STERLING – News of a possible endorsement from U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin appears to be having a big impact in the 17th Congressional District race.
State Sen. Dave Koehler, D-Peoria, who left the race this month after earlier announcing his candidacy, said he did so largely because Durbin, a Democrat, called to tell him that he would endorse Cheri Bustos, an East Moline alderwoman.
The district includes Whiteside County. The candidates are vying to replace Rep. Bobby Schilling, R-Colona, who is running for a second term.
Koehler said Wednesday that he was disappointed with Durbin’s decision.
“I felt we had momentum. We were in the lead in fundraising,” he said. “He [Durbin] asked me to step out of the race and run for state Senate seat. I had to make a very quick decision. There were only a few days left to gather signatures for my Senate seat.”
Koehler said he called Durbin back with his answer – he would withdraw. Koehler said it would be hard to overcome Durbin’s endorsement of an opponent.
“It wouldn’t have hurt me in the Peoria area, but there are a lot of areas in the district where I don’t have name recognition,” he said. “I chose not to make a big issue of it.”
Koehler’s withdrawal was significant because he had raised more money than his opponents in the Democratic primary. He had pulled in $187,072; Bustos had raised $164,116.
This week, another candidate, Rock Island attorney Eric Reyes, decided against running in the March 20 Democratic primary. Instead, he plans to run as an independent candidate.
That leaves three Democrats – Bustos, Freeport Mayor George Gaulrapp, and Augustana College official Greg Aguilar – to seek their party’s nomination.
In a statement, Reyes hinted at his frustration with Durbin’s possible endorsement of Bustos. He said he was removing himself from the “clutches of the Democratic machine.”
“Over the past several weeks,” the statement said, “I have been told to expect a call from a certain U.S. senator who has apparently forgotten that his loyalty should be to his constituents.
“Perhaps I never got that call because he figured out that I am a man of principle and wouldn’t have dropped out of the race no matter how many different ways he told me that after this election I’d have no future in public service.”
In an interview, Reyes said he had spoken with another candidate besides Koehler and that the candidate reported getting the same call from Durbin to step aside in favor of Bustos. He declined to identify the candidate.
Reyes said he wished Koehler hadn’t backed down to Durbin,.
“I don’t know if he was given an incentive to do it,” he said.
Reyes said Bustos is connected politically and that’s why she is getting the endorsement.
“It seems to me that you have one candidate from a wealthy, influential family with a senator telling others in the race that their careers in public service are over if they don’t get out of this race,” he said. “That’s not a democratic process.”
Durbin’s representatives didn’t return messages for comment.
Matt Larson, a spokesman for Bustos, said Durbin hadn’t made a formal endorsement.
“I think all candidates in the race would be smart to go after an endorsement like Sen. Durbin,” Larson said. “There are a handful of other people where the endorsement will matter, such as Lt. Gov. [Sheila] Simon.”
He said that if Bustos received Durbin’s endorsement, “we will want to sing that from rooftops.”
Aguilar, a candidate from East Moline, said he wasn’t seeking Durbin’s endorsement.
“I didn’t think he would endorse anyone in the primary,” he said. “It kind of surprised me. [Durbin] is friends with the family.”
Bustos’ father, Gene Callahan, was a top aide to former Sen. Alan Dixon, a Democrat.
Aguilar said he was surprised that Koehler dropped out.
“He was doing a great job in Rock Island County,” Aguilar said. “He had support from the unions. It’s sad that we’re losing candidates and choices, and I don’t know why that’s happening.”
Aguilar suggested that union members consider endorsing his campaign, noting that he is the son of UAW members.
Aguilar has received $10,221 in contributions, and Gaulrapp has pulled in $9,160, according to Open Secrets, a watchdog group.
Because of redistricting, the 17th District is considered more Democratic than it was. The district lost some rural areas in west-central Illinois and picked up areas to the north, including parts of Rockford.