Amid talk of a potential blue wave, Democrats already have begun to turn the tide in GOP suburbs

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In 1995, the suburbs were the center of Illinois’ Republican universe, the bucolic backyards the home of the leaders of the state legislature as they strove to drive an agenda as a political force to be reckoned with for future generations.

Now, nearly a quarter-century later, it is the Democrats who have advanced in collar counties that were once the Republican firewall to Chicago’s massive Democratic vote — a confluence of changing demographics, uncertain GOP messaging and a partisan mapmaking process.

While Democrats talk of a “blue wave” sweeping nationally as Election Day approaches on Tuesday, it’s clear that they’ve already begun to turn the tide by encroaching into the traditional GOP-leaning suburbs. The votes cast there will be key in determining Illinois’ immediate future, with potential long-term political consequences for both political parties as ballots are cast for governor, the state’s congressional delegation and deciding the makeup of the General Assembly.

And among those suburban areas, there is no place more central to Illinois’ fate than DuPage County, where there has been an evolution politically, ideologically and demographically.

“You get good economic policy, that is a regulatory approach that makes sense and tax relief that allows the economy to flourish, and that’s exactly what’s happening,” Roskam said.

Later, Roskam bounced throughout the northern part of the district, visiting a veterans event at the Masonic Temple in Barrington and shaking hands with high school football fans in Lake Zurich during the team’s playoff game against Mount Carmel. He waved to the football crowd, chatted with a few supporters on the sidelines and posed for photos, including one requested by a cheerleader.

“You must be busy,” one man in Barrington said.

“It’s good busy,” Roskam said, “fun busy.”

Casten spoke to dozens of supporters Saturday morning in a nondescript Lombard storefront office as they stood in line for clipboards that would help volunteers going door-to-door know which voters they needed to talk to.

“This is described to me as the absolute best kind of canvassing because we’re long past the point of trying to figure out whether you’re a racist, Trumpy person,” he told the crowd to laughs, “or one of the good ones.”

Roskam has made criticism of the tone of Casten’s rhetoric a key argument of the closing weeks of his campaign.

Casten and Underwood are scheduled Sunday to join Pritzker and other members of the Democratic ticket for a rally with former President Barack Obama at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

Obama, the former home-state president, became the first Democratic White House candidate to win DuPage County since Franklin Pierce in 1852 and the first non-Republican since Theodore Roosevelt led the Progressive Party in 1912.

READ MORE: 800,000 Illinoisans have cast ballots so far, surpassing 2014 early vote counts »

Obama’s wins in DuPage were followed in 2016 by Democrat Hillary Clinton beating Trump in the county by more than 14 percentage points. And in a sign of the shifting suburban electorate, Clinton won in all of the collar counties except McHenry County.

Contrast that to 2000, when George W. Bush defeated Al Gore in DuPage County by 13 percentage points, having keynoted a rally with running mate Dick Cheney at the College of DuPage just days before the election. The event became best known in Illinois political lore for then-Gov. George Ryan inexplicably introducing legendary Chicago Bears coach Mike Ditka as “Dick Butka.” Hall of Fame linebacker Dick Butkus wasn’t present.

Daniels, the former speaker of the Illinois House from 1995 to 1997 — two years that interrupted Democratic House Speaker Michael Madigan’s streak of holding the office since 1983 — said Tuesday is lining up to be “almost a perfect storm” against Republicans in DuPage County, the collar counties and in Illinois.

Daniels cites the traditional “swing of the pendulum against the party in power” in the White House, what he calls an “unconscionable” amount of money being spent on legislative contests, including by Democrats, utilizing expensive Chicago TV for ads. Then there are divisions inside the Republican Party between its socially moderate and conservative factions.

But there are other factors at play — such as the demographic shift DuPage County has been experiencing. DuPage is becoming less white, and its white population is growing older, according to statistics compiled by the county’s public health department. At the same time, its racial and ethnic minority population is growing, and it’s trending younger.

