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In Illinois district that Trump won, Dem congressional candidate's strategy doesn't focus on him

St. Louis Post Dispatch

Tuesday, August 15, 2017  |  Article  |  By Kevin McDermott

Candidates--Federal (13)
Illinois Democratic congressional candidate Brendan Kelly talks with labor leaders at a Sauget diner, as U.S. Rep. Cheri Bustos, D-Ill., looks on. Aug. 14, 2017. (Kevin McDermott)

SAUGET, Ill. • If you're a Democratic congressional candidate, running in a district that Republican President Donald Trump won handily last November, what do you say to the district's voters about the controversial president?

One strategy might be, as little as possible.

"I think most people, including (Trump's) supporters, are sick of talking about him," Democratic congressional hopeful Brendan Kelly said Monday, during a meeting in a Metro East diner with local labor organizers. "People want to talk about what's important to them. That's what I'm going to focus on."

Near the top of that list, Kelly said, is a major infrastructure improvement package and the jobs it would create in struggling areas of the Metro East and rural southern Illinois that make up the sprawling 12th Congressional district.

"We literally have to rebuild our country," Kelly said.

Kelly, currently St. Clair County state's attorney, appears to have substantial state and national party support in his bid for the Democratic nomination for the seat. If nominated, he will likely face two-term incumbent Rep. Mike Bost, R-Murphysboro, in the November 2018 general election.

Trump won the 12th district comfortably in November, but so did Illinois Democrat Tammy Duckworth in her successful bid to unseat Sen. Mark Kirk, R-Ill. That and the fact that the Democrats held the seat for decades prior to Bost's election in 2014 has given the national party hope that it might provide one of the 24 seats Democrats need to take back the House next year.

In Monday's meeting, Kelly accepted the endorsement of U.S. Rep. Cheri Bustos, a Democrat who represents Illinois' 17th Congressional District, which covers the northwest region of the state from the Peoria area up to the Wisconsin border. Bustos is one of just a dozen Democratic House members nationwide who won in 2016 in districts that Trump also won.

"Nobody's talking to me about impeaching Trump. Nobody's talking about Russia," Bustos told the small gathering. She said issues like health care and, especially, jobs are the focus in districts like hers, and in the 12th.

Illinois' primaries next year are March 20.