A redistricting process controlled by Democrats has thrown the 34-year-old Kinzinger against 10-term Rep. Don Manzullo in a fight that mirrors the larger Republican debate over what it means to be a conservative.
And less than two years after tea party activists fueled the energy behind the historic 63-seat pickup for Republicans in the House, this campaign has turned into a contest for this movement to flex its political muscle in helping determine what its most important values are, with some leading figures siding with the veteran insider because they view him as a more unwavering conservative.
The close Kinzinger-Manzullo race is one of more than a dozen incumbent-vs.-incumbent battles drawn across the nation by decennial reapportionment and redistricting. They are bitter campaigns, often between friends and allies who’ve spent years working together in neighboring districts only to find themselves trying to disqualify each other in the voter’s mind with assertions of ideological fraud or ethical baggage.
Kinzinger, lauded as a star of the 87-strong freshman class — the “Tom Cruise of Congress” according to the Hill newspaper — is touting his youth and dismissing Manzullo as part of a failed, or at least compromised, Republican past.
“We’ve changed the conversation in Washington, from how much more are we going to spend to how are we going to pay for it, how much are we going to cut and how are we going to pay for it,” Kinzinger told the seniors at the Pine Acres Rehabilitation & Living Center.
But in his one term in Congress, Kinzinger has already found that there is conservative, and there is conservative.
In April, Kinzinger opposed a budget proposal from the conservative caucus that mandated a balanced budget by 2020, cutting government spending at a far faster rate than the one offered by Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), which he supported. Kinzinger also voted against other spending-cut amendments that were considered draconian, even by most GOP leaders.
Manzullo, despite having built a career delivering federal largesse to farmers in his district, maintains a strict conservative voting record on national issues. He voted for the deeper cuts in almost every case.
FreedomWorks, one of the best-financed tea party organizations, founded by former House majority leader Richard K. Armey, was once a strong backer of Kinzinger, providing financial and volunteer support in his 2010 rout of Democrat Debbie Halvorson. The organization now calls Kinzinger a lawmaker who “reneged on promises to fight for reduction of the national debt” and “has been content with protecting the status quo.”