Duel between Illinois’ GOP, Democrats will go beyond JB Pritzker vs. Gov. Bruce Rauner. Here’s why.

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As Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner and Democratic challenger J.B. Pritzker launch attack after attack in their fight for Illinois’ highest office, dozens of candidates for the state legislature are fighting over taxes, social issues and party leadership.

Many state lawmakers will waltz to re-election in November because no one signed up to run against them. In one such case, Chicago’s lone Republican’s successful bid for re-election two years ago sparked the most expensive legislative race in the country. This time, state Rep. Michael McAuliffe has no Democratic opponent.

That leaves both parties to fight hard in a handful of competitive districts statewide, as Democrats try to bolster their 67-51 majority in the Illinois House and 37-22 margin in the Senate. Republicans will try to cut into those majorities, just like they did two years ago.

Millions of dollars will start pouring into individual races in the coming weeks, showing exactly where the biggest battles will be. In the Chicago suburbs, Democrats are hopeful that President Donald Trump‘s controversies and midterm election trends will provide some rare opportunities to pick up seats long held by the GOP. And Downstate, Republicans could have a chance to capitalize on Trump’s popularity there to keep squeezing Democrats out, making them even more rare in southern Illinois than they already are.

The moves echo Rauner’s efforts to use his wealth to help rebuild the Illinois Republican Party, which he’s given more than $36 million. Now, the governor and Republican lawmakers have been touting what they’re calling the “People’s Pledge” — a promise to vote for term limits and against Madigan for speaker.

Republicans two years ago gained a net six seats in Springfield, making it impossible for Democrats to override Rauner vetoes alone. The stakes this time are similar. Republican gains could be useful for a second Rauner term or harmful to Pritzker’s first, but the partisan breakdowns don’t always predict how a big issue will shake out.

Republicans joined Democrats to override Rauner’s biggest veto of last year — the state income tax hike. Many of GOP lawmakers who voted for the tax increase aren’t running again, helping fuel the Springfield exodus.

Two Democratic senators from the St. Louis area decided against re-election bids, and their seats could be ripe for Republican challenges, too. Democrats used to represent wide swaths of southern Illinois as recently as a few years ago, partly because of union strength in the area.

Now, though, the southern part of the state more reliably votes Republican, reflecting the politics of the deep south.

“We are a deeply polarized nation and we are polarized ideologically and (in) partisanship and geographically, and now Illinois reflects almost exactly that same (national) distribution” of voter attitudes, John S. Jackson, a professor specializing in politics at Southern Illinois University said recently on WGN-AM 720.

Democrats there always skewed more conservative. Defeated in 2016, former state Sen. Gary Forby of Benton once said he was “about ready” to cut Chicago off from the state and “push ‘em right out into the water.” He said he’d put then-Gov. Pat Quinn “on the nose of the boat.”

Still, the Trump trend in 2016 was overwhelming. Forby’s home Franklin County tallied more than 70 percent of its votes for Trump.

mriopell@chicagotribune.com

Twitter @mikeriopell

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September 1, 2018 at 07:06AM

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