In an ideal world, Illinois congressional candidate Erika Harold would be the poster girl for the Republican National Committee's African-American voter outreach effort. The Harvard-trained attorney and former Miss America has brains, beauty and has made appealing to voters across party lines a campaign priority.
Unfortunately for Harold, she's also kind of bold and, to the dismay of the party, has the temerity to challenge freshman incumbent Rep. Rodney Davis – a fellow Republican.
That's a no-no according to Republican Party rules, although in Tea Party circles it's fair play when the current seat holder is deemed to be not conservative enough.
While Harold's attempts to explain why she's better equipped than Davis to represent the district could be stronger, she firmly believes that challenging him is more than justified. Davis was handpicked by a group of county party chairmen after Rep. Tim Johnson won the primary last year and then suddenly dropped out of the race, taking the decision out of voters' hands.
"The Republican Party is premised on the notions of competition and meritocracy. Primaries make the party stronger and they make candidates stronger," she said in an interview with BET.com. "The voters have not yet had the opportunity to weigh in, so a primary challenge is highly appropriate."
Harold also believes that she's the best person to ensure that the seat remains in Republican hands in 2014 because she has broader appeal.
"My life experiences and background better situate me to be able to reach out to voters who may not consider themselves to be Republicans," she said.
Unfortunately for Harold, the party bosses disagree and have placed what she describes as "obstacles" in her path to the nomination. Recently, they voted to deny her access to voter data that would level the playing field.
Disappointed, but undeterred, Harold says she's "committed to communicating directly to the voters" and that her core message, which includes smaller government, lower taxes and a shrinking national deficit, is making traction.
One of the issues she's running on is criminal justice reform. She is actively involved in a worldwide program called Prison Fellowship that provides outreach and services to inmates and their families. She's also thinks Congress should re-evaluate mandatory minimum sentences for certain nonviolent offenses.
It would be very difficult for anyone living in Illinois to ignore the gun-related crime that has rocked Chicago in recent months and made the city nearly synonymous with youth violence.
"I think everyone in our country should be horrified by the amount of violence because it's such a tragedy to see so many young lives taken so senselessly. In many respects we've become numb and desensitized to the impact of that violence," she said.
The makeshift memorials made of candles and Teddy bears that she sees driving down Chicago's streets, Harold says, are "such a poignant, visual symbol of lives taken far too early." There's no one answer to reducing the violence, she adds, but believes "a more holistic, comprehensive approach" is in order.
And like most people who've lived and worked outside of the Beltway for most of their lives, Harold believes that she can bring the kind of change to Washington that could have prevented a government shutdown.
"I would have worked hard to make sure that we never got there," says Harold, who would not say how she would have voted.
She believes these are the kinds of issues and positions that matter to the voters she's trying to attract, Harold says, but are they enough to win a primary race?
Republican fundraiser Stephen Lackey thinks not, but she is building a foundation of visibility for a later race when she also will be a more seasoned candidate.
"People know and like her. If she doesn't step on too many party toes, the party will support her at some point and she'll be fine. But this is not a good strategic moment for her to be in," he told BET.com.
For now, Harold, who trails her opponent in the polls and in fundraising, is on her own. The local roadblocks will likely continue and the RNC won't be coming to her aid in this race, which Harold thinks is a mistake.
"I think that for the Republican Party to grow, it should be expanding opportunities for all candidates to compete. Unless new people become engaged in the process, it's going to be very difficult for our party to reach new voters," she said. "Expanding access to opportunities is something that has to happen or it's going to be challenging to grow going forward."
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(Photo: ErikaForCongress via Facebook)