Making Recess Count

In an election year, there's no rest for vulnerable incumbents like Rodney Davis.

Agriculture Day at the Illinois State Fair fell neatly into Rep. Rodney Davis's master plan. Held on a mostly sunny August day in Springfield, in Davis's home district, the event lined up perfectly with an endorsement from the Illinois Farm Bureau, which named Davis a "Friend of Agriculture" at the fair that same day. The first-term Republican worked a receptive crowd that was sustained by a wide range of food items on sticks (corn dogs, pork chops, bacon, chicken, sausage, egg, cheese, alligator). He did the same again two days later, on Republican Day, which his campaign says was especially lively thanks to a visit from the GOP candidate in the state's competitive gubernatorial race.

For lawmakers like Davis, such recess days can be a matter of political life or death. While his colleagues were planning to relax a bit or travel outside the country during Congress's summer break, Davis—like other vulnerable incumbents—was setting up a nonstop campaign schedule that had him meeting with voters, hosting local fundraisers, and doing everything he could to get positive coverage from the local press. "He actually didn't take any time off," says campaign manager Tim Butler. "We had him on the trail basically every day throughout the recess."

Davis has been a Democratic target since winning office, by just 1,002 votes, for the first time in 2012. Former County Judge Ann Callis entered the 2014 race about six months later and was immediately touted by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee as part of its "Jumpstart" program, which provides financial and strategic support to its top challengers early in the cycle. In March of this year, Davis's primary challenger took 41 percent of the vote. With roughly even voter registration between Republicans and Democrats in the state's 13th Congressional District, the race has been called a potential battleground for more than a year.

To ensure that Davis's recess time was used wisely and well, the planning process for August started in June, Butler says. And although many events and appointments weren't scheduled until a few days beforehand, the big pegs always went into the board—and onto the calendar—well in advance.

Davis's team started with the nonnegotiable obligations. "He coaches his kids' football team, so we look at when practices are and then work backwards from there," Butler says. After that, they plugged in fundraisers, non-campaign events (such as meetings with constituents), and bigger public functions, like the state fair. In between, they squeezed in smaller parades and media appearances as they came up.

If Davis was scheduled to be in one of the district's larger towns or cities, they would work in some sort of media opportunity—"going to a school or stopping by a radio station," Butler says. But traveling the district even for small events was particularly important to the campaign's media strategy, considering how many newspapers cover Davis's activities and work in Congress: the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, the Decatur Herald & Review, the Champaign News-Gazette, The Madison County Record, and The State Journal-Register, to name a few.

In total, Butler says, the campaign set a goal of visiting each of the district's 14 counties at least twice during the recess, an average of hitting a new county almost every day of the month. That's no small challenge in a mostly rural district like Davis's, which stretches from the Mississippi River to Champaign, more than halfway across the state.

They hit their mark: Over the course of the month, Davis made two stops in each county, walked in 10 parades, and put more than 4,200 miles on his truck, Butler says.

Davis made the most of his August time in another way as well. He started the month with a financial advantage over his opponent—he'd raised nearly twice as much money as Callis this cycle and had a cash advantage of about $600,000 as of their July quarterly fundraising reports—and aimed to use the recess to build on it with the help of big-name backers. He brought House Speaker John Boehner to his district, and held a fundraiser in Chicago headlined by New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie.

(Too many flashy events can sometimes be a bad thing; Callis's campaign has sought to cast Davis as a D.C. insider, pointing out, for example, that when then-House Majority Leader Eric Cantor spent his primary-election day at a Washington steak house, Davis was there with him.)

There's been no public polling since the primary, and the candidates haven't released fundraising figures in more than two months, but campaign-watchers suggest that Davis's efforts over the recess may have helped strengthen his position.

Bernard Schoenberg, a columnist for The State Journal-Register, says both candidates were in Springfield plenty during August, but Callis held fewer press conferences and was generally less visible than Davis. "Davis has been doing the incumbent thing," Schoenberg says. "He has not been shy about getting out in the district."