U.S. Rep. John Shimkus has gained the endorsements of conservative-leaning groups such as National Right to Life, the National Rifle Association, and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. But he’s being branded a liberal by his challenger in the March 15 Republican primary, State Sen. Kyle McCarter.

McCarter, of Lebanon, is mounting the first significant challenge to Shimkus, of Collinsville, since former U.S. Rep. David Phelps was forced to run against Shimkus in 2002 after Illinois lost a congressional seat with the 2000 census. Since then, it has been clear sailing for the 10-term incumbent.

Shimkus and McCarter met at the Effingham VFW for a Town Hall for voters to hear about the issues in the campaign for the 15th Congressional District.

McCarter said Shimkus’ longevity in Washington is a huge issue in the campaign.

“Our congressman has become part of the problem in Washington,” McCarter said. “He’s lost touch with what the people are asking him to do.”

McCarter, who supports term limits, said Shimkus has been in Washington so long that he has lost his effectiveness on behalf of the public.

“Instead, they make decisions that protect their power, position and pension,” he said.

Shimkus countered that he has “a proven record of being available and accessible.”

“I also have a proven record on jobs and the economy,” he added.

McCarter vowed to serve no more than 10 years as a congressman. But Shimkus said 15th District voters have had ample opportunity to remove him from office.

“We do have term limits,” he said. “They are called elections.”

McCarter said his foremost short-term goal is to make the Veterans Administration more effective.

“We need to do something about the VA,” he said. “The congressman has sat there and let it disintegrate. As the son of a veteran and the father of an active-duty soldier, I am offended.”

While McCarter slammed Shimkus on the VA issue, the state senator downplayed the importance of the possibility of Shimkus gaining the chairmanship of the House Energy and Commerce Committee if he’s re-elected.

But Shimkus calls that a key reason he should be re-elected.

“Energy and Commerce is a very important committee dealing with energy issues,” the incumbent said. “Illinois is a big energy state.”

Shimkus added that any grassroots discord with him or his record may have something to do with the way Republicans have virtually taken over elective office in the southern half of Illinois.

“When I was first elected in 1996, I was the first Republican congressman south of Springfield,” he said. “Now we have painted southern Illinois red. And when you do that, you start getting different shades of red.”

Shimkus has a nearly 10-to-1 financing edge over McCarter, according to statistics provided by the MapLight website, which tracks campaign financing.

According to MapLight, Shimkus raised about $1.4 million while McCarter raised just under $141,000.

Most of Shimkus’ campaign war chest comes from outside the state, including $379,047 from Washington D.C., $199,828 from Virginia, $63,795 from Texas, and $473,799 from other states. McCarter’s money, on the other hand, is primarily coming from Illinois.

McCarter said it should be no surprise that Shimkus has raised more money.

“We are up against an establishment machine,” McCarter said.

The candidates have also disagreed about the number of times they will meet to discuss the issues in either a debate or town hall format. While the candidates have agreed to meet at noon Saturday at a Vandalia radio station, McCarter also challenged Shimkus to additional gatherings in Danville and Effingham.

“The voters deserve to see us and hear us together, so they can look us in the eye, ask their questions, voice their concerns, and get straightforward answers with no spin,” McCarter said in a news release announcing the “debates.”

But Shimkus’ campaign manager, Kayleen Carlson, said the McCarter campaign announced those appearances without confirming Shimkus’ availability.

“Our campaign was never contacted by the McCarter campaign to schedule these town halls,” Carlson said. “Congressman Shimkus is in Washington working on behalf of the families of the 15th Congressional District. For Senator McCarter and his campaign to suggest that we were notified and engaged in scheduling these town halls is misleading and an outright lie.”

The Saturday debate is scheduled for noon. It will be broadcast on 107.1 FM WKRV, 104.7 FM WPMB and 1500 AM WPMB.

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