. "We have good working families here, many of whom didn't go to college, made sacrifices, and chose alternate paths because they couldn't afford college or there wasn't the structure available. Their families couldn't afford that sacrifice. But those that did go, it feels as though it's a responsibility you should have taken."
Deering recommended Congress adopt low- or zero-interest rates on federal student loans instead.
Budzinski would not say if she wanted to see Biden run for a second term, nor if she would welcome him to the district to help her campaign.
Deering would not say if she would support Donald Trump running for re-election in 2024.
"I'm not really somebody that is listening to the past president as far as what I think the conversation needs to be," Deering said.