Kina Collins, 31, is challenging US Rep. Danny Davis, 80, in the Democratic primary in Illinois' 7th Congressional District.
CNN  — 

Community organizer Kina Collins’ first challenge to Illinois Rep. Danny Davis was a flop. In that four-way Democratic primary race in 2020, Collins barely finished second – more than 45 points behind the victorious incumbent.

Two years later, Collins is again trying to unseat Davis, who is seeking a 14th term in the Chicago district, but her prospects look much different. She has a more robust campaign infrastructure and, unlike during her first primary bid, the consolidated force of national progressives in her corner.

Now 31 years old, Collins’ national profile has also grown. For years a respected gun violence prevention advocate in her hometown of Chicago, she was invited last year to a task force addressing the issue during then President-elect Joe Biden’s transition.

Justice Democrats, the group best known for recruiting New Yorker Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to run for Congress ahead of the 2018 elections, has prioritized her campaign – spending big to seize on what the group views as a prime opportunity to build leftist power in the Democratic ranks. They helped secure a signature victory last month when, in the face of well-funded opposition from the pro-Israel lobby, Pennsylvania state Rep. Summer Lee won the open seat primary in the commonwealth’s 12th District.

The activist community’s support has delivered credibility and resources Collins lacked two years ago. Collins has outraised Davis by more than $150,000, according to a recent report, though a pro-Davis outside group has ramped up its spending ahead of Tuesday’s election. A more competitive campaign has also drawn in national Democrats, who have stepped up their support for Davis, who was first elected to Congress in 1996.

But even with a more durable campaign infrastructure, Collins, like other progressive Democratic candidates challenging incumbents or seeking open seats, has run up against opposition from national party leadership. On Sunday morning, Biden endorsed Davis, calling the 80-year-old “an effective leader and lawmaker who is deeply rooted in his community,” with specific praise for Davis’ work bringing community health clinics to the district.

Biden’s other high-profile primary endorsee this cycle, Oregon Rep. Kurt Schrader, lost his race to a progressive challenger. But the dynamic in Chicago is different. Davis is a staunch liberal with old, if largely dissolved, ties to the grassroots left. His clash with Collins isn’t as much ideological as it is generational – a dynamic that has stoked familiar debates over the role of top Democrats in contested primaries.

In a recent interview with CNN, Collins slammed party leaders on Capitol Hill over their active support for Davis in this safest of blue districts. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and New York Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, have both traveled to Chicago to rally support for Davis.

“I’m the youngest Black woman in the state running for this seat. Black women are the backbone of the Democratic Party. And in this entire primary, what Democratic leadership has done is send a very clear message that not only do we not want you in the party, but we will pony up resources to stop you from getting into the party,” Collins said.

Their efforts, Collins argued, in a district without a Republican even running, was emblematic of a broader disconnect between the Democratic Party and voters, pointing to recent support from House leaders for Texas Rep. Henry Cuellar, the lone anti-abortion Democrat in the House; Cuellar narrowly won his primary runoff earlier this month.

“It is a lack of a pulse on what’s happening in the country,” Collins said. “And that is going to come back and bite us in the midterm.”

In an interview, Jeffries dismissed the suggestion that Black women candidates are not being backed by party leaders, noting his work with Reps. Lucy McBath of Georgia, Lauren Underwood of Illinois and Jahana Hayes of Connecticut, among others – in Congress and, down the ballot, in his home state’s races.

He also pointed to Davis’ estimable and long-running progressive credentials and work to “push the envelope of change during his legendary career.”

In an interview, Davis told CNN he was taking Collins’ challenge seriously but questioned her bona fides, talked up the benefits of his seniority in a body that rewards it with power, and said he had never heard of Collins until she first ran against him two years ago.

“She has a very creative imagination. And I think she dreams up all these things that she says she’s done,” Davis said, dismissing his rival’s well-documented record before lashing out over her criticisms of his own.

“She has attempted to paint me as somebody (who), when I hear her characterization, I sometimes have to wonder who she’s talking about,” Davis said.

A leader who can address gun violence

As crime becomes a growing issue ahead of the midterms, the 7th District has become a focal point in the Chicago area. According to the City of Chicago’s Violence Reduction Dashboard, two of the four “summer safety zones” the city identified for additional outreach are inside its borders, including in the areas of Austin and West Garfield Park. A host of city agencies dedicate resources to “summer safety zones” to respond to high levels of violence.

Both candidates have personally felt the pain caused by gun violence in the city. Collins has said her activism was inspired when, as a child, she witnessed a murder in her neighborhood. She knew both the shooter and the victim and went on to serve as the executive director of the gun safety non-profit One Aim Illinois from August 2020 to April 2021.

In 2016, Davis’ 15-year-old grandson, Javon Wilson, was shot and killed.

“I know what it feels like to have a loved one whose life was wiped out unnecessarily for no apparent reason,” Davis said in 2019 in testimony before the Oversight Subcommittee of the House Ways and Means Committee, on which he sits. “I have attended the funeral of so many children in my communities whose wonderful lives were interrupted by gun violence. I feel the devastation.”

But in an editorial earlier this month, the Chicago Tribune described Collins as “one of Chicago’s leading anti-gun violence activists” and, though calling it a “tight decision,” endorsed her over the incumbent and a third candidate, Denarvis Mendenhall.

“We have admired Congressman Davis for many years, and endorsed him in the past. But we also admire Collins’ energy, passion and activism, particularly for an issue so urgent in the 7th District – gun violence,” the Tribune’s board wrote.

That message – that it might be time for “new blood,” as the Tribune put it – has been at the center of Collins’ campaign. When she announced her plans to run again a little more than a year ago, Justice Democrats executive director Alexandra Rojas praised Collins for her aggressive advocacy for “Medicare for All” and work “holding elected officials accountable after the murder of Laquan McDonald,” a Black teenager shot and killed by a White police officer in Chicago in 2014.

“The people of this district are ready for a new generation of leadership,” Rojas said, “who will show up everyday in Congress and fight for the change her community needs.”

Collins, in her ads, has sought to illustrate her close bond to the city while criticizing Davis for missing votes on the Hill. For his part, Davis brushed off the question about the votes – saying he’s never missed a meaningful one in a long career where, by his estimation, he’s cast more than 15,000 of them. According to GovTrack, Davis, who has served in Congress since 1997, has missed 1,012 of 16,410 roll call votes, or 6.2%.

“For years and years and years, you have not been able to find any person in the city of Chicago, more actively engaged in public activity than Danny Davis,” he said.

But Collins says the issue runs deeper and that Davis, for all his time in office and accrued influence in Washington, has been insufficiently aggressive in support of reproductive rights and climate change legislation, and ceded too much rhetorical ground to right-wingers who treat Chicago like a “punching bag.”

“We know that gun violence is a byproduct of poverty and a lot of the issues that we’re dealing with,” Collins said. “So aside from absentee leadership, the district has an opportunity to elect a qualified candidate that is anti-corporations and is pro-people.”