In far southeastern Illinois’ Crawford County, Earl Deckard looked with trepidation at Tuesday’s election results that put state government in Democratic control as a blue wave swept through what had been Chicago’s traditionally Republican suburbs.
“We’ve always had a good Republican county here,” said Deckard, a resident of Oblong, a town of just under 1,400 people located 200 miles straight south of Chicago. “The rest of the state? I’m not sure what the rest of the state is going to do here.”
If there is to be an autopsy of the Illinois Republican Party after an election that swept the GOP from statewide office and into deep superminorities to Democrats in the House and Senate, perhaps it’s appropriate for Deckard, the Crawford County coroner and recently retired Republican county GOP chairman, to have his say.
“I think they wanted change. And I’m not sure that we are changing for the better at this point in time. In fact, I’m very skeptical because I think we’re looking at more taxes,” Deckard said of the Chicago suburban election results. “Most of us Downstate, we feel like we’re the redheaded stepchildren of Illinois. And they don’t care about us. But we don’t have the numbers down here to overcome it. And the numbers are getting smaller every day.”
Much like the falling population numbers in Downstate areas like Crawford County, a border county just 35 miles southwest of Terre Haute, Ind., Republicans overall saw in the election a contraction of its numbers in Illinois, particularly in its once GOP-rich suburbs.
Of the collar counties, once the Republican buffer to the Democratic vote from Chicago, all but McHenry County voted for J.B. Pritzker over Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner — a replay of 2016, when the same counties sided with Democrat Hillary Clinton over Republican Donald Trump.
In DuPage County, once the center of the universe for suburban Republicanism, Pritzker became the first Democratic candidate for governor to win since 1932, when Henry Horner faced scandal-tarred former Republican Gov. Len Small.
In neighboring Kane County and in exurban Kendall County, the history goes much further. Pritzker became the first non-Republican to win for governor in those counties since 1912, when Frank Funk was the local Progressive “Bull Moose” ticket candidate backed by Theodore Roosevelt. Roosevelt lost to Woodrow Wilson for president and Funk finished third for governor.
To be sure, Pritzker’s wins over Rauner in those counties were narrow. But the Democratic victories go deeper in the suburbs, including taking two congressional seats from veteran Republicans and winning several GOP-held state legislative seats.
In DuPage, seven Democratic women captured seats on the County Board of 12 seats at stake and Democrats upped their membership to eight on the 18-seat board. Another Democratic woman, Jean Kaczmarek, won the county clerk’s office, which will take over election duties from the county’s election authority.
In Lake and Will counties, unofficial results appeared to give Democrats majorities on their county boards and Democrats swept all Will County offices.
As an exclamation point, state GOP Chairman Tim Schneider of Bartlett, whom Rauner handpicked for the post, was defeated in his re-election bid for a suburban Cook County Board seat by Democrat Kevin Morrison of Elk Grove Village.
Suburban women, traditionally fiscally conservative but socially moderate, went from their role of being a swing vote in elections to a swing force, voting results showed.
Former Republican Gov. Jim Edgar said two factors helped build Democrats’ suburban support — Trump’s controversial presidency and Rauner’s role in the state’s historic budget impasse and its impact on social services.
Now, he said, the Illinois GOP finds itself at a crossroads, particularly in the suburbs, over whether to seek to broaden its appeal to a growing, more diverse population or push a rightward social agenda. Rauner’s defeat leaves a vacuum in the party’s leadership that the state GOP’s socially conservative wing is looking to exploit after decades of chafing under moderate rule.
“I just think the party strategy of moving to the right is a mistake,” Edgar said. He noted the controversial efforts of state Rep. Jeanne Ives of Wheaton in her near-upset of Rauner in the March primary that included an ad mocking transgender people and abortion-rights advocates as well as a Rauner ