Former Democratic state Rep. Robin Kelly is an unlikely frontrunner in the special election in Illinois' Second Congressional District. Kelly's opponents a couple months ago included a former member of the House, Debbie Halvorson, Halvorson's former chief of staff and state Sen. Toi Hutchinson, and an influential member of the Chicago City Council, Alderman Anthony Beale. All are known figures in the Chicagoland area.
But tragedy in Newtown, Conn., and the more than 500 shooting deaths in Chicago made access to firearms a national conversation and the focal point of the special election. New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, a political independent who favors more restrictive laws governing gun ownership, has pumped over $2 million dollars into the race, knocking Hutchinson out of the race and helping to put Kelly into the driver's seat in the Feb. 26 primary. The district is overwhelmingly Democratic, and the winner of the primary will be a near-lock to win the seat.
In the waning days of January, Chicago Democratic strategist Thom Serafin said Halvorson was "winning at halftime." When asked about that same quote earlier this week, less than a month later, Serafin said, "Yeah, that was before Bloomberg pumped in his millions into the race."
Hutchinson dropped out of the race earlier this month, while Halvorson's lack of support for new gun laws has led national Democrats, along with influential Chicago-area members of the Land of Lincoln's congressional delegation, to coalesce around Kelly.
"Beale said he's the jobs candidate," Kelly said in a phone interview this week, "I spoke about it [gun control] day one. He didn't."
The Kelly campaign maintains that they were making guns a key issue in the campaign before the Newtown massacre, but Beale argued in an interview this week that, unlike Kelly, he has legislative achievements on the issue under his belt. As an alderman, Beale cites his co-sponsorship of a gun ordinance as an examples of effective leadership on the issue.
Ultimately, Bloomberg's spending and super PAC assistance might be enough to put Kelly over the top. Kelly reaffirmed in the interview her campaign did not coordinate with Bloomberg's super PAC, but she is happy for the help.
Despite the support she received from members of the congressional delegation, Kelly says the endorsement she prizes is from the liberal blog Daily Kos. She says they're helping her in ground support to bring people to the polls. Kelly also received the support of Hutchinson and Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, her former boss, whose endorsement includes union help.
In the past week, Kelly's opponents resurrected criticism of her experience as chief of staff for then-state Treasurer Alexi Giannoulias, as well her time as an aide to Preckwinkle. While she was chief of staff for Giannoulias, the mutual-fund program Bright Start suffered major losses; it later became an issue in Kelly's unsuccessful run for state treasurer in 2010. Kelly says she helped restore much of the lost funds, but the dispute persisted over why the funds were lost in the first place. Kelly also faced criticism over a more-than-$7-million investment the treasurer's office made in Alliant Techsystems, the world's largest ammunition manufacturer.
Kelly also came under fire during her time working for Preckwinkle, as hundreds of bodies piled up at a Cook County morgue.
Beale, Halvorson and Hutchinson all have attempted to pin these events on Kelly. "What job has she had for more than two years?" asked Beale. He wants Kelly to "stop hiding" and talk about her experience working for Giannoulias and Preckwinkle, which he says "raise questions" about Kelly.