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.
More from USA Today:
Kansas Democratic candidate vows to vote against Nancy Pelosi for leader
Confederate monuments, more than 700 across USA, aren’t budging
Over 45,000 pounds of sugar dumped in Times Square illustrates alarming child health trend
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.