SPRINGFIELD, Ill. (NEXSTAR) — Betsy Dirksen Londrigan ran a safe, disciplined campaign with a very narrow focus on health care policy in 2018. It almost worked. She very nearly defeated incumbent Congressman Rodney Davis, coming within roughly two thousand votes of victory.
In her second bid for Congress, polls and pundits show another tight contest; but this time, the Democrat’s campaign is taking bigger swings at the four-term Republican from Taylorville, and at times stretches the truth in attempts to muddy her opponent.
In a 30-second television ad, her campaign tapped a sympathetic messenger to deliver a sensational attack.
“Rodney Davis is in it for himself,” Ross Richardson says while somber music plays.
Richardson’s menu of soups and sandwiches drew adoring customers to a cozy lunch spot in downtown Springfield for more than four decades. Earlier this year, he and his wife made the decision to close his shop when the Coronavirus kept their customers away.
“One of the reasons we decided to close,” Ross Richardson told WCIA in early July, “was so that our employees could have at least three to four weeks more benefit of the enhanced unemployment.”
At the time, Richardson said he and his wife were ready to retire, and had been considering selling the business. The couple first opened the business in the 1970s after leaving their political jobs for former Democratic Governor Dan Walker’s campaigns.
“I’ve been a proud, active Democrat since my senior year of high school,” the 69-year-old said in a phone call on Monday afternoon.
When the pressures of a pandemic started eating into their bottom line, he briefly entertained the idea of applying for forgivable loans under the federal Paycheck Protection Program in order to keep the business open, but ultimately decided against it.
“I got emails from my banker saying, ‘Oh, you know, you really ought to apply,’ but again, it doesn’t do you any good to be able to employ everybody at their full wages if there’s no business, there’s no customers, there’s nothing to do.”
Under the terms of the CARES Act, companies who applied for the loans wouldn’t have to pay them back if they used a significant portion of the funds to keep workers on the payroll and out of the unemployment line.
Richardson opted to close down and cash out.
“We sold, and the money is in the bank,” he said.
Meanwhile, B.K. Davis, LLC, a McDonald’s franchise owned by Congressman Davis’ father and brother, chose to keep its 305 workers on staff in exchange for a COVID-19 relief loan worth more than $1 million.
Richardson said the Londrigan campaign “called up and asked if we’d be willing to make that ad, and explained what the subject was, so I thought about it for about a day or so and said, ‘sure, yeah.'”
Londrigan’s campaign did not make a strategist or advertising consultant available for an interview, but the campaign acknowledged the ad’s message was crafted to connect with voters who are frustrated with the economic fallout from the pandemic.
“The PPP loan program was supposed to be a lifeline for small businesses, but we got the run around while political insiders got the money first, and funds ran out,” Richardson said in the ad.
Fact check: PPP funds were quickly replenished, and while the application window has closed, the program still has available funds remaining. The temporary lack of funding did not prevent Richardson from applying for a loan. There’s no evidence Davis ever tipped the scales in favor of his brother’s company or against any other company.
“Rodney Davis’s family got to the front of the line for a million dollar payout, and he voted to keep it secret while businesses like ours suffered,” Richardson says.
Fact check: Several hundred thousand companies successfully applied for wildly popular COVID-19 relief loans within the first few days of the program’s opening. There is no evidence the Congressman’s influence expedited their application or slowed down anyone else’s.
The Londrigan campaign cites a vote on House Resolution 6782 to support their claim that “he voted to keep it secret.”
Fact check: The text of that bill would have only required loans worth more than $2 million to be publicly disclosed, and would not have applied to the loan in question.
The Davis campaign says the political attack ad is “absurd” and “dishonest.”
“It’s kind of sad that Betsy Londrigan has to ask a small business owner to lie on her behalf — a small business owner who struggled because of the pandemic — to lie to push her own political narrative,” campaign spokesman Aaron DeGroot said Monday night. “The way her false claims were presented in the ad made it appear as if Rodney’s dad and brother got some sort of special treatment over Mr. Richardson, and that’s just absurd.”
“I have no reason necessarily to believe that,” Richardson acknowledged.
“Mr. Richardson has every right to tell his story about getting the runaround regarding the Payment Protection Program,” Londrigan said, defending the ad in an interview on Monday. “That was his experience.”
“I think instead of the representative attacking his constituent and his constituent sharing his personal experience,” she said, “he needs to be focusing on why did he vote against letting taxpayers now where our money is going?”
While The Feed Store was located in Illinois’ 13th Congressional District, Richardson technically makes his home in the district next door and does not vote in the district.
“Our beef isn’t really so much with [Richardson] as it is with the stuff they’ve been saying about PPP, even though it is telling the guy didn’t even try to apply for PPP,” DeGroot said.
Richardson said he was motivated to assist Londrigan’s campaign against Davis because of his shifting positions on health care.
“He’s selling himself as, ‘Oh, he’s all for sure we take care of pre-existing conditions, and he’s the most bipartisan member of Congress ever,’ but how many times did he vote to get rid of the ACA? I mean, it’s ridiculous.
“He may make claims, but when he gets to Washington, he just does whatever the Republicans in charge tell him to do,” Richardson said. “I don’t feel he’s representing his folks.”