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Incumbent GOP reps face off in 16th

U.S. Rep. Adam Kinzinger

U.S. Rep. Adam Kinzinger

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Updated: March 17, 2012 8:10AM

In movies like “Gladiator,” the evil powers-that-be like to throw a couple of decent fellows into the ring and make them fight to the death. The poor suckers have no beef with each other, but it’s kill or be killed.

Something like that is playing out in Illinois’ newly drawn 16th Congressional District, where two popular Republican incumbent representatives, Adam Kinzinger and Don Manzullo, find themselves in a reluctant fight for political survival.

When Democrats in Springfield (the evil powers-that-be) redrew the congressional map last year, they essentially left Kinzinger without a district, putting his Manteno home in the heavily Democratic 2nd. Kinzinger’s only recourse, if he wanted to return to Congress, was to take on Manzullo in the 16th, a district that now sweeps the outer edge of the Chicago region, from East Rockford to the Indiana line.

As a result, the two candidates are rather cordial toward each other, even when they disagree on the issues, which isn’t often. They mostly disagree about who is more conservative.

Kinzinger, who’ll turn 34 on Feb. 27, was swept into the House two years ago on the Tea Party wave. He is a member of the GOP freshman class that has been giving its own party leadership fits. He likes to play that up.

“My freshman class has provided a crucially important check and balance on the excesses of the Obama Administration,” he writes in his Chicago Sun-Times questionnaire, “but we also hold our fellow Republican colleagues more accountable.”

On the other hand, Kinzinger says, Manzullo represents the dusty “status quo” in Washington, having served in Congress since 1993.

Manzullo has voted for millions of dollars in earmarked federal spending for his district, Kinzinger points out, and can’t deny the many times he voted to raise the nation’s debt ceiling. “The only thing not lacking in Washington,” Kinzinger told the Sun-Times Editorial Board, as Manzullo sat to his left, “is experience.”

But if Kinzinger is pushing extra hard to prove his conservative bonafides, it’s in part because Tea Party activists, including the Illinois Tea Party, are lining up against him.

Kinzinger talks like a true believer, they say, but Manzullo is the real deal.

Heritage for America, a branch of the conservative Heritage Foundation, has ranked Kinzinger 65 out of the 85 GOP freshmen on how conservatively they vote. Manzullo, by the same analysis, would rank 14.

Similarly, the free-market conservative group Americans for Prosperity gave Kinzinger a grade of only B last month, but it gave Manzullo a perfect A-plus. The only other A-plus rating in Illinois went to Tea Party favorite Joe Walsh (R-8th).

When Manzullo tried to score points with this during the Sun-Times meeting by pointing out that Kinzinger declined to cut federal spending for a number of social programs, which would explain those two low ratings, Kinzinger said he had nothing to apologize for. Those spending cuts may have made sense, he said, but nobody had done their homework first and studied the merits of the programs being funded.

Kinzinger’s most obvious advantage over Manzullo is his bright-eyed youth and go-getter ambition.

Manzullo is not well-known outside his district, despite two decades into the job, while Kinzinger, a captain in the Air National Guard, can fairly claim the beginnings of a national profile. He is a familiar presence on cable TV news programs and has served as Republican deputy whip.

Time Magazine named him one of its “40 under 40 Rising Stars of American Politics.”

This much is clear: Whoever wins this Republican primary will be the 16th District’s next congressman. Nobody is running in the Democratic primary.

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