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Illinois Issues: Once A Skeptic, Congressman Rodney Davis Embraces Trump

Congressman Rodney Davis speaks at a Republican Day rally at the 2019 Illinois State Fair.

Congressman Rodney Davis speaks at a Republican Day rally at the 2019 Illinois State Fair. Brian Mackey/NPR Illinois

With the impeachment investigation moving into a more public phase this week, members of Congress are calibrating their responses.

Rodney Davis’ 13th District includes wide swaths of rural, central Illinois, where President Trump is popular. But is also includes college towns filled with Democratic voters, and Davis was re-elected by a slim margin last year.

It’s against that backdrop that Davis has traveled from being a Trump objector — to a Trump supporter.

Rodney Davis’s journey to embracing Donald Trump is a lot like that of the Republican Party as a whole.

After the Access Hollywood video came out right before the 2016 election, Davis withdrew his endorsement and said he wouldn’t vote for Trump.

Fast forward three years and Davis is flying with the president on Air Force One.

At a recent speech in Chicago, Trump praised Davis and his fellow Illinois Republican Rep. Mike Bost and Darin LaHood.

“These are warriors — where are they? Where are they? — the three of them, they're warriors for us. For all of us,” Trump said.

Like most Republicans, Davis has become a defender and ally of the president, including on impeachment.

“If a new precedent is set for this president — that they’re going to impeach him just out of partisan politics — then what you will get in the future in this country is anytime the House of Representatives is controlled by another party than the president, you will see an impeachment, just because the precedent is being set today,” Davis said in an interview.

I've gotten to know him (Trump) better, know him personally. I like the president, personally."U.S. Rep. Rodney Davis (R-Taylorville)

He acknowledges his view of Trump has evolved since that Access Hollywood tape.

“I‘ve gotten to know him better, know him personally. I like the president, personally, I look forward to working with him on a regular basis, and his administration,” Davis said. “And I look forward to campaigning for his re-election, because I think the results are astounding.”

Davis says he doesn’t hear anything wrong in the readout of the president’s call with Ukraine, and he echoes other Republicans in complaining that the process has been unfair to Trump.

But as firmly in the president's corner as Davis now is, he also works hard to maintain an image as someone who can work across the aisle. Just last week he touted being named a “Gun Violence Prevention Hero” by the Brady Campaign.

“My district is a district that voted for president Trump by a small margin, and at the same time voted for me in that election by a much larger margin. But my district was drawn to elect Democrats,” Davis said.

That is true. But while Davis did run 14 points ahead of Trump in 2016, last year Democrat Betsy Dirksen-Londrigan came within one point of claiming the seat. And the 13th District is once again a top target for Democrats in 2020.

All of which raises the question: How will voters react to Davis’ embrace of the president?

Back in Springfield, in the middle of his district, few people seem to be focused on impeachment.

On an unseasonably cold and snowy day this week, contractor Anthony Bartmann is on his way to a job repairing doors at an apartment complex.

“Trump's the worst — or the less(er) of two evils I thought at the beginning, but now it's kind of like -- I know he's eccentric, but he's definitely out there, he's an oddball,” Bartmann said.

But when it comes to Davis and the president: “Honestly I don't have an opinion on it. I don't have time to sit down and watch the news, what's going on, I'm so damn busy all day.”

Turns out, this is a pretty popular view. But there are others, like Tremaine Williams, who evaluate Davis separately from the president.

“As far as what Rodney Davis doing, I think he doing a pretty good job, you know what I’m saying?” Williams said. “Rodney Davis been around for a while in Congress; I know he knows what he's doing.”

He basically says, in these polarized times, he understands why Davis is standing with Trump.

"You know you got Republicans versus Democrats, so the Republicans got to stick together,” Williams said.

So the big question for Davis and other lawmakers is whether the impeachment hearings prompt them to — once again — re-evaluate their relationship with the president.

version of this story was first broadcast on Morning Edition on Nov. 12, 2019.

Illinois Issues is in-depth reporting and analysis that takes you beyond the headlines to provide a deeper understanding of our state. Illinois Issues is produced by NPR Illinois in Springfield.