Illinois primary pits leaders vs. Tea Party

The primary battle between Reps. Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.) and Don Manzullo (R-Ill.) has turned into a proxy war between the House Republican leadership and the Tea Party.

This is the first election of 2012 to expose the schism between the two wings of the Republican Party, which have fought on policy issues since the conservative grassroots movement helped the GOP take control of the lower chamber in 2010.

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Republican leaders — including House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) and Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) — have either endorsed or donated to Kinzinger, a rising star in the Republican Conference. But many Tea Party members who supported Kinzinger in 2010 feel betrayed by his more centrist voting record and are backing Manzullo.

Manzullo told The Hill he’s “not surprised” that House leaders are backing Kinzinger.

“The leadership thinks he’s someone they can work with,” he said.

Manzullo said local Republicans were furious that Cantor and other lawmakers from outside the district had gotten involved in the race.

“Thousands of people are angry and are pledging to not give one more dime to the Republican Party,” the 10-term lawmaker said. “They’ve really stepped out of bounds. This is how dangerous it is that someone from leadership gets involved in a primary.”  

Kinzinger, meanwhile, framed the race as a choice between the status quo and a fresh start. 

“This race isn’t about who’s more conservative — we’re both conservative, everyone recognizes that,” he told The Hill. “The people who have worked with him and worked with me are saying for the future of this party and the future of the country I’m the right choice … Don’s a nice guy but he’s been there 20 years. It’s time to turn the page and get a new generation of leaders.”

Kinzinger won in 2010 with Tea Party support but quickly became a leadership favorite, earning a deputy whip position. He sided with Boehner — and against the Tea Party during the debt-ceiling fight — and resigned from the conservative Republican Study Committee after a major flare-up between the group and the Speaker. Those close to Boehner and Cantor say they see Kinzinger as a rising star and want to make sure he stays in Congress.

But some of the things Kinzinger has done to ingratiate himself with leadership have infuriated some Tea Party members.

“Kinzinger jumped on the Tea Party wave but once he got elected he didn’t do a damn thing for us,” said David Hale, a leader in the Illinois Tea Party, a confederation of Tea Party groups that has endorsed Manzullo.

Influential conservative blogger Erick Erickson of RedState.com, who backed Kinzinger last election, recently called him a “leadership flunky” and a “disappointment.” He has endorsed Manzullo in next week’s primary.

And Manzullo charged the freshman lawmaker with abandoning the group that helped elect him.

“[Kinzinger] abandoned the Tea Party,” Manzullo said. “He had their endorsement and help and then he started voting as a moderate … he clearly is not a conservative.”

Kinzinger countered: “There are some Tea Partiers like that but I also do have some Tea Party backing myself — some straw polls I’ve done well with,” he said. “The reality is I go to Washington, D.C., and I vote my conscience.”

Manzullo is not a hard-line ideologue, but his voting record has been more conservative than Kinzinger’s, according to a variety of conservative groups’ vote ratings.

He’s also bucked party leadership. Last month, Manzullo sided with the party’s Tea Party wing — and against party leaders — on a bill that would have dramatically reduced government spending. In 2004, Manzullo led the fight against a Republican-backed corporate tax bill, forcing the party to cut a deal with Democrats to pass it. 

But House Republicans said the split was more about support for Kinzinger than anger at Manzullo.

After Illinois Democrats ripped apart Kinzinger’s district in redistricting, he decided to challenge Manzullo in a new district that included chunks of both their old territory. 

The race has since turned nasty. Manzullo said his wife “got tears in her eyes” after seeing a mail piece Kinzinger had put out against him. He also charged his rival with running “mean and ugly Chicago-type campaign ads.”

Kinzinger fired back: “That is probably the most ludicrous thing I’ve heard. We’ve run a very professional campaign, and him calling me a Chicago style politician shows a really high level of desperation.”

The freshman lawmaker also complained of an ad Manzullo was running that tied him to House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.).

Cantor’s endorsement last Thursday turned up the heat on the long-simmering conflict, and led to a Manzullo endorsement the next day from FreedomWorks, a national Tea Party group. 

Besides Cantor, Kinzinger has been backed by Illinois Republican Reps. Aaron Schock and John Shimkus. 

Boehner has stayed publicly neutral in the race, but donated to Kinzinger’s campaign four days before the freshman member officially announced which district he’d run in. Kinzinger previously had indicated he would challenge Manzullo, however.

This is not the only race where Boehner has hinted at support for one House incumbent over another. On the same day he donated to Kinzinger he also gave to Rep. Ben Quayle (R-Ariz.), who later announced a run against Rep. David Schweikert (R-Ariz.). The Speaker also gave to Rep. Charles Boustany Jr. (R-La.), who is likely to face off against Rep. Jeff Landry (R-La.).

A source on Boehner’s political team said the donations had all been made before the redistricting maps in those states had been finalized.

Manzullo said Boehner “should have known” about the primary, and that after he found out he should’ve given the same to Manzullo. After being asked why he hadn’t done that, Boehner’s staffer said that a check was being processed.

When told that, Manzullo snorted. “They said the check was in the mail?” he joked. 

After a pause, he took a more serious tone. “If the Speaker says the donation to Kinzinger was accidental, I’ll take his word for it,” he said.

Both congressmen predicted a close race, although Kinzinger had a double-digit lead in the one public poll of the race. 

“I’d rather be in my position than his,” Kinzinger said.

But the wear of the campaign seemed to be taking its toll. 

“There are eight days left, and I’m ready for these eight days to be over,” Kinzinger said on Monday.