Some key allies of President Obama are working to stop former Rep. Debbie Halvorson (D-Ill.), a pro-gun-rights candidate, from winning a heavily Democratic district in Obama’s Chicago backyard.
Halvorson, running in a crowded Democratic primary to fill the seat left open by former Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr.’s (D-Ill.) resignation, is facing strong opposition from several Democrats and liberal groups, some with close ties to the president.
She endorsed former Cook County Administrator Robin Kelly (D), stressing that Kelly would be the candidate most in line with Obama’s gun views.
“After the State of the Union address (on Tuesday) it’s hard to say gun violence prevention isn’t a top priority for our country, and certainly for the president, who’s engaged in this issue,” Schakowsky said. “Robin Kelly has been a leader on this issue from day one.”
Indeed, the special election in Illinois’s 2nd Congressional District is proving a key early battleground in the gun-rights fight.
Not only does the district cover Chicago’s South Side and inner suburbs, just miles from the first family’s home, it is an area that has been racked by gang violence in recent years.
In 2012 alone, 500 homicides occurred in Chicago.
Halvorson is the only white candidate in the majority African-American district and is the one most opposed to gun control — she was one of the few Democrats endorsed by the National Rifle Association in 2010.
But because of the crowded field, she still has a path to victory in the race, and a Halvorson win in the pro-gun-control district could deal a blow to those advocating for tighter gun restrictions.
Schakowsky, who endorsed and donated to Halvorson in her 2008 and 2010 campaigns when she was running in a suburban swing district, said she was opposing her now “because of the gun issue.”
Other close allies who previously backed Halvorson, including now-Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel (D) and Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), are staying neutral in the race.
Schakowsky stressed that she was speaking for herself, not for Obama or the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.
“This is something I’ve done on my own. But it is true at the same time that Robin Kelly and Barack Obama are on the same page when it comes to ending gun violence,” Schakowsky said.
She pointed out that Kelly’s first bill, when she was in the state legislature, was on gun control. Obama, as a state senator, co-sponsored it.
Kelly’s campaign chairwoman, Cheryl Whitaker, and her husband are also close friends of the Obamas. Kelly was an early volunteer on Obama’s Senate campaign, as well as his presidential race.
New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s (I) super-PAC has already spent $1.3 million against Halvorson, which has helped drag down her poll numbers in the district.
Bloomberg endorsed Obama in 2012 largely because of his stance on gun control and has been a lead ally of Obama’s on the issue, bankrolling the biggest pro-gun-control effort in the country.
Reps. Bobby Rush (D-Ill.) and Danny Davis (D-Ill.), two African-American Chicago congressmen, have also endorsed Kelly. Rush invited Kelly to be his guest at the State of the Union speech.
Despite all the pressure, Halvorson has refused to back away from her opposition to a ban on assault weapons and extended magazine clips. But she agrees with Obama on increasing background checks, and wants to see tougher penalties on straw buyers and gun trafficking.
“If you can tell me that banning another gun will go after the criminals, I’d be all for it. I’d be for anything that stopped the killing and gets guns out of the hands of criminals, but it won’t work. (Chicago’s) Cook County has had an assault weapons ban since 1993 and they have the highest murder rate in the country,” she told The Hill.
“That’s why I refuse to just say I’m for it, knowing in my heart it’s not going to work. It would have saved me a lot of grief, there wouldn’t be all this money going against me, but I’ve been an elected official too long and I know too much. I know that won’t work.”
In addition to several member of Congress, former Obama aides have stepped in as well to oppose Halvorson.
David Axelrod, a former senior adviser to the president who is now at the University of Chicago, recently tweeted that Halvorson’s strong standing in the district is “ironic, given [the] carnage” in the district.
Ben LaBolt, who was an Obama campaign spokesman in 2008 and 2012, slammed Halvorson’s gun position.
“A candidate that has been endorsed by the organization that is standing in the way of the most basic things we can do to reduce violence on our streets should not represent Chicago’s South Side,” LaBolt said in a statement to The Hill.
LaBolt said the prominence of gun control in the election could show “there is support for candidates that take action against gun violence that could prove more powerful than the NRA.”
Obama has not weighed in on the race. But the president will be in Chicago on Friday to give a major speech on gang violence and gun control just outside of the district, arguing for many of the same policies Halvorson opposes.
Halvorson laughed when asked about Obama allies endorsing her opponents and spending heavily against her.
“All these endorsements, they keep saying, ‘We have to find Robin (Kelly) another endorsement.’ They keep coming out and out-of-towners in this district, it just angers people,” she said. “People are swarming me everywhere I go, telling me to hang in there.”
Halvorson has struggled with fundraising, but she has high name recognition and a strong base of support in the more suburban and exurban parts of the district where she’s well known.
She might also benefit from a fractured field of other candidates that includes Illinois state Sen. Toi Hutchinson (D), who’s also polled fairly strongly.
“If all the candidates stay in that are in, Halvorson still has a shot because the African-American vote is going to be split, to be blunt, and there will be higher turnout in the suburbs,” said Roosevelt University Professor Paul Green, a former Chicago alderman.
“I wouldn’t write her off. The fact is, she’s still a long shot. But as long as you keep people mixing up the non-Halvorson vote, don’t count her out.”