How a ‘Wannabe MTG’ Is Pushing an Establishment Republican Over the Edge

·9 min read
Photo Illustration by Thomas Levinson/The Daily Beast/Getty
Photo Illustration by Thomas Levinson/The Daily Beast/Getty

For most of his career, Rodney Davis has been the epitome of a mainstream Republican congressman. In order to continue being a Republican congressman, however, he might have to turn into something else.

First elected to Congress in 2012, Davis represented a purple Central Illinois district. He once chaired the Republican Main Street Caucus, a House power base for GOP moderates. And last year, he was one of 35 House Republicans to vote in favor of creating an independent commission to investigate Jan. 6.

But when Illinois lost a congressional seat and redrew its district maps last fall, Davis was lumped into a new, more rural district that Donald Trump would have won in 2020 by a nearly 40-point margin. And he wasn’t alone: Rep. Mary Miller, a freshman Republican, was drawn into the new district, too.

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What’s unfolded since then has been an unusually bitter primary fight between Davis and Miller, which has divided GOP power brokers and attracted a staggering $10 million in outside spending for both candidates.

Most notably, it forced Davis out of the mainstream he’s so long occupied.

Davis’ would-be new constituents are, on average, far more conservative than his old ones. And Miller reflects them as much as Davis used to reflect his Obama-Trump district.

A member of the hard-right Freedom Caucus and very likely the first lawmaker to say the words “let’s go, Brandon” on the House floor, Miller gained national notoriety for praising Adolf Hitler in her second day in office. Some local Republicans call her a “wannabe” version of Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA).

Sure enough, soon after their showdown was set, Trump lent his coveted endorsement to Miller. It was probably payback for the minor heresy Davis committed: supporting the Jan. 6 independent commission.

The ex-president is set to rally in the district on Miller’s behalf on Saturday, three days before the primary election day.

Miller, who has few legislative accomplishments to her name, has hugged the Trump endorsement like a life raft, and she has largely sought to turn the race into a referendum on Davis’ positions on Jan. 6.

In this district, Davis may be the underdog simply because he can’t out-MAGA Miller. But his playbook has been to go harshly negative on her—while bolstering his credibility on the very subject Miller is attacking him over.

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In recent months, Davis has leaned on his position as the top Republican on the House committee that oversees Capitol security—a normally sleepy post that has lately become a venue for a number of Jan. 6-related topics and investigations.

From that perch, Davis has become a prominent critic of the House’s select committee investigating Jan. 6, consisting of Democrats and two Republicans.

If Republicans take back the House, Davis promised to use his power to investigate that committee, suggesting it committed abuses of power and raising the GOP suspicion that Speaker Nancy Pelosi was “involved” in security failures at the Capitol.

In the last week, Davis appeared with Rep. Jim Jordan (R-OH) on Sean Hannity’s Fox News show to talk about the detaining of Stephen Colbert staffers who were filming in the U.S. Capitol—using the episode to cast doubt and mock the committee’s findings on GOP lawmakers who gave tours of the Capitol before Jan. 6.

Days before that, Davis sat for an interview on Newsmax, in which the host asked him a question about whether Pelosi secretly wanted Justice Brett Kavanaugh assassinated so she could replace him. (Davis mostly chose not to engage, but didn’t push back on the question.)

Those who have known and watched Davis since the beginning of his career don’t quite recognize this iteration of him.

“2012 Rodney would never be on Newsmax,” Patrick Pfingsten, who served as the communications director for Davis’ first congressional campaign, told The Daily Beast. “He’s trying to butter up the crazy right instead of fighting the crazy left.”

“He’s not a crazy guy. That’s the frustrating part of this,” continued Pfingsten, who now writes about state politics at his website, The Illinoize. “He’s a smart, independent thinker who, while an insider, is able to still get things done.”

“I don’t want him to make a pact with the devil,” he said, “just to stay in Congress.”

In this midterm election year, Republican lawmakers nationwide have been forced to consider that very same pact. Many never fully broke with Trump, but said things and took votes in the wake of the 2020 election and Jan. 6 that are still fueling a vendetta that the ex-president and millions of his supporters are unable to drop.

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Several of those Republicans have already survived, like first-term Rep. Nancy Mace (R-SC), who easily beat back a Trump-endorsed challenger. Others have fared more poorly: Rep. David McKinley (R-WV), who also voted for the Jan. 6 commission, was resoundingly defeated by Trump-endorsed Rep. Alex Mooney (R-WV) in another member-versus-member primary.

