Former Illinois state lawmaker Robin Kelly cruised to victory in the Democratic primary of a special election to replace Jesse Jackson Jr. in the House of Representatives, besting former congresswoman Debbie Halvorson by more than 30 points with over 80 percent of precincts reporting.
The campaign had come to be seen as a proxy battle between gun advocates and gun-control forces, most prominently New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, whose PAC poured nearly $2.5 million into backing Kelly.
Halvorson, who served in Congress from 2009 to 2011, received an “A” rating from the National Rifle Association, and opposes a ban on large-capacity magazines. Kelly made her own support of gun control a central plank of her campaign.
“You did more than choose a Democratic candidate for Congress,” Kelly said in her victory address. “You did more than I ever could have imagined. You sent a message that was heard around our state and across the nation. A message that tells the NRA that their days of holding our country hostage are coming to an end. And their days of scaring Congress into submission on gun control are coming to a close.”
Kelly will face the winner of the Republican primary on April 9, but her victory is all but assured in the general election in this overwhelmingly Democratic district.
The election was the nation’s first since the mass shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, that left 26 people dead, including 20 children.
“This is an important victory for common sense leadership on gun violence, a problem that plagues the whole nation,” Bloomberg said in a statement. “And it's the latest sign that voters across the country are demanding change from their representatives in Washington—not business as usual. As Congress considers the president's gun package, voters in Illinois have sent a clear message: we need common-sense gun legislation now. Now it's up to Washington to act."
But on election night there were other subplots ripping through Illinois’s Second Congressional District, which includes poorer neighborhoods on Chicago’s far southeast side and rural suburbs of the surrounding counties. There was the specter of Jackson, the son of the famous civil rights leader, who saw his own grandiose ambitions and claim on the Chicago political scene vanish when he effectively disappeared for several months last year. It was later revealed that he was being treated for bipolar disorder. He resigned the seat in November and this week pleaded guilty to using campaign funds for personal use.
There was the issue of race as well. Halvorson was the only white candidate facing a crowded field of mostly African-American candidates, and there was some fear in Kelly’s camp that black voters would split their vote and hand the election to Halvorson. Whites make up 37 percent of the predominantly black district. A number of prominent black candidates dropped out of the race in the final weeks and endorsed Kelly, leading Halvorson to charge that the Chicago machine was mobilizing against her.
And then there was a snowstorm, which blanketed Chicago, depressing turnout, and making a notoriously hard-to-predict special election even more of a toss-up.
But mostly, there was the presence of Bloomberg, who had been hoping to use this election to bolster other candidates who stand up to the lobbying might of the NRA.
“There was no battle here. It was strictly a steamroll,” said Thom Serafin, a Chicago political consultant. “It was a great victory for Robin, but it was better victory for $2 1/2 million. There was a snowstorm, and then a tsunami of Bloomberg cash which elected the winner.”
Bloomberg does not seem content to rest on his laurels. Today he heads to Washington, D.C., to discuss gun-control issues with Vice President Joe Biden, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, and Sen. John McCain.