Redistricting is forcing a handful of congressional incumbents of the same party to run against each other in primaries. On March 6, Rep. Marcy Kaptur defeated fellow liberal Democrat Rep. Dennis Kucinich in Ohio.
And next Tuesday, two conservative Republicans square off in Illinois.
The scene is the newly drawn 16th Congressional District, which covers mostly rural territory in the northern part of the state, curving around the suburbs and exurbs of Chicago, from the Wisconsin border north of Rockford to the Indiana border east of Kankakee.
The race pits 10-term veteran Rep. Don Manzullo against freshman Rep. Adam Kinzinger in a battle of experience versus relative youth, and Tea Party versus the GOP establishment. It also is becoming a test of which candidate is more conservative.
Manzullo, 67, may not be well-known outside of Illinois, but he is a familiar face in the small towns that dot northern Illinois such as Genoa, about 65 miles northwest of Chicago.
At a town hall meeting this week at Genoa's city hall, he talked about the need to loosen government regulation of farms and small businesses, the need to make changes to President Obama's health care plan, and ways to boost manufacturing — a Manzullo specialty.
He also talked about the difficulty he faces in keeping his job. "It is tough," said Manzullo. "I take all elections seriously just as I've taken my job pretty seriously."
But Manzullo admits this is by far his most difficult campaign since he was elected to Congress in 1992. He rarely, if ever, has had primary competition and usually coasted to easy victories over Democrats in general elections.
But with the 16th District's boundaries changed, Manzullo is in a desperate fight for political survival.
New 2010 census figures dictated that Illinois lose one congressional seat this year. Democrats controlled the redistricting process and took away more than half of Manzullo's old district, creating a new 16th that also includes a hunk of freshman Kinzinger's district.
Kinzinger's home isn't even in the newly drawn district — it's in the state's 2nd Congressional District. But rather than face a Democrat in a decidedly Democratic district (the 2nd includes parts of southeast Chicago and is currently represented by Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr.), Kinzinger decided to challenge Manzullo in the very conservative 16th.
And Manzullo admits he has never faced a fight quite like this before.
"Of course it's difficult," said the 20-year Capitol Hill veteran. "You're running against an incumbent who has run a very aggressive type of campaign, the type of campaign we're not used to seeing around here."
Kinzinger, 34, is airing TV and radio commercials attacking Manzullo's voting record, trying to portray him as a big spender.
But Manzullo is firing right back at Kinzinger with his own attack ads accusing the rookie congressman of being one of the biggest-spending GOP freshmen in Congress.
Manzullo says Kinzinger used the Tea Party's help to get elected, but then turned his back on the conservative movement once he took office.
"That's why 12 conservative organizations have endorsed me and none have endorsed him — because he's not a conservative," said Manzullo.
In a bit of a twist from what's happening elsewhere in the country, Tea Party groups are backing the veteran, Manzullo, while much of the GOP establishment, including House Majority Leader Eric Cantor of Virginia, is supporting the relative newcomer, Kinzinger.
Though he's been in office only 14 months, Kinzinger is used to tough battles. As an Air Force pilot, Kinzinger flew missions in both Iraq and Afghanistan. He then came home and defeated a Democratic incumbent in Illinois' 11th Congressional District in 2010.
"There are differences in votes between Congressman Manzullo and I," Kinzinger said this week, at a campaign stop in DeKalb. "He voted for things like 'Cash for Clunkers,' like the auto bailout, a version of it. ... He voted for an increase in the federal government size. I didn't."
"So there are differences," Kinzinger continued. "But I think all in all, Washington, D.C., is not meant to be a career. It's not meant to be somewhere that you go for, you know, decades. It's something that you respond to for a season while you have the passion to serve your country. And the thing I'm passionate about is continuing to fight for the future of America on the inside. So I would say that would be the main difference between the two of us."
That message resonates with lifelong DeKalb resident Warren Osenberg.
"I happen to know Don [Manzullo] and I think that Don's done a heck of a job," Osenberg said. "But I think the time's come. I think it's just time to have some new ideas and fresh blood."
Matt Streb, chairman of the political science department at Northern Illinois University, calls it a tight race. "They're trying to out-conservative one another, but this really is an interesting contrast in styles," said Streb.
Manzullo may edge out Kinzinger when it comes to the battle over conservative credentials, Streb said, and that could be crucial, because the new 16th is even more conservative than the old configuration of the district.
But Kinzinger's youthful energy might be winning over even some former Manzullo supporters, Streb said.
The problem both have is that neither is very well-known outside of his old district boundaries.
So both incumbents will be spending the final weekend before their primary faceoff trying to get better known in areas of northern Illinois they haven't represented before, while trying to tarnish the image of the other back in their home base.
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