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Dems’ first wave of recruits ‘outsiders’ in 2017 version of Tea Party

Brendan Kelly
Source: Brendan Kelly for Congress
Brendan Kelly

If there is a Democratic wave election in 2018, the tide will probably bring in individuals like Brendan Kelly, a state's attorney in St. Clair County and former Navy officer who's never run for the state legislature or Congress.

For Democrats like 41-year-old Kelly — a clean-cut Irishman and University of Notre Dame alum who's prosecuted corruption on both sides of the aisle and sat on the school board — entering national politics is no longer distasteful. It's necessary.

"The things that have made us unique and special in history — the institutions of democracy and rule of law — are threatened in a way they probably haven't been in our lifetime," Kelly told USA TODAY during a recent 90-minute car ride through his southwestern Illinois district with vast rural pockets.

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While Kelly's desire to run has gathered for four years, "We are now at a critical turning point in the story of our country," said Kelly. "The outcome will be determined by people who are willing to step forward and show a little courage," he said.

Much like the Republican men and women who swept into Washington in the 2010 Tea Party wave, the majority of Democratic candidates are new to state-level or national politics. Unlike the Tea Party, many of these Democrats have a long record of public service. They are former public prosecutors, doctors, CIA operatives and veterans, and they are concentrated in "heartland" states like Kansas, Iowa, Indiana and Minnesota.

Even as the Democratic Party is being far out raised at the national level by the Republican National Committee, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee that works to elect House members was outpacing its Republican counterpart for the third month in a row in July. Democrats hope top tier recruits like Kelly will give them a shot at contesting so-called "Obama-Trump" districts to win back the House. The Democratic primary is next March.

After supporting Obama by four points in 2012, residents in this working-class district — bordering the Mississippi River to the west — backed Trump by 12 points even as they elected a Democratic senator, Tammy Duckworth, by nine points. Republican Mike Bost has held the seat since 2014. When Kelly entered the race last month, several of the nation's top political handicappers moved the race to competitive for Democrats. Bost's campaign office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

In the summer of an off-year election, a number of candidates similar to Kelly in Trump districts have already decided to run.

Others include Michigan Sixth District's Matt Longjohn, who recently stepped down from his role as the first national physician executive in the YMCA's 170-year history and is challenging incumbent Republican Fred Upton. Elissa Slotkin is a former CIA official and acting assistant secretary of Defense who lives on a cattle farm in Holly, Mich., and whose grandfather invented the famous "Ballpark Frank" first sold at Tiger Stadium. She is challenging Mike Bishop.

These are what the Democratic Party's version of "outsiders" look like in 2017.

The Democratic Party wants individuals who can't be tarred as career politicians or party insiders. Kelly was more than willing to find fault with both parties. He criticized the president's handling of the white supremacist violence in Charlottesville and condemned some Tea Party members as bordering "on anarchy," while declining to commit to supporting Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., continuing as party leader.

"The party has lost its way in terms of acting on the economic concerns of people who, traditionally, the Democratic Party has fought for," he said. What's more, the nation's campaign finance system is forcing candidates of both parties to bow to the same big industry donors they are supposed to be policing, said Kelly.

Democrats need 24 seats to retake the House, and former Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton won 23 of them. Even so, there's no way Democrats will win them all, because a number are occupied by popular incumbents.

That means they also need to win more than a handful of Trump House districts.

"There have been a number of Democratic candidates throwing their hats in after declining to do so during the Obama years," said Kyle Kondik, managing editor of Sabato's Crystal Ball, a nonpartisan newsletter at the University of Virginia. "What Democrats are looking for are people who are not easily identified with the national Democratic brand," he said.

Like many days this week, after finishing his day job, Kelly fired up a white Chevy Town and Country minivan, which his sons nicknamed "Beyonce," and drove himself a couple hundred miles through corn fields and small towns to events including a round table on opioid abuse and a barbeque. Several times, his cell phone blinked with potential donors and other supporters returning calls.

If he got to Congress, he would make a signature issue a constitutional amendment overturning the Citizens United Supreme Court decision finding political spending is protected speech under the First Amendment, in addition to pushing for tougher enforcement of trade agreements and a major infrastructure spending plan.

"Citizens United is probably the worst decision" made by the modern Supreme Court, he said. "It's tearing our country apart. Everywhere I go people have a visceral and enthusiastic response" to that message, he said.

The delicate challenge Kelly faces in running in a Trump district was on display.

Pressed several times on Trump's missteps, he put the emphasis on Congress, including its role in the opioid epidemic. In June, Kelly called Trump a "blowhard" in a meet-and-greet with Democrats. In addition to highlighting his ties to law enforcement, Kelly's making the heroin and opioid crisis ravaging rural areas a major focus.

He said Washington lawmakers ignored pleas for action by the Drug Enforcement Administration in both Democratic and Republican administrations while big pharmaceutical companies lining congressional coffers benefited from the over-prescription of pain killers like Oxycodone.

When asked about Bost's liabilities, Kelly didn't hesitate. "The bill they voted for would take away health care from 38,000 people in the 12th district. To deliberately choose to support that, I cannot live with that," he said.

Voters in his district like Autum Cullers, a 33-year-old medical assistant from Harrisburg, illustrate why that may be the right approach.

Cullers, who has family in coal mining, supports Trump because she says he's bringing jobs back and working on border security. Yet she also voted for Democratic Sen. Duckworth because of her military service and said she'd be open to learning more about Kelly.

For her, health care will be the top voting issue, and she had plenty of criticism of the GOP bill Bost supported that drastically cut Medicaid benefits. "There's a lot of single moms that work, and they need that," she said. "Something has to be done to make health care more affordable without just dropping people," she said.

Janet Belles, a 64-year-old retired home health aide who also voted for both Trump and Duckworth, also said health care will be her top voting issue. She blamed congressional Republicans and defended Trump, whom she said "is doing the right thing." On Bost, she said: "He could do a lot better job in some ways."

As Kelly seeks to appeal to such rural Trump voters, he is also making his ties to law enforcement and fighting corruption a major focus.

As state's attorney since 2010, Kelly's taken on several of the nation's largest banks for fraudulent mortgage lending and sued big pharmaceutical manufacturers for maximizing profits by deceiving patients about the dangers of certain opioids.

On a sunny Thursday, he met in Murphysboro at a Plumbers and Pipefitters Union hall with a couple dozen voters to discuss the opioid epidemic. While personal stories were shared, Dr. Thomas Kupferer, a family practice doctor, excused himself for arriving late. As county coroner, he was delayed after receiving a 32-year-old female who arrived "DOA," or dead on arrival, from a heroin overdose.

"There's not a single family that I know that hasn't been impacted" by the epidemic, Kelly told the group.

Kelly said he is confident Trump voters can be won over with an aggressive message on the economy and health care that is essential to curing the opioid crisis.

"We have to hear and listen and understand why folks voted the way they did and not look down on people, not judge people," he said.

"They are in some ways out of desperation looking for help," he said.