Overall, the most recent federal Census statistics show DuPage County’s population breaks down to 68.3 percent white, 14 percent Latino, 11 percent Asian and 4.5 percent black.

Between 1990 and 2013, the county’s Latino population increased by 275.4 percent and the African-American population increased by 175 percent, the DuPage health department report said. During that time period, there was a 124.3 percent increase in the 55 to 59 age group and a 162.4 percent increase in the 85 and over age group.

“Yes, I’m a partisan,” said Daniels, an attorney who also has done strategic work for Elmhurst College. “It’s our responsibility as Republicans to meet that changing demographics and to present the programs clearly and articulately as to why we’re the best party to serve as the governance of these areas. And if you don’t do that, you’re going to suffer the consequences.”

Daniels said for Republicans today there’s “so much misunderstanding” of the party’s basic tenets in trying to conduct voter outreach.

“What is the position of the Republican Party on taxes, on education reform, on criminal justice reform? How are we dealing with the violence that we’re seeing coming out, not just in Chicago, but the country as a whole? Remember, one of the principle responsibilities of government is health, safety and welfare. Where’s the safety factor?” he asked.

A critical subset of suburban voters are women — fiscally conservative but socially moderate who are true swing voters who can hold strong sway over the outcome of Illinois elections.

“I’ve got a picture of her on a PowerPoint,” said Mooney, the UIC political scientist, explaining one of his class exhibits.

“She’s about 34, she’s got a kid in the backseat that she’s taking to daycare or to soccer, she’s driving an SUV and she’s driving around in Schaumburg or Lisle or something like that,” he said. “She’s socially, fairly liberal. She has no problem with gay people. Immigrants maybe make her a little nervous but not that much. But she doesn’t like her taxes, and she doesn’t like Donald Trump and all these nasty things about people. That’s one of the problems some of these suburban Republicans have at the moment and the governor.”

Concerns about family health and safety are at the forefront for suburban women, past polling has shown, including support for more regulations on guns amid numerous violent mass shooting incidents across the country that also have included schools.

Health and safety concerns also find DuPage County at the center of a late campaign controversy over the Rauner administration’s handling of an equipment sterilization plant in Willowbrook that emits cancer-causing ethylene oxide.

The company, Sterigenics, is owned in part by the private-equity firm co-founded by Rauner, and has said it is operating within state and federal guidelines, though a lawsuit that was jointly filed by Democratic Attorney General Lisa Madigan and Republican DuPage County State’s Attorney Robert Berlin seeks to either shut down the plant or seek more stringent rules over its emissions.

The Tribune previously reported the Rauner administration knew about cancer risks from Sterigenics pollution in December, but deferred to political appointees in the Trump administration to determine when and how the public was informed. An Environmental Protection Agency report on the cancer risk wasn’t released until late August.

Daniels called the votes of suburban women “the vote that matters” and said the fact that many Republican seats are in jeopardy in Congress and the state legislature “is an indication that we need to do a better job” communicating.

Communication, Daniels said, includes the threat that Democratic control of state government poses for Republicans in the future through the process of redrawing political boundaries following the 2020 Census. A Republican governor could veto a Democratic-drawn map — forcing a tie-breaker that the GOP could win.

It was the one-party, Democratic control of the governor’s office and the legislature following the 2010 Census that led to Democratic supermajorities for much of the decade and pushing out boundary lines from Democratic areas to encompass suburban Republican strongholds.

“That’s what’s at stake,” Daniels said of the election’s impact on the future of suburban Republicanism. “It’s the redistricting of 2020.”

Freelance reporter Marilyn Halstead contributed from Carbondale.

rap30@aol.com

mriopell@chicagotribune.com

poconnell@chicagotribune.com

Twitter @rap30

Twitter @MikeRiopell

Twitter @pmocwriter

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November 3, 2018 at 07:30PM

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