But perhaps more than most, Davis is trying his hardest to reconcile his record as a pragmatic, policy-oriented lawmaker—one who initially didn’t buy into Trump’s election lies—with the hard realpolitik of trying to secure his future in a district that may want a much different representative.

Christopher Mooney, a longtime professor of politics at the University of Illinois at Chicago, said Davis’ considerable résumé—bills passed, bacon brought home—is no longer what voters are looking for in today’s GOP in places like rural Illinois.

But Mooney added that Davis, known for being tirelessly in touch with his home district, knows that and is acting accordingly.

“Just like the good district man, he is adapting to his district,” Mooney said. “And his district is changing a little.”

The new Illinois 15th District is a vast and bizarrely shaped puzzle piece, holding together a gerrymandering work of art that Democrats attempted to pull off in the Land of Lincoln.

The district covers much of the central part of the state, from its western border with Iowa, to exurbs of St. Louis, to the eastern border with Indiana. The state capitol of Springfield, a blue island, was drawn into a different district, equally bizarre in shape.

The new district cannibalizes roughly even shares of both Davis’ and Miller’s former districts—35 percent for him and 30 percent for her—which levels the playing field in a meaningful way. Typically, post-redistricting fights between incumbents come down to which one kept more of their former constituents.

Polling of the race so far has shown a somewhat even contest. A poll conducted for The Illinoize, released on June 21, found Davis with 38 percent of the vote, Miller with 35 percent, and 27 percent undecided.

But the poll showed Davis’ biggest weakness: once respondents were told that Trump had endorsed Miller, her share of the vote jumped to 47 percent to Davis’ 39 percent.

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Miller’s overarching campaign strategy appears to be constantly and relentlessly reminding voters that Donald Trump has endorsed her. It’s a well-worn strategy for MAGA Republicans, but Miller—who has a thin résumé to run on and little of the viral fame of compatriots like Greene—is stretching the playbook to almost comical lengths.

The top of her campaign website, for instance, is simply a massive photo of her and Trump. Scroll down on the page and there is another photo of her with Trump—in the Oval Office this time—which is helpfully paired with the text of Trump’s announcement of his endorsement. In case there were any confusion, a graphic at the bottom of the page reminds viewers that she is “pro-Trump.”

The crux of Miller’s case against Davis is that he is a contemptible RINO—”Republican in name only”—because he voted in favor of an independent commission to investigate Jan. 6. (Davis also voted to certify the 2020 election results, putting him in the minority of the House GOP.)

Davis, Miller claimed, “stabbed President Trump in the back by voting for the sham January 6th Commission.”

The phrasing of that attack suggests that Miller might hope that voters conflate what Davis voted for with the House select committee, which Davis voted against, and is currently doing its work.

Despite his overtures to the far right, Davis has sought to emphasize the traditional notion that a representative should run on some policy wins for their district. He has been a wonk on agriculture policy during his term, and while he lacks Trump’s endorsement, he has won the backing of a number of agriculture groups, including some that don’t typically endorse in primaries.

In a statement on Trump’s endorsement of Miller, Davis also attached himself to the Trump agenda—specifically, “building the wall,” lowering taxes, and increasing energy production. “I’m proud of my conservative record of working with Trump when he was in office, and I won’t shy away from it,” he said.

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Davis has run brutal attacks on Miller, largely centering on the revelation that a campaign volunteer for her was convicted of soliciting sex with a boy. He has also reminded voters of her Hitler gaffe, in which she said that Republicans would do well to heed the genocidal dictator’s belief that the youth need to be cultivated.

“Hitler was right on one thing,” Miller said on Jan. 5, 2021. “He said, 'Whoever has the youth has the future.’”

On the day after that gaffe, Miller’s husband’s truck—bearing symbols of a far-right militia group—was seen parked at the Capitol as the Jan. 6 riot got underway.

These kinds of antics have formed a certain brand for Miller.

“She’s Marjorie Taylor Greene without the charm,” quipped Mooney, the University of Illinois-Chicago professor.

But Greene is the kind of Republican that places like Illinois’ 15th increasingly want representing them in Washington.

“If Republicans really believe that the crazy is what they are and what they want, then they’re going to get all of it with Mary Miller,” said Pfingsten, the former Davis aide, who also worked for one of Miller’s primary opponents in 2020.

Davis, he believes, genuinely wants to turn down the temperature in Congress, perhaps putting him in a different category than Miller. “There’s also the political animal that these people are, that he still has to look out for number one, and you can’t do anything in Congress if you can’t win a primary,” he said.

This, Pfingsten said, is the crux of Davis’ dilemma. “You can’t govern if you can’t win a primary,” he said. “But at what point is it not worth it to sell your soul?

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