A well-known Illinois state senator dropped her bid Sunday for the U.S. House seat vacated by Jesse Jackson Jr., narrowing the field and consolidating key support behind another Democrat in a race where gun control has emerged as a central issue.
State Sen. Toi Hutchinson, targeted in recent days by critical anti-gun campaign ads funded by New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg's political action committee, said she was leaving the race and swinging her support to former state Rep. Robin Kelly. The major shake-up came with just nine days to go before the Feb. 26 primary.
Hutchinson's move reflected the sharp divisions over the gun control issue, but also appeared to be in line with efforts to consolidate support for one of the many black candidates in the black-majority district. Community leaders had expressed concerns that the black vote could be split, thus boosting the chances of former U.S. Rep. Debbie Halvorson, a white candidate whom Jackson defeated in last year's primary battle.
"I am simply unwilling to risk playing a role going forward that could result in dividing our community at time a when we need unity more than ever," Hutchinson said Sunday in a written statement. "In the wake of horrendous gun related crimes all across our country, I agree with Robin that we need to stand together to fight gun violence."
Bloomberg's super PAC, Independence USA, has run ads in the district that target Hutchinson for her past opposition to tougher gun restrictions - one of the campaign's most pressing issues along with economic hardships such as joblessness and foreclosures.
In a district encompassing parts of Chicago's South Side that have been deeply affected by gun violence, Hutchinson campaigned on more moderate views, saying the December school shooting in Newtown, Conn., brought about a change of heart.
Kelly, too, was among those criticizing Hutchinson's previous position and questioning whether her newfound stance was genuine. Now, Kelly says she's pleased to have her former rival's backing.
"In Congress, I will work with Sen. Hutchinson ... and other leaders throughout our district to get guns off our streets and bring jobs to our neighborhoods," Kelly said in a statement.
With Hutchinson's departure, the race is down to three top Democratic contenders: Kelly, Chicago Alderman Anthony Beale and Halvorson. The primary will likely decide the race because the district is so overwhelmingly Democratic.
Illinois' 2nd district also has a majority of black voters, even after boundaries were redrawn to include rural areas where there are greater numbers of white voters and where Halvorson is from.
Halvorson said Sunday that she believes she can easily woo those who had supported Hutchinson. She said in an interview that she was surprised by the sudden withdrawal and questioned what was behind the decision.
"There's no way that she would get out of the race unless she was told that she had no choice," Halvorson told The Associated Press. "And now what kind of deal was made? What is she going to get out of it? And I think everybody should come clean. ... This district is tired of wheeling and dealing."
Hutchinson's campaign did not respond to requests for comment.
Kelly told the AP that as far as she was aware there were no backroom negotiations or political deals made and that Hutchinson's decision was hers alone. She also does not think the ads by Bloomberg's PAC were any kind of tipping point in that decision.
Kelly defended the New York mayor's right to weigh in on an election in Illinois with ads endorsing her on the gun control issue and attacking her opponents.
"It's still up the people who go into the booth and vote," Kelly said in a phone interview. "But I think those ads counterbalance the millions of dollars that the NRA (National Rifle Association) has spent to influence what they want to influence."
Halvorson also has been targeted by the Bloomberg PAC ads because of her opposition to an assault weapons ban. She bristled at the notion of Bloomberg wading into the election.
"He's got billions of dollars, he has always been very controlling and he wants to control a congressional seat," she said.
Halvorson supports background checks for gun purchases and registration of all firearms but opposes an assault weapons ban, saying law-abiding gun owners have Second Amendment rights and that a ban in Cook County hasn't prevented gun violence.
The special election was triggered by Jackson's resignation in November. Jackson faces a federal conspiracy charge for allegedly spending $750,000 in campaign money on personal expenses. He also was recently diagnosed with bipolar disorder.