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Two Republicans vying for spot on November ballot in Illinois' 17th Congressional District

Joe McGraw, left, and Scott Crowl, right, are both running in the Republican primary for a shot at getting on the November ballot. Both are seeking to defeat Democratic incumbent 17th Congressional Rep. Eric Sorensen.
Joe McGraw, left, and Scott Crowl are running in the 17th Congressional District Republican primary March 19. The winner will face Democrat Eric Sorensen in November.

The differences between two candidates running in the Republican primary for Illinois' 17th Congressional District are less ideological than they are financial.

Scott Crowl and Joe McGraw are both vying for a shot at becoming the Republican nominee for the district ahead of November. The primary winner will take on first-term incumbent and Democrat Eric Sorensen.

The 17th Congressional District runs west from Bloomington-Normal to Peoria and stretches north up to Rockford. It includes the Quad Cities.

McGraw, a former judge of two decades from Rockford, announced his candidacy in early October; Crowl, a Milan farmer and former AFSCME union president via his work at the Quad Cities International Airport, joined the race shortly thereafter.

But only one candidate — McGraw — has the backing of the Republican establishment, including longtime former state Rep. Dan Brady, Rep. Darin LaHood from the 16th District, and New York Congresswoman Elise Stefanik, among others.

“I just retired in July and saw the consequences of Biden’s open border policy in the last couple of years. I saw the results of crimes being committed against Americans by illegals,” McGraw said in an interview when asked why he had decided to run.

But McGraw isn’t the only candidate campaigning in a central and northern Illinois district on issues at the southern border: Crowl’s ideas here often overlap with McGraw’s. Where McGraw says the federal government should “secure the border and finish the wall,” Crowl agrees.

“I’d like to see, as would others, obviously, the border secured. We need to deport the illegals, people that come in illegally. That will help our crime problem,” Crowl said. “As an elected official, I have the power of the purse, so in other words, if we have to defund the government and force them to do what’s right for our country… we shut the border down.”

With both McGraw and Crowl effectively campaigning on law and order platforms, as well as other Republican talking points, including increased offshore well drilling and support for continued funding for Ukraine, Crowl has touted his status as a political outsider against McGraw’s decades-long relationship with law enforcement and politics already.

“I’ve walked in union shoes. I’ve walked in corporate shoes. And while I was doing all of this, we were farming over 500 acres, so I’m a farmer as well,” Crowl said. “I have three different, unique backgrounds that qualify me versus anybody else running in this race.”

McGraw said his experience as a judge and prosecutor has given him the “maturity and skill” necessary to be a House member.

“My experience is as a decision-maker, making tough decisions. I’ve handled everything from a death penalty case to a child custody case and I have to listen carefully, weigh all the evidence, look at what the law requires and make a decision,” he said.

Crowl said he believes he has cross-party appeal and could draw votes from Democrats. That, he said, would be the key to flipping the 17th in November. Crowl calls these potential voters “Reagan Democrats,” a reference to Democrats who voted for Republicans Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush in the 1980s and 1990s.

“They’re the ones with the common sense that says, ‘Hey, the country is going in the wrong direction. We need to right it,’” Crowl said. “That’s what we need to get this district flipped over to the Republican party: Somebody who can identify with those Reagan voters. And they’ll see me as the candidate to do it versus anybody else who’s running in the Republican Party.”

The 17th Congressional District is arguably a competitive one: Sorensen defeated Republican Esther Joy King by just four percentage points in 2022, winning 52% of the vote to King’s 48%.

But whether the district flips will largely depend on the success of either campaign — success that, in politics, is realized through large amounts of spending. Of the two candidates in the March primary, only McGraw has funding.

According to the Federal Election Commission, with data current as of Dec. 31, McGraw had well over $200,000 in campaign funding, with over $103,000 from individual contributions and $91,075 from committee contributions. Group donations have come from more grassroots organizations like Common Sense McLean County, as well as larger conservative political action committees like America’s First and Grow the Majority, which is affiliated with Republican U.S. House Speaker Mike Johnson.

Crowl, by contrast, had raised around $62,000 as of Dec. 31, according to FEC records. The majority of that funding had come from a loan, with around $5,000 coming from individual donors.

Early voting is already underway. The final day to vote in the primary election is March 19.

Lyndsay Jones is a reporter at WGLT. She joined the station in 2021. You can reach her at lljone3@ilstu.edu.