When Republican Rep. Tim Johnson abruptly announced that he was stepping down after winning his primary, Illinois GOP leaders chose Rodney Davis in May to replace him on the ballot. Davis has long had his eye on elected office. He has worked in politics at the state and federal levels and has twice run unsuccessfully for elected office. In the general election, he beat Democrat David Gill, who had been a perennial loser to Johnson.
Davis was born in Des Moines, Iowa, but moved to Taylorsville, Ill., when he was 7 years old, and has never left the area. His parents opened a McDonald’s franchise, where Davis pitched in to work before going to college. He said that the experience taught him about the challenges facing small-business owners. His political-science courses at Millikin University spurred an interest in holding public office.
After graduating in 1992, Davis joined Illinois Secretary of State George Ryan’s staff. At the time, Ryan’s office was engaged in what was later exposed as massive fraud, illegally selling government licenses. But Davis denied knowing of the scheme. “I doubt [Ryan] would even know who I was,” he told The State Journal-Register of Springfield. He moved on after four years with Ryan, and got his first campaign experience at 25, running for the Illinois Legislature in 1996. He lost, but jumped back into the fray quickly, managing U.S. Rep. John Shimkus’s first reelection bid in 1998.
Although he took time off to unsuccessfully run for mayor of his hometown in 2000, Davis stayed in Shimkus’s district office until he quit in May. During those years, he was the lawmaker’s project coordinator, securing local, federal, and private funding for public-works projects. “He’s great at finding the right mix of funding to move a project forward,” Shimkus told the Springfield weekly Illinois Times.
It was Davis’s fundraising acumen that got him the ultimate nod from GOP leaders to run for Congress. In 2011, he served as the executive director of the Illinois Republican Party. According to The State Journal-Register, Davis told local Republican leaders that he managed to pay off $300,000 the party owed. But Democrats were suspicious of the financial windfall. A billionaire couple had given a number of $10,000-or-less donations to various county GOP organizers; the donations totaled $200,000, and the organizations later transferred $120,000 to the Illinois GOP. The Democratic National Committee charged that Davis organized a money-laundering scheme to circumvent federal donation limits, which he denied. No charges were filed.
In running against Gill, an emergency-room physician, Davis promoted his work on the board of education for his local church and as the athletic director of the school his three children attend. He stressed the need to repeal President Obama’s Affordable Care Act and to cut government spending, though he made an exception for federal Pell Grants (the district has nine colleges and universities). Both men—and their parties—waged fierce negative attacks over the airwaves, prompting Johnson at one point to tell both of them to stop it. Davis raised twice as much money as Gill, and the financial advantage helped him eke out a victory.
Cory Bennett contributed to this article.