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By Ari Natter
March 11 — By most accounts, Rep. John Shimkus (R-Ill.) is the front-runner to become the next year's chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee. First he needs to win his March 15 primary election against his tea-party-backed challenger, State Sen. Kyle McCarter.
Facing a national wave of anti-establishment sentiment that has sent Donald Trump to the head of the Republican field, Shimkus is up against his first serious primary challenge in his 20-year political career as he seeks an 11th term to serve Illinois's 15th congressional district.
The outcome of the election will affect the race for the gavel of the House Energy and Commerce Committee and the direction it will take on important energy issues ranging from the renewable fuel standard to nuclear power. No Democrat has filed to run in the general election in the heavily conservative district.
While early polling leaked to Capitol Fax, an Illinois political blog, showed Shimkus with a sizable lead, McCarter is being backed by outside groups, including the powerful Washington-based Club for Growth, which has spent nearly $300,000 opposing Shimkus in the race, according to data compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics.
The Club for Growth, which endorses candidates that adhere to its limited-government, anti-tax and anti-regulation stance, said it took issue with Shimkus's votes to reauthorize the U.S. Export-Import Bank and increase the debt ceiling as well as a broken pledge made in 1996 to serve only six terms.
“John Shimkus, is the epitome of what’s wrong with Congress,” the Club for Growth said in statement. “The Club for Growth PAC is delighted to endorse Kyle McCarter, a real economic conservative, to replace Shimkus.”
McCarter also is endorsed by Eagle Forum PAC, a conservative public policy organization founded by conservative activist Phyllis Schlafly, who endorsed Donald Trump on March 11, and Americans for Legal Immigration PAC.
“This race is going to be decided by how many supporters of Donald Trump and Ted Cruz see Shimkus as politics as usual and opt for McCarter down-ballot,” the non-partisan Cook Political Report said in February.
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Shimkus, a senior member of the Energy and Commerce Committee who chairs its Subcommittee on Environment and the Economy, is leaving little to chance. He has spent more than $792,000 on his re-election campaign, according to Federal Election Commission data.
“We are confident about the race,” Shimkus spokesman Steven Tomaszewski told Bloomberg BNA. “The congressman is a conservative. He’s been endorsed by groups such as the National Rifle Association, National Right to Life, the U.S. Chamber [of Commerce]. Those are groups that are meaningful and have looked at his record and understand he is doing a good job for his constituents.”
He added: “Term limits exist when the congressman is on the ballot every two years. The voters have consistently said they want John Shimkus to be our congressman.”
McCarter, the owner of two plastics manufacturing businesses who has served as a state senator for seven years, said voters going to the polls looking for “an outsider” would consider him a viable option.
“People are ready for a change. They are tired of career politicians,” McCarter said in an interview. “It’s obvious he has lost touch and become part of the problem in Washington.”
Other McCarter priorities include limiting the size of government, reducing the federal deficit and promoting gun rights, according to his campaign website.
David Yepsen, director of Southern Illinois University's Paul Simon Public Policy Institute, said McCarter will need more than just Donald Trump supporters to turn out at the polls to win.
“I don’t have a sense that Shimkus is in trouble,” Yepsen told Bloomberg BNA. “Shimkus is pretty well regarded on the main streets of Southern Illinois.”
Others said to be eyeing the top spot on the Energy and Commerce Committee, which will become open when the term-limited Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.) is required to step down, include Reps. Greg Walden (R-Ore.) and Joe Barton (R-Texas).
If Shimkus, a West Point graduate who made a run at becoming chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee in 2010, does end up getting the gavel, analysts say he is likely to be a strong supporter of coal and nuclear industry, as well as the ethanol and refining industries. Biofuel plants owned by Archer Daniels Midland Co. and oil refineries owned by Marathon Petroleum Corp. and ExxonMobil are located in or near his district.
“He’s is going to continue to be what he has been” if he becomes chairman, Michael McKenna, an energy lobbyist, told Bloomberg BNA, “a very reliable voice for affordable, dependable energy.”
To contact the reporter on this story: Ari Natter in Washington at firstname.lastname@example.org
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