Tom Kacich | Big turnout key to Democrats’ historic election win

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A stellar organization, J.B. Pritzker’s money and Donald Trump’s politics combined Tuesday to give Champaign County Democrats a historic, extraordinary victory.

The first Democratic county clerk since 1942, the first Democratic sheriff since 1934 and the first Democratic candidate for governor to win the county since 1936 were among the highlights of the stunning win in which Democrats took all five countywide offices on the ballot, all five statewide offices, added to their county board advantage and almost singlehandedly knocked off an incumbent Republican congressman.

Republicans didn’t lose the election in Champaign County; Democrats won it.

“I was optimistic that we would sweep the county seats. I thought it was very possible,” said Michelle Jett, who is first chair of the county Democratic Party and oversaw the local campaign effort. “My biggest concern was if we could get the (University of Illinois) students to stay in line to vote. The thing that shocked me was how that wasn’t that difficult.

“I was standing at the bottom of the stairs of the Illini Union at 6 o’clock (on Tuesday), and students are walking up to vote, and the line is almost to the first floor (from the fourth floor), and they don’t even blink. They’re just, ‘OK,’ and they got in line and waited. I was not expecting that kind of attitude.”

It paid off with a huge turnout, not just on campus but in precincts throughout Champaign-Urbana.

Unofficially, 79,552 people voted in the general election, an increase of more than 24,000 votes over the last midterm in 2014. The vast majority of those new votes went to Democratic candidates, such as 13th Congressional District candidate Betsy Dirksen Londrigan of Springfield. She got 40,656 — almost twice as many in Champaign County as the 20,451 that Ann Callis received in the 2014 congressional election.

Almost 31 percent of all the votes Londrigan got in the 14-county district came from Champaign County.

Democrats hadn’t even run candidates for sheriff or county treasurer in 2014, and their candidate for county clerk that year drew just 20,879 votes. But on Tuesday, Democrat Aaron Ammons got 41,710 votes. The Republican candidate this year, Matt Grandone, also got more votes — 35,387 this year to Gordy Hulten’s 32,261 in 2014 — but the disparity is remarkable.

The student vote

Turnout in campus-area precincts was off the charts. City of Champaign 4, which votes at the University YMCA on Wright Street, nearly quintupled its number of voters — from 185 in 2014 to 906 on Tuesday. In Urbana, the number of voters in Cunningham 4, who vote at the Lincoln Avenue Residence Hall, increased from 155 four years ago to 691 this time.

But the number of voters was up in every other precinct in Champaign-Urbana, and Democrats were the beneficiaries even in Republican areas. The most Republican precinct in the two cities — City of Champaign 24 — saw nearly 200 more voters than in 2014. While Bruce Rauner won the precinct four years ago with 54.3 percent of the vote, he lost it Tuesday with only 43 percent. U.S. Rep. Rodney Davis, R-Taylorville, got 53 percent in the district four years ago but just 39.5 percent Tuesday.

Trump — who collected only 36.4 percent of the vote in Champaign County in 2016 — and Davis’ support of the president helped drive the brawny Democratic turnout, Jett said.

“I think you can for sure say Trump, and I think it’s fair to say Davis as well — both of their politics has ignited people in Champaign County,” she said. “And the problem for the local Republicans is that they weren’t willing to stand up against Trump.

“Honestly, that’s what put people over the edge, that these horrible things were coming from the national level, and no one here was saying that it’s inappropriate to put children in cages or to cancel life-saving health insurance. That was really the straw that broke the camel’s back for a lot of local people who before hadn’t been super engaged in politics, but then they see the Republicans they know and who they see in the store and whose kids play on the same soccer teams not speaking out against this.

“It was just too much.”

The Trump effect

County Recorder Mark Shelden, now one of just three Republicans to hold a countywide office in this traditional GOP county, didn’t dispute the Trump effect.

“I think Trump actually was a big factor,” he said. “We had people showing up to vote who don’t normally show up to vote in governor elections, and they were motivated by animus toward Donald Trump. And those voters, some of them are lower-information voters, they just kept voting Democrat all the way down.”

That meant the defeat of longtime county government stalwarts like sheriff candidate Allen Jones and executive candidate Gordy Hulten, Shelden said.

“In a governor’s election, you usually have a smaller electorate that is probably more engaged. Republicans in this county traditionally have done better then,” Shelden said. “But when that electorate grows, it starts to include more people — students first, but more people who haven’t read The News-Gazette and haven’t seen Allen Jones’ name for the last five years and haven’t seen that work that Gordy Hulten and John Farney have done, because they’re not really engaged.

“That’s always been the challenge in a presidential election, not so much in a governor’s election. This year, obviously, it was.”

Jett: ‘A big effort’

Mitigating the Trump effect in 2020 is going to take a major effort by local Republicans, Shelden said.

“We’re going to have to work really hard. The money doesn’t do everything. It’s really about candidates and volunteers meeting voters,” he said. “We have to do some soul-searching on our side and say, ‘How important is this for good government in Champaign County?’ I think we all feel it’s really important. We have to invest the time and resources into building a volunteer organization that can counteract any amount of (Governor-elect) J.B. Pritzker money.”

Local Democrats benefited from financial help from the Democratic Party of Illinois and the Rock Island County Democratic Party, which funneled at least $6.7 million in contributions from Pritzker’s gubernatorial campaign to party organizations around the state. The Champaign County Democratic Central Committee reported at least $48,000 in contributions through the Rock Island County organization.

Jett downplayed their significance.

“I don’t think the Pritzker money had that big of an impact. We definitely used it for mailers, but it didn’t pay for the unprecedented number of volunteers we had show up,” she said.

She said there were hundreds of volunteers who registered voters, trained poll watchers, drove voters to the polls, made phone calls and took on other tasks.

“We had these specific people who really stepped up and took big chunks of work off the plates of other people,” said Jett, who is moving to Chicago later this year to be with her partner. “It was a big effort.”

Harold loses home county

Other notes from the election:

— While Champaign has for decades been more supportive of Republicans than Urbana, that advantage has nearly evaporated. In Champaign’s 39 individual precincts, Republican candidates won only 16 races Tuesday: five precincts for attorney general candidate Erika Harold, five for executive candidate Gordy Hulten, two for clerk candidate Matt Grandone, and one each for County Treasurer John Farney, Judge Randy Rosenbaum and county board candidates Ginny Holder and Tom Dillavou.

— While Harold lost only 11 of Illinois’ 102 counties, one of them was Champaign, her home county. Democrat Kwame Raoul collected 40,115 votes to 36,715 for Harold.

— The biggest vote-getter in the county wasn’t Harold or Mike Frerichs, the Democratic state treasurer from Champaign. It was Secretary of State Jesse White, a Democrat from Chicago who was elected to a sixth term. He got 54,000 votes in Champaign County.

Tom Kacich is a News-Gazette columnist.

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November 8, 2018 at 07:20AM

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