It’s been 82 years since a Democratic candidate for governor won in Champaign County.
It’s been almost as long — 70 years — since a Democratic gubernatorial candidate even came close.
But it’s also been a long time since a Republican candidate for governor has been as unpopular as Gov. Bruce Rauner. That’s why it’s possible that Democrat J.B. Pritzker could do something that hasn’t been done since 1936, when Democratic Gov. Henry Horner won a second term. He had a 1,449-vote victory margin in Champaign County.
Since then, Democrats are 0-for-20 in the county, where Rauner enjoyed a 55 percent to 41 percent victory over Gov. Pat Quinn four years ago. The closest a Democrat has come in those 20 elections was Adlai Stevenson — who grew up 50 miles away in Bloomington and won election in 1948 by what was an historic majority in Illinois. Still, Stevenson lost dark-red Champaign County by 591 votes.
Strong Republican majorities in non-presidential year elections have been a tradition since, from Jim Thompson’s 77 percent to 22 percent win over Michael Howlett in 1976, to Jim Ryan’s 52 percent to 44 percent win over Rod Blagojevich in 2002.
In gubernatorial elections since 1990, Republicans have won by an average of 9,775 votes. But don’t look for that to happen in Champaign County this year. Nothing seems to be going right for Rauner. He’s got an opponent with deep pockets, a wildly unpopular president leading his party, a divided GOP in Illinois with neither conservative Republicans nor liberal Republicans wild about Rauner, and a four-year record of disregard for public higher education, the biggest industry in Champaign County.
Two recent statewide polls show that not only is Rauner losing to Pritzker by double digits, but there’s virtually no chance he can catch up. The electorate finds him so unlikable.
An Illinois News Broadcasters poll, taken earlier this month, found that 52.4 percent of those polled had an unfavorable opinion of Rauner. Only 24 percent were favorable toward the governor. The findings mirror an August poll that found that 26 percent of voters thought favorably of Rauner to 52 percent with an unfavorable opinion.
Even in central and southern Illinois — Rauner’s strongest region — more people had an unfavorable opinion of the governor (46 percent to 32 percent).
Pritzker’s numbers weren’t a great deal better, thanks to months of negative campaign ads from the Rauner campaign. The INBA poll gave the Democrat a statewide 32 percent to 21 percent favorable to unfavorable rating, while an NBC/Marist poll put his favorables at 38 percent and his unfavorables at 35 percent.
But in central and southern Illinois — which includes Champaign County — Pritzker’s favorables were at 40 percent. And 43 percent of those polled said they’d vote for him to just 33 percent for Rauner.
Rauner could still win Champaign County in November — it was one of his best counties in the March primary against state Rep. Jeanne Ives — but don’t count on him coming close to that average 9,775-vote victory margin.
Super PACs skipped Rep. Rodney Davis’ re-election campaign in 2016 — he didn’t need the help against a weak Democratic candidate — but they’re back in the 13th Congressional District race this year.
The Congressional Leadership Fund, a Republican group that makes independent expenditures on behalf of GOP candidates, announced last week that it would commit $13 million to five congressional races, including Davis’. The Washington Post said the CLF would spend $1 million on behalf of the Taylorville Republican. It’s another indication that his race against Springfield Democrat Betsy Londrigan may be a nail-biter.
Many of the GOP candidates on the CLF support list, such as U.S. Rep. Mike Bost of Murphysboro, are engaged in tough election battles in normally Republican districts. Bost, a two-term incumbent in the congressional district east of St. Louis, has a 1 percentage point lead over his Democratic challenger, Brendan Kelly, the state’s attorney in St. Clair County. The poll was taken by The New York Times and Siena College.
Bost won election to the seat in 2014 with 53 percent of the vote, and was re-elected in 2016 with 54 percent.
Back in the 13th District, Londrigan already has received more than $350,000 in independent expenditure support from Women Vote!, an affiliate of the Democratic pro-choice group Emily’s List.
Expect more super PACs to enter the race on behalf of both Londrigan and Davis.
Early voting starts Thursday
Election Day is Nov. 6, but voting starts at county clerk’s offices throughout Illinois on Thursday morning.
The Champaign County Clerk’s office will open to early voting at 8 a.m. Thursday.
Early voting at eight remote sites throughout the county will begin Oct. 25. Those sites include Room 404 of the Illini Union; the Church of the Living God at 312 E. Bradley Ave., Champaign; the Leonhard Recreation Center, 2307 Sangamon Drive, Champaign; Meadowbrook Community Church, 1902 S. Duncan Road, Champaign; Lake of the Woods Pavilion in Mahomet; First United Methodist Church, Rantoul; Prince of Peace Luther Church, St. Joseph; and the Tolono Public Library.
The remote sites will be open daily from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. and also will have hours the two weekends before the election.
In the last gubernatorial election in Champaign County — 2014 — 11,817 voters cast either early votes or vote-by-mail votes. That was about 21 percent of the 55,434 votes cast in the county that year.
You can expect that number to increase this fall. About 4,000 vote-by-mail ballots will be sent out by the county clerk’s office on Thursday, an increase from past elections.
In this year’s primary election in Champaign County, about 32 percent of all votes were cast before Election Day. County Clerk Gordy Hulten repeatedly has stated that he expects early voting numbers to grow every election as more voters realize the convenience.
Tom Kacich is a News-Gazette columnist. His column appears on Sundays.
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September 23, 2018 at 08:01PM