PEORIA — The race for the 18th Congressional District seat is a rematch. Whether it's a rerun will be determined on election night, Nov. 6.
Junius Rodriguez doesn't believe it will be, at least in terms of what percentage of votes he receives.
"There's a kind of motivation that I've never seen before in my life — the level of activism," said Rodriguez, a Eureka resident and Democratic challenger. "People who want to see a change and are willing to do everything they can to make that happen."
Darin LaHood, the Republican incumbent, doesn't agree. A buoyant economy, tax reform and common-sense business deregulation are among reasons he has cited for staying the course.
Of course, the polarizing effect of President Donald Trump, and the level of opprobrium he's received in some quarters, can be an elephant in the room for many in the GOP. Even in a district as ruby red as the 18th, and even with businesses booming.
"The president is larger than life," said LaHood, a Peoria resident. "His rhetoric and the way he engages sometimes is not the language I would use. It's not traditionally seen with the president. I think that's caused a lot of anxiety, too."
In 2016, Rodriguez finished with 28 percent of the vote against LaHood, who was elected to his first two-year term. He won a special election in 2015 to replace Aaron Schock, a fellow Republican who resigned amid a criminal investigation.
Although in office barely a few months before the 2016 election cycle began in earnest, LaHood appeared so formidable no Democrat ran in the primary election that year. Democratic leaders in the district slated Rodriguez in May, two months after the primary.
With Trump in the White House and Democratic mid-term enthusiasm higher than usual, the party's nomination appeared to be more valuable this time. In a three-way race that attracted almost 36,000 ballots, Rodriguez won by almost 800 votes over runner-up Brian Deters, a schoolteacher from Morton.
LaHood faced token primary opposition, but the GOP turnout was more than double what the Democrats drew.
The 18th District includes most of Peoria north of War Memorial Drive; most of Peoria, Stark and Tazewell counties; and all of Hancock, McDonough, Mason, Schuyler and Woodford counties.
Agriculture, manufacturing and transportation are major players in the 19-county district, and international trade is significant. Neither candidate appears thrilled about the trade wars Trump has undertaken, but LaHood seems to regard it as a temporary, necessary evil.
Rodriguez doesn't believe GOP-led tax reform has benefited the middle class.
"You look at the money middle-class folks have received and it's change," he said.
According to LaHood, the average family of four with an annual income of $70,000 — about as middle class as it gets — is going to receive a tax cut of $2,100 a year.
"$2,100 is not crumbs, as some on the other side describe," said LaHood, a member of the powerful House Ways and Means Committee, which has jurisdiction over revenue-raising methods. "Maybe it is (crumbs) in San Francisco or New York, but that's real money."
The candidates do appear similar in an apparent willingness to buck their party leaders on some things.
If elected, Rodriguez suggested he wouldn't support lightning-rod Nancy Pelosi for House Democratic leader or speaker, should Team Blue take the majority from the GOP this year.
"Nancy Pelosi has not done a damn thing for me," said Rodriguez. who described himself as a centrist. "Federal Democratic officials view this as a district they don't think is highly competitive, so they won't lift a finger to do anything here."
In addition to opposing Trump on tariffs, LaHood suggested a pardon of jailed and disgraced former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich, an idea the president has floated, is a non-starter.
"The president talks a lot about draining the swamp," LaHood said. "Nobody exemplifies the swamp in Illinois like Rod Blagojevich."
Both candidates stressed their bipartisan bonafides. Rodriguez cited unidentified, prominent district Republicans who are supporting his candidacy. LaHood cited collaboration with two Democratic colleagues, Cheri Bustos and Raja Krishnamoorthi.
Bustos represents the sections of Peoria that LaHood doesn't, and they worked together to help preserve the city's U.S. Department of Agriculture research facility. Krishnamoorthi is a Peoria native who represents part of Chicago's northwest suburbs.
"Every week I'm (in Congress), I go across the aisle and try to meet a new Democrat," LaHood said. "That doesn't mean we're going to agree on every issue, but it makes it easier to try to work together when you try to find common ground."
An electoral victory by a Democrat in the 18th would be uncommon, indeed, as Rodriguez — a history professor at Eureka College — is well aware. A lot of things would have to break just right for Rodriguez to win.
Either way, it appears this race won't be a precise replication of the one in 2016. The ensuing political experiences for both candidates, on micro and macro levels, all but ensure it.
"I feel this time there is a greater sense of legitimacy to my campaign than there really was two years ago," Rodriguez said.
Nick Vlahos can be reached at 686-3285 or email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @VlahosNick.