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In 17th: Just like 2010 ... or more like 2012?

What model will the election of 2014 follow?

Will it be like the mid-term election of 2010, when American voters sent a clear message that they were sick of Democrats and their liberal economic policies?

Or, will it be like the presidential election of 2012, when American voters sent a clear message that they were sick of Republicans and their century-old social agenda?

A third possibility: Maybe it will be unlike anything we’ve seen in recent years.

BOBBY SCHILLING is betting that 2014 will look a lot like 2010.

That was when the Republican restaurant owner was elected to Congress from Illinois’ 17th District on a tea party platform that played on voters’ unrest and uncertainty over the relatively new administration of President Barack Obama.

Such mid-term elections are usually difficult for the party of the sitting president, and Republicans used the moodiness of voters to elect people like Schilling and take over the U.S. House.

Schilling unseated two-term Democrat Phil Hare in an election that conservatives were sure was a clear signal that the nation had been repulsed by the Affordable Care Act (aka Obamacare) and the rest of the progressive agenda of the Obama White House.

But then, Obama easily won re-election in 2012 – and Schilling didn’t. He was ousted after one term by former journalist Cheri Bustos, a hospital marketing executive who took advantage of a more Democratic-friendly district map to win handily.

Now, Schilling is ready for a second term. He announced this month he would be back on the ballot next year.

JUST 11 MONTHS ago the Schilling campaign was mocking Ms. Bustos for her campaign strategy.

At the time, the Democrat had “finally” released a television ad – less than 3 months before the election – which the Schilling brain trust suggested was a case of too little, too late for the challenger.

“Welcome to the race, Cheri Bustos,” Jon Schweppe, Schilling’s clueless communications director, said in a news release. “For far too many voters, this ad will be the first time they hear of [former East Moline] Alderwoman Bustos.

“Our campaign got started 20 months ago,” Schweppe boasted, “and voters have noticed Bobby Schilling out meeting the people, while Cheri Bustos has been missing in action. The Bustos campaign will have their work cut out for them, down double-digits with only 70 days remaining.”

We will have to assume the Schilling campaign team learned something from that election.

BUSTOS HAS, FOR the most part, kept her head down and her voice low while in Washington.

Although she hasn’t formally announced a re-election campaign, we can assume that’s her plan.

How quiet has she been?

Hare was such a frequent visitor to the offices of Sauk Valley Media, we sometimes found we had no new issues to discuss with him.

Schilling sat down with our editorial board a number of times, both during his campaign and after being elected.

But we’ve never had a face-to-face with Bustos – not as a candidate and not as a representative. Our invitations never fit into her busy schedule.

Whether we see her in our Sterling offices between now and Nov. 4, 2014, might depend on how much of a credible threat Ex-Rep. Schilling is considered to be.

SEVERAL FACTORS will play into who wins the 17th District seat next year.

As we noted, mid-terms are seldom kind to the president’s party. Advantage Schilling.

After Schilling was elected, the Democratic majority of the Legislature redrew the boundaries of the 17th District, moving it from slightly Democratic to decidedly Democratic. Advantage Bustos.

Both Hare, in 2008, and Bustos, in 2012, benefited from an energized Democratic base that Obama turned out on Election Day, and that’s not going to happen in 2014. Advantage Schilling.

The Republican Party – in both Illinois and nationally – is suffering an identity crisis that leads it to nominate candidates who cannot win general elections, mostly because they are tied to an ultra-conservative social agenda that moderate and independent voters largely reject. Advantage Bustos.

So far, it’s a toss-up.

WHAT WE KNOW for sure is that the campaign of 2014 is likely to be the nastiest we’ve seen.

That seems to be the trend, doesn’t it?

The National Republican Congressional Committee obviously senses an opportunity in the 17th District. Its virulent anti-Bustos news releases from the 2012 campaign never ceased after her election, and they promise to become increasingly vicious over the next 15 months.

Maybe the most important question involves how Schilling will position himself. Will he be the tea party favorite who stands strong on conservative fiscal principles, or will he moderate his stance on social issues that have sunk any number of Republican candidates? Or a bit of both?

Of course, there also is that matter of how he blew a 13-point lead in the last 2 months of the 2012 campaign. Or was that boast no more than a little white campaign lie that fit into an ill-fated re-election strategy?

Should be interesting.

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