Illinois Incumbents Square Off

This article is the first in a series taking a look at some of the more controversial candidates and races in this year's mid-term election.

After the endless lawsuits, state legislative battles and political machinations to redraw congressional districts lines, an outcome of the 2000 Census, among the strangest by-products of redividing the map is the forced race between incumbents battling one other to stay in office.

In the rural end of southern Illinois, an old coal mining region that is home to miles of prairie land and rural farms, one such fight is about to begin.

The loss of a congressional seat in Illinois, headed now for the mountains of Colorado, means Democrat Rep. David Phelps' 19th District seat has been chopped up and merged with the 15th District, with scattered portions added to both the 12th and 20th Districts. 

The deal, the result of a compromise between Illinois Democratic Rep. Bill Lipinski and Republican House Speaker Dennis Hastert, has the blessing of the state Legislature and Republican governor George Ryan.

While many had speculated that the two-term former gospel singer-songwriter would challenge more vulnerable Republican Rep. Tim Johnson for the newly-merged 15th District, Phelps has instead chosen to run against Rep. John Shimkus, a Republican three-termer who holds the new 19th seat.

Not only has Shimkus been elected each time with over 60 percent of the vote, the new district holds more than 60 percent of the Republican's old district, including the town of Springfield, home to one of America's most famous Republicans, Abraham Lincoln.

The decision has perplexed some political observers, but Phelps said it was a natural choice.

"Southern Illinois is mostly rural, with small counties. I understand it and I come from it," he said.

The conservative Democrat, who received 65 percent of the vote in his last election, said he will do his best to convince this new district that he is for the working man, a tune that he said sings in this heartland of farmworkers.

"It's going to be a hard-fought battle, no doubt about it," said Phelps, who failed in his court challenge against the new map.  "I think this is doable in many ways. You're going to see a race that's unbelievable."

While Shimkus also finds Phelps' decision to run a head-scratcher, he said Phelps is in a losing proposition by going after the conservative base Shimkus counts on.

"The conservative party of this country is the Republican party," he said. "It all comes down to the first vote we cast. Mine will be for Dennis Hastert, his will be for (Minority Leader) Dick Gephart. I'm going to do really well."

Shimkus, a West Point graduate and a high school teacher before his election in 1996, said his own affinity for Phelps, whom he personally likes, adds to the race's unusual complexion.

Shimkus went so far as to introduce his visiting father to his new opponent at a House-sponsored breakfast in Washington recently.

It's "a very weird campaign to begin with – these are tough things to go through," he said, adding that the "long, drawn marathon" of campaigning will be made that much more difficult "when you have to run against someone you work with and know and have respect for."