How an Underdog Squeaked Out the Nomination in an Illinois Swing Seat

Conservative Doug Bennett delivered one of the most surprising results on primary night.

Former Rep. Bob Dold of Illinois decided not to run for his old seat this year, which led to a competitive GOP primary and an upset victory by a conservative candidate.
AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast
Drew Gerber
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Drew Gerber
April 4, 2018, 8 p.m.

On a night when most eyes in Illinois were laser-focused on the contentious primary battles for the governor’s mansion, or on any of the congressional districts where Democratic candidates raced neck-and-neck, Doug Bennett was staying up late.

Few might have expected he would need to. A mathematician and computer consultant, Bennett failed to establish much of a public profile and had struggled to fundraise. Republican donors flocked to his more-moderate opponents, whom they believed were more capable of mounting a serious challenge to Democratic Rep. Brad Schneider in a district that Hillary Clinton carried by 20 points in 2016.

But shortly before 2 a.m. Central time on March 21, the 10th District Republican primary results were in and Bennett knew he could finally go to bed. In the morning, the long road to November would begin.

The two parties have swapped control of the seat every cycle since 2012, but last year former Rep. Bob Dold announced he wouldn’t challenge Schneider again. That ensured this would be the first contested Republican primary in Illinois’s 10th District since it was redrawn in 2011.

Nominating a moderate, centrist candidate—the type the district’s independent-minded voters had sent to office for decades—would give the party a chance in the general election, despite the absence of Dold and a Democratic base energized in opposition to President Trump.

However, redistricting saw ritzy Chicagoland suburbs swapped for exurban Lake County, which now makes up roughly 80 percent of the population. The Republican base of this Democratic-leaning district now hues more conservative, making it far more difficult for a mainstream Republican candidate to maneuver, said Mark Shaw, the Lake County GOP chairman and state central committeeman for the 10th.

Still, over the course of an intensive canvassing effort, Bennett said he found it mattered less to voters whether he came to them as a conservative or a liberal, but rather whether he was prepared to listen when he did.

“They want to know you are working for something that’s going to make their lives better,” Bennett said. “They’ll hear you out, ask the hard questions. … It’s not just pick a color, red or blue, but it’s about what’s going to affect my family and my neighborhood.”

With around 100 volunteers knocking on doors and making calls, any one of them could have been responsible for a win eked out by a few hundred votes, he said.

As Bennett’s team knocked on doors, his primary opponents, physician Sapan Shah and former Republican Jewish Coalition regional director Jeremy Wynes, unleashed a crossfire of attack ads. Sniping at each other’s credentials—an optically messy Chicago residency issue for Shah, accusations that Wynes was too much of an insider—they each considered the other their only primary opponent.

In contrast, Bennett sent out a few mailers, part of a “targeted” outreach effort but also a function of a minuscule campaign account, that primarily focused on red-meat conservative issues: abortion, sanctuary cities, and support for Trump.

Those issues speak to the more conservative parts of Lake County, but they’ve often been considered a bridge too far for the country-club Republicans of the district’s wealthy North Shore. Shaw, who was unsurprised by Bennett’s victory, sees that framing as too simplistic. Certain areas of the North Shore are more socially liberal, but many are more economically oriented and conservative social positions won’t necessarily scare those residents off, he said.

“You can run Highland Parkers away by being socially conservative, and you can run Lake Foresters away by being fiscally liberal,” Shaw said. But, he said, “Lake County is a red county.”

Wynes and Shah collected roughly two-thirds of the primary vote. In a Facebook post after conceding the race to Bennett, Shah claimed that it had been “the lowest turnout the 10th District has ever seen.” About 5,000 fewer people drew Republican ballots in 2018 compared to 2014.

Splitting the more-moderate voters in a lower-turnout election ensured a loss for both candidates, according to a source close to the Wynes camp. Confronted with a self-funding moderate who could dominate the airwaves, the Wynes campaign had no choice but to punch back and fight for voters, the source said, especially as internal polling showed Bennett trailing in the single-digits until shortly before the primary.

Though he disputes the idea that the lower turnout was much different than that of a typical, less competitive off-year primary, Shaw said he believes that the firebrand conservative challenge by state Sen. Jeanne Ives against Gov. Bruce Rauner ensured that conservatives came out and voted, for Ives and for Bennett.

The Wynes insider agreed. Bennett’s last-minute surge in the campaign’s internal polling coincided with a late push by Ives—something Shah’s campaign likely noticed too, as it issued mailers about Bennett in the final week.

A Bennett victory in November is unlikely given the cycle’s wave conditions, which have put Republicans on the defensive even in previously safe seats such as Pennsylvania’s 18th District. But Shaw said he isn’t concerned about the so-called Trump effect, in which moderate Republicans discouraged by Trump stay home, but rather by the possibility that it will be difficult to motivate donors and voters uninspired by Rauner. Bennett agreed.

“We’re just getting started. I think we have a pretty fair shot at this,” Bennett said. “There are a lot of people willing to listen.”

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