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Why Eric Sorensen believes a hometown advantage may prove key to tilting 'toss-up' IL-17 to Democrats this November

Eric Sorensen of Moline is a former television meteorologist who worked for stations in Moline and Rockford. He is seeking elected office for the first time.
Emily Bollinger
Eric Sorensen of Moline is a former television meteorologist who worked for stations in Moline and Rockford. He is seeking elected office for the first time.

The race for Illinois' 17th Congressional District this November is considered a true competitive toss-up.

That's a rarity in today's political environment, where districts are often drawn up to heavily favor one of the two major political parties. The newly redrawn IL-17 slightly tilted to Joe Biden over Donald Trump in 2020, but many political watchers believe the current environment favors Republicans, particularly in the House.

And unlike in 2020 when retiring Democratic Rep. Cheri Bustos ran for re-election, neither Democrat Eric Sorensen nor Republican Esther Joy King are coming into the race with the advantage of incumbency.

"This is a difficult year," said Sorensen. "Let's just put everything out on the table. And this is a 50/50 right now."

Sorensen recently sat down with WCBU for an extended in-studio interview for the station's All Things Peoria newsmagazine. WCBU is working to set up a similar interview with King in the coming weeks ahead of the November election.

Sorensen, a former television meteorologist in the Rockford and Quad Cities markets, came out on top of a six-way Democratic primary. He said meteorology was a public service, and politics is similar in that regard.

"I think this is a continuation of the job that I've always had, the fact that we need to make sure that our elected leaders are communicating," he said. "And for me, it's making sure that that the community understands that there will be an open door policy, that I will be present in our district. I will be working for the people. You should never question if Eric Sorenson is working for Congress, because I won't be working for a political party. I'll be working for the people here in this district, which I will represent."

Sorensen faces a major fundraising gap against his Republican opponent. At the end of June, King's campaign reported more than $1.8 million on hand, compared to just $114,509 in Sorensen's coffers. The Democratic candidate blasted King for bringing "dark money" into the race, and defended his own fundraising prowess, noting he raised enough funds during the primary to purchase radio and television ad spots.

"What we are building right now is this excitement of this campaign. We're fundraising today. And we do have the ability to to fight for this seat," Sorensen said.

King ran in 2020, coming with four percentage points of toppling Bustos, a four-term incumbent, in a district Trump carried in 2016 and 2020 before district lines were redrawn.

Sorensen was born in Rockford and graduated from Northern Illinois University in DeKalb. He said his deep roots in the district give him an advantage over King.

"I talked about the science of climate change in Rockford in the Quad Cities for 15 years. And I had the ability to talk across the partisan aisle," he said. "I heard from conservatives and progressives, and they told me the same thing. 'We don't trust anyone else to do this, Eric, but we trust you for this.'"

Sorensen made climate issues a key issue during the Democratic primary. He said there's threats posed by climate change, but also job opportunities.

"Climate change is having an effect on everyone in this district. Whether you are in the skilled trades, or whether you're a farmer, it is affecting us all, whether when you go to the grocery store, the price of food has gone up because of climate," he said. "But I believe that we've got an ability here with our educated workforce to make this an epicenter as we decarbonize our economy."

He said he prefers a "silver buckshot" approach to a "silver bullet" approach on tackling climate change. Sorensen said the Green New Deal backed by some progressives isn't likely to succeed, but he thinks measures like incentives for purchasing used electric vehicles and training workers up for skills needed in the clean energy transition could gain traction. He also said it's important to send a "climate communicator" like himself to Congress who can speak the language of rural Illinois farmers on climate issues.

On inflation, Sorensen said he favors a similar "silver buckshot" approach to that of climate change, incorporating various policy puzzle pieces, including allowing Medicare to negotiate prescription drug prices with drug companies and sales tax breaks.

A recent Kansas referendum upheld abortion access rights in the conservative state. Sorensen said the Supreme Court's decision on Dobbs may improve Democrats' electoral chances this November. He said people throughout the district are talking about abortion when he door-knocks or campaigns. He said it's an issue many people, himself included, are passionate about, particularly when it comes to abortion access in instances of rape or incest.

"We need to make sure that we're not putting up barriers to health care, that we're taking down the barriers to health care, that we're allowing more people to have access to health care, because that's what's going to make our communities better," Sorensen said.

The candidate said he "100%" supports a federal bill to codify abortion access rights. He would also support expanding federal protections for same-sex marriage and contraception, if elected. Sorensen notes he would be the first openly LGBTQ+ representative of the 17th Congressional District if voters choose him in November.

On gun issues, Sorensen said he's a 2nd Amendment supporter, but he believes those rights shouldn't extend to weapons like AR-15 rifles. He also backs universal background checks for gun buyers, and red flag laws.

"The problem that I have is if we don't act, what school is going to be next? What parade is going to be next? Is it going to happen here? We don't know," he said. "And so we need to do something. Because just saying 'I don't know what to do' is not enough."

Sorensen said he believes the choice should be clear for 17th District voters this November.

"There is so much at stake here. We're seeing a an extreme right wing political party that is getting farther and farther and farther away from the mainstream of America, the main street of America,," he said. "We need to make sure that we're a community of people, and we're voting for someone who has a vested interest, someone who's got his roots down here, someone who was born and raised here, and has spent his life as someone who can be trusted for information."

The new 17th Congressional District covers parts or all of Peoria, Rockford, Bloomington, the Quad Cities, Macomb, Galesburg, and Kewanee.

Tim is the News Director at WCBU Peoria Public Radio.