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Robin Kelly portrait
Robin Kelly, victorious
After Robin Kelly's dominant victory in Tuesday night's Democratic primary to fill ex-Rep. Jesse Jackson, Jr.'s vacant House seat, there's been a lot of very facile analysis about what this race means and doesn't mean. On the one hand, skepticism is good: Far too often, pundits over-read meaningless special elections. But on the flip-side, acting overly dismissive of what message the results send is equally wrong-headed. That's why it's important to set the record straight.

The most reductionist, naïve view frames Kelly's win as "black anti-gun candidate defeats white pro-gun candidate in black district beset by gun violence." Yes, when described that way, it sure sounds like a nothingburger of a race. But that simplistic take elides so much and is so misleading as to be utterly false.

Here's how things actually played out.

After Jackson resigned, a large number of potential candidates crowded into the Democratic primary, which was going to be for all the marbles. (In this dark blue district, the general election is only a formality.) Under ordinary circumstances, you'd expect a liberal black politician to emerge victorious, just given the demographics of the seat and the kind of people who have held it in the past (like, well, Jackson).

But there was an important wrinkle here: In a large, multi-way primary, the ultimate winner would likely scrape by with a narrow plurality, perhaps as low as 30 percent of the vote or even less. Head below the fold as we explore what exactly this wrinkle meant, and how it would ultimately affect the trajectory of this entire race.

This notion—that it would only take a small plurality—presented an opening to ex-Rep. Debbie Halvorson, who had represented a different, much swingier district. Halvorson had cultivated a rather conservative reputation for a Democrat, including strident support for the NRA, but it wasn't enough to save her in the GOP wave of 2010 and she was turfed out after a single term.

After redistricting, though, her home was moved into the reshaped 2nd District, and she started plotting a comeback. But she failed miserably, taking on Jackson in the 2012 primary and losing by a punishing 71-29 margin. What was she thinking? As best as I can tell, she must have hoped that other ambitious politicians would have piled into the race against Jackson, who was already dogged by allegations of ethical misdeeds even then. That could have split the black vote and allowed Halvorson to potentially squeak through. But it was not to be. Only Halvorson took the plunge, and Jackson won comfortably.

As 2012 wore on, though, Jackson's political future started to evaporate. After he secured renomination, Jackson disappeared from public view for most of the year, claiming a variety of maladies. He did handily win reelection in November, but by the smallest margin of his career. Soon after, though, with prosecutors bearing down on him for campaign finance violations, Jackson resigned, setting the state for the special election to replace him. (Jackson recently pleaded guilty to using campaign funds for personal use and will be sentenced this summer.)

With Jackson's seat vacant, Halvorson's failed "strategy" from a year earlier now looked like it would finally work. A ton of local black politicians were sure to get into the race, and indeed, many quickly piled in. Halvorson did as well, making her the only notable white candidate. And suddenly, the 29 percent she earned in her crushing loss to Jackson went from looking pathetic to daunting. After all, if the eventual nominee here were to win with something around 30 percent, then she started off awfully close to victory.

This scenario was something a lot of folks in the district feared. I even fretted about it myself. And it was more than a legitimate worry. It was reality. According to Robin Kelly's own internal polling (PDF) released in January, Halvorson was in the lead—and if you accept 30 percent as plausible victory target, she was awfully close:

Bar chart of Robin Kelly's January internal poll showing Debbie Halvorson in the lead with 25 percent
Halvorson was also in first place in a poll released at the same time by state Sen. Toi Hutchinson, the third prominent candidate in the race. While the margins may seem small, Hutchinson, like Kelly, is black, and it was reasonable to believe that they'd be drawing from a similar pool of African American voters in the city of Chicago and its southern suburbs. In addition, a whole host of smaller-time black candidates had gotten into the race as well: Chicago Alderman Anthony Beale, health care administrator Joyce Washington, and even disgraced ex-Rep. Mel Reynolds, as well as another dozen Some Dudes.

Halvorson, though, was still the only white candidate worth taking note of. What's more, she had a natural base in the more rural, whiter counties of Will and Kankakee at the southern end of the district—a small chunk, population wise, but again, Halvorson didn't need to win big. She just needed Kelly, Hutchinson, and the rest of the black politicians to fracture that 70 percent or so that had gone for Jackson in early 2012, and that indeed could have happened.

