Manzullo: Cantor should step down for interfering in primary

Rep. Don Manzullo (R-Ill.) said House Majority Leader Eric Cantor should step down from his leadership position for interfering in Tuesday’s primary.

The 10-term congressman said he was “outraged” that Cantor (R-Va.) endorsed freshman Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.) in the battle between the two lawmakers, which is growing nastier by the day.

“He needs to step down as majority leader,” Manzullo told The Hill on Monday afternoon, referring to Cantor. “Members of our conference don’t trust him, and when you don’t trust someone, you need to replace him.”

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Tuesday’s primary has turned into a proxy war between the Tea Party, which is backing Manzullo, and the GOP leadership, members of which have donated to or endorsed Kinzinger, a rising star in the party who has been named a deputy House whip.

House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) donated to Kinzinger’s campaign shortly before the freshman lawmaker announced he would run against Manzullo. Boehner has since cut a $5,000 check to Manzullo — the same amount he gave Kinzinger — and Manzullo said Boehner apologized to him for the earlier donation, saying it’d been a mix-up.

Manzullo also said he’d complained to Boehner about ads run by Cantor’s super-PAC and the Speaker said he’d call House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) about them.

Cantor has endorsed Kinzinger, and a super-PAC affiliated with the leader has spent more than $50,000 on radio ads against Manzullo.

The Young Guns Action Fund, a super-PAC run by former Cantor staffers, is behind the ads. The group shares a name with the Young Guns, a group of younger Republican leaders founded by Cantor, McCarthy and Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.). Manzullo said that McCarthy had called him to make clear he had nothing to do with the ads and was neutral in the race.

Super-PACs cannot coordinate with the candidates they support, a Cantor spokesman pointed out.

“Congressman Cantor had no advance knowledge of or influence on the Young Guns super-PAC expenditures or activities,” Cantor campaign spokesman Ray Allen said. “Eric endorsed Adam Kinzinger because he believes Adam will do everything in his power to uphold the American Dream and best deliver on our Republican free-market principles of lower taxes, smaller government and individual success.”

Cantor’s office did not respond directly to Manzullo’s remarks.

Manzullo has bucked party leaders in the past, but has voted with them on high-profile bills this Congress.

He claims that other members in the GOP conference are furious at Cantor for getting involved in the race. 

“We’re going to win this election, then Cantor’s going to have to deal with it,” Manzullo said. 

Kinzinger, meanwhile, has 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 last week. “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.”

Redistricting put Kinzinger in a tough spot. His home ended up in Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr.’s (D-Ill.) district, meaning the freshman lawmaker would have had to take on the son of a legendary Democratic family in a liberal-leaning district or move to Manzullo’s district and challenge the incumbent.

When he announced he’d run against Manzullo, many thought Kinzinger would win the race easily. 

Kinzinger beat then-Rep. Debbie Halvorson (D-Ill.) by a wide margin in 2010 and quickly became a favorite of House Republicans, and Manzullo hasn’t faced a tough race in more than a decade. But the old bull has campaigned at a furious pace, seemingly fueled by the attacks from Kinzinger and Cantor.

“Don is working harder than I’ve seen him work for quite a while,” said Illinois state Rep. Dave Winters (R), who is backing Kinzinger.

Kinzinger is also backed by Reps. Aaron Schock (R-Ill.) and John Shimkus (R-Ill.). The Campaign for Primary Accountability, a super-PAC that has targeted longtime incumbents of both parties, has spent a large amount against Manzullo. This is the same group that helped defeat Rep. Jean Schmidt (R-Ohio) in her primary earlier this month and tried (but failed) to take out Rep. Spencer Bachus (R-Ala.) in his primary last week.

Manzullo has been helped by local Tea Party members, some of whom supported Kinzinger in 2010 but have been sorely disappointed by the freshman’s voting record. He received the backing of Rep. Timothy Johnson (R-Ill.) over the weekend and has the support of conservative national groups including FreedomWorks, the Family Research Council and a dozen others.

“Kinzinger’s only been there a few months, but he’s an establishment vote,” said David Hale, the head of the Rockford Tea Party and a Manzullo backer. “He is not a Tea Party conservative.”

Winters said part of the reason he is backing Kinzinger was that Manzullo had told him he’d retire soon, and that he saw Kinzinger as a more energetic congressman who could do more for the district.

“I don’t think Manzullo is going to move any place and he told me he only wants to run for one or two more terms. He’s already looking at retirement,” Winters said.

Manzullo vehemently denied that he had even talked to Winters, saying Winters had been spreading “lies” about him. But Winters stood by his comment. “I wish I had a tape of that,” he said. “He definitely did tell me that.”

Local Republicans say that the race is tight but that Manzullo has the momentum. A recent poll of the race showed it was tied. Kinzinger had led by double digits in a previous poll by the same firm.

The nasty primary battle could also be affected by the Republican presidential primary, likewise occurring on Tuesday. It’s unclear which candidate this helps; Kinzinger could be helped if more centrist Republicans turn out to vote for Mitt Romney, but because Manzullo has represented more of the new district in the past, he might have better name recognition among more casual voters.

Manzullo predicted he’d win, but said the $400,000 super-PACs had spent against him made the race “tough.”

Winters predicted a Kinzinger win, but said Manzullo had made up ground in recent days. “I think it’ll be a late night,” he said.

— This story was updated at 8:57 p.m.