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With Bustos Stepping Down, The Race for IL-17 Is Wide Open

Tim Shelley/Peoria Public Radio
Democratic Congresswoman Cheri Bustos of Illinois will retire at the end of her current term.

A truly open seat election for Congress is relatively rare and tends to attract a lot of interest from ambitious politicians. U.S. Rep. Cheri Bustos' retirement creates a wide open field in the 17th Congressional District next year.

After five terms in Congress, Bustos, D-Moline, surprised many political watchers with the announcement she won't run again next year.

Bustos said the decision has nothing to do with upcoming redistricting, or her narrower than initially anticipated win over Republican Esther Joy King last year.

"Really, it's a very personal decision. It's a family decision. This is a tough line of work on families," she said. "And I'm going to use the talents that I do have to look toward whatever my next chapter will bring."

Bustos' exit makes it more difficult for Democrats to hold onto the northwestern Illinois district. It also affects the battle to keep the party's narrow House majority.

Robin Johnson is a political science professor at Monmouth College. He said while Bustos is a Democrat, her overall centrist voting record conforms with constituents in her swing district. Johnson says whoever runs should pay attention to that.

"I think a candidate on the Democratic side with that kind of profile will have an advantage in the general election," Johnson said.

Bustos was among the handful of House Democrats able to win re-election in both 2016 and 2020 in a Trump-leaning district. Republicans quickly placed the 17th Congressional District on their list of 2022 targets.

It's not clear what kind of district the 17th will be next year, after the once a decade redistricting.

Bustos said it won't be easy for Republicans, but new maps might make it safer for a Democrat.

"If we pick up more of the city of Peoria, if we pick up more of the city of Rockford in this congressional district, then it could lean more Democrat than it does right now," Bustos said. "So it really depends on what happens with redistricting, but it's not an easy district for anybody, politically."

Illinois will lose one seat in the next reapportionment. U.S. Rep. Darin LaHood, R-Peoria, said that presents an opportunity to reunite divided communities like Peoria and Rockford into single districts.

"Peoria shouldn't be split, in my view. I think we should draw district lines along county lines and city lines. I think that makes a lot more sense. I think when you divide up communities, it adds a lot more confusion to who their member of Congress is," LaHood said.

Bustos' and LaHood's scenarios are not the only ones possible. Democrats in Springfield control redistricting. Billy Halstead is the chairman of the Peoria County Democratic Central Committee.

"We gotta see, you know, where the boundaries are, of the 17th. And we don't know if we're going to push the 18th further south, or east, or where that's going to go," he said. "So I don't know. It just depends on where the boundaries are going to go."

Even with new maps in play, the race will attract significant bipartisan interest.

"I think the race will probably attract quite a few candidates from both parties. Open seat elections often do that. So I think there will be candidates for voters of both parties to look through," said Johnson. With Democrats only narrowly controlling the U.S. House currently, Johnson said that probably also means heavy national party involvement.

Esther Joy King, the 2020 Republican candidate, declared her 2022 candidacy shortly after Bustos' retirement announcement.

While she didn't respond to interview requests, King said in a statement announcing her own candidacy that the 17th Congressional District "deserves so much better than what the liberal elites have been serving them up in Washington."

Bustos says there's a lot of strong potential Democratic candidates waiting in the wings. She said she'll support the party nominee.

Some political observers say those who want to run face a difficult issue of timing. They might want to wait to get in to see the new district boundaries and whether those help. If they wait too long, though, they lose the opportunity to raise money, form a campaign organization, and gain support from party leaders.

As for her own future, Bustos says she still has 20 months to figure it out. Over the past decades, she's gone from working as a journalist, to healthcare, to Congress.

"I'm passionate, I'm high energy, and I want to use that for something that I hope will be big and meaningful. And however that sorts out, I'll keep you posted," she said.

Bustos' term ends in January 2023.

WCBU's Joe Deacon contributed to this report.

Tim Shelley is the Assignment Editor and Digital Director at WCBU Peoria Public Radio.