But Hutchinson had a real vulnerability that she shared with Halvorson, whom she'd served as chief of staff when Halvorson was a state senator. Like Halvorson, she also had an "A" rating from the NRA and supported most of their extremist stands on guns. Kelly, though, had earned a lifetime "F" from the rifle association and declared that she "could not be more proud" of the fact. It also offered her a real opening.

While the horror at Sandy Hook obviously refocused America's attention on guns, Chicago had long been plagued by a serious epidemic of gun violence. Indeed, Chicago saw more murders in 2012 than New York, despite being a third the size. And in the 2nd District, occupying Chicago's poor, often violent South Side and its southern suburbs, an NRA "A" rating was badly out of step. Amplified by President Obama's call for sensible gun safety measures, Kelly had a serious and important message to bring to voters—one that neither Halvorson nor Hutchinson possibly could.

At the same time, the political gurus running Independence USA took notice. Independence USA is a Super PAC funded by New York City's billionaire mayor Mike Bloomberg, who before Sandy Hook was the most prominent politician in America to take a vocal stance against gun violence and in support of gun safety. With his wealth, and with his typical confidence that detractors, including myself at times, deride as arrogance, Bloomberg was never going to kowtow to the NRA, unlike so many other pols.

And starting late last year, he really put his ample money where his outspoken mouth is. Independence USA spent heavily on a number of congressional races late in the cycle and yielded one huge upset victory. In California's 35th Congressional District, two Democrats were squaring off in the general election under the state's unusual "top two" system: Rep. Joe Baca and state Sen. Gloria Negrete McLeod. Negrete McLeod was a serious underdog, but Independence had a real issue with Baca's views on guns, including his "A" grade from the NRA. They launched a punishing, multi-million dollar campaign attacking Baca over guns, unquestionably leading to his shocking defeat.

With that success guiding them, Independence USA spotted a similar opportunity in Illinois's 2nd—only there, guns were already topic number one. So at the end of January, they started running withering ads that hammered Halvorson for her to-the-hilt support of the NRA and their most radical positions. Backed by Bloomberg's bottomless pockets, Independence was able to cut through the clutter in the expensive Chicago media market and help widen an opening for someone with a message like Kelly's.

Immediately following Bloomberg's aggressive six-figure move, Daily Kos realized there was a real chance to elect a candidate opposed to the NRA agenda in a safely blue district. We therefore became the first progressive group to endorse Kelly and ultimately raised over $113,000 for her in small donations. Our community wanted to fight back against the NRA, and this was our chance.

But one shouldn't view this race only through the prism of involvement on the part of outside groups (though I'd note that many who donated to Kelly via Daily Kos were from Illinois). What was happening inside the district mattered a great deal. Kelly continued lambasting both Halvorson and Hutchinson over their records on guns, and it was working. Kelly demanded they release their NRA questionnaires—the ones which helped them earn those As—and they refused, acting badly stung. Halvorson initially refused to budge:

"I'm not willing to change my stance," Halvorson told POLITICO. "Wherever I go, people beg me to keep my stance, not to give in to public pressure."
But after Bloomberg began pouring it on, even she had to pretend as though she was changing her tune:
"My win will not be a victory for the NRA," Halvorson said. "This will be a big victory for having someone at the table who can speak to both sides of this issue. That's the victory that having me win will be."
Hutchinson, meanwhile, had escaped Bloomberg's wrath—but not Kelly's. Kelly kept up the drumbeat, and Hutchinson tried to perform a total about face:
Hutchinson maintained that Kelly was running "a single-issue campaign" and trying to score "more political points" marketing the state senator's gun-rights positions "as though they're the positions that I have right now. And, I'm saying very clearly I'm moderating my positions."
Hutchinson's tone-deaf claim that she was "moderating" her views was a stark admission that she'd been an extremist in the recent past. But even though she attempted to belatedly co-sponsor gun safety measures in the legislature, no one bought her conversion—not Kelly, and not Independence USA.

In early February, Kelly released an internal poll showing that her hard work and on-target messaging was paying off: She'd surged into first place. New endorsements began piling in, from important local officials and members of Congress, and the small grassroots donations from Daily Kos members picked up the pace. The infusion of funds allowed Kelly to get up on TV herself much earlier than expected, and to expand her voter outreach programs, including her mail efforts. It was starting to look like Kelly might be breaking clear of the pack.

But the race was far from over. Hutchinson still had some big-name support in her corner—even including Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, who was Kelly's former boss—and she actually re-took the fundraising lead from Kelly in the first five weeks of the year. (Most of those Daily Kos donations came in after the FEC's Feb. 6 "pre-primary" reporting deadline.) Not only was Kelly's lead in her own poll small, but Hutchinson had edged upward, too, since Kelly's first January survey—not as much as Kelly, but her movement was still in a positive direction.

Kelly still retained an overall money advantage, though, and appeared to have the impossible-to-quantify "momentum" in the race. Other outside groups, like CREDO, the SEIU and Democracy for America also began to join her cause.

But with election day just a couple of weeks away, that facile conclusion I described above "anti-gun black pol beats pro-gun white pol" was not at all reflective of the race. The dynamic had, however, changed. With Halvorson's fundraising abysmal and Bloomberg's efforts keeping a firm boot on her neck (Independence would ultimately spend more than $2 million on the race), the possibility that she might sneak through with a narrow plurality started to seem slimmer.

But Kelly was still scrapping against Hutchinson, who, again, sported those "A" ratings from the NRA and whose "change of heart" on guns scarcely a month before election day was as expedient as it was insincere. If you were hoping a strong voice against gun violence would come to represent the 2nd, Hutchinson wasn't going to be it. Yet victory was most definitely still possible for her.

Then, the dynamite: On Feb. 15, Independence USA abruptly switched gears, deploying a new ad that, for the first time, attacked Hutchinson on guns, not just Halvorson. On top of that, the spot offered a direct endorsement of Kelly, also a first, and spent most of its time praising her work to curb gun violence. The commercial was backed by a huge buy of almost three-quarters of a million dollars. Even in Chicago, that's a lot.

Now Kelly's entire operation was firing on all cylinders: Local endorsements kept coming her way, grassroots dollars kept flowing in, and a big-time third party group was hammering both her top opponents. But while she was now the frontrunner—no one ever released any polls to contradict that status—special elections are unpredictable, and special primaries moreso. Turnout is always low, and anything can happen. Kelly was in the most enviable position, no doubt, but she wasn't a lock.

Until, that is, the remarkable weekend of Feb. 16 and 17. That Saturday, just 10 days before the election, Hutchinson shocked everyone involved in the race by dropping out—and throwing her support to Kelly. We may never know why, though we can speculate that Hutchinson didn't like her poll numbers and wanted to avoid a humiliating loss. But whatever the reason, her departure utterly reshaped the race.

Finally, then, did the contest resemble what we ultimately saw on election night: A hopelessly out-of-step white candidate from the wrong end of the district with the wrong views on guns and no money getting beaten by the black politician who had done everything right. When seen that way, sure, the results look obvious.

But getting to that point was no mean feat. Kelly had to work incredibly hard, and she also benefitted from a great deal of good fortune. She came from third place to win an outright majority in a 16-candidate field, which is an exceptional accomplishment. And while there were a lot of reasons for success, one thing—sadly, in many respects—stands above all else: guns.

If Kelly hadn't had the courage to oppose the NRA all those years—while other suburban politicians like Hutchinson and Halvorson were cozying up to them—she wouldn't have been able to articulate the message she did. And without that, Independence USA, Daily Kos, other progressive allies, and, I'm sure, many folks within the district wouldn't have had the same desire to support her.

But make no mistake about it: Kelly's stance on guns stood in strong contrast to those of her chief rivals, and she won a difficult race in large part because of it. So for those who are tempted to conclude that this race isn't meaningful, that it doesn't offer a window on to the future, let me just remind you of Joe Baca. He spend an entire career bending over backwards for the NRA, and it cost him. Maybe last November that might have looked like a one-off, but now we can affirmatively point to two elections where guns played a crucial role, and it was the candidate who most strongly opposed the NRA who benefited.

It's been a long, long time since we've been able to say something like that. The NRA has dominated our political discourse for years, and it used to be that crossing them was political suicide. Now, it's starting to look like bowing down before them may carry a bigger price.

And I'll tell you this: IL-02 won't be the last such race. Baca, Halvorson and Hutchinson are not unique among Democrats. There are others like them. Indeed, there may even be Republicans in suburban districts who might be vulnerable on guns, too. So if everyone with an "A" rating from the NRA wants to pretend like there are no consequences for sporting that grade, that's fine. Let them be clueless. Because there are, and on Tuesday night, we proved it.

Originally posted to Daily Kos Elections on Wed Feb 27, 2013 at 01:41 PM PST.

Also republished by Shut Down the NRA, Repeal or Amend the Second Amendment (RASA), Land of Lincoln Kos, TrueMarket, and Daily Kos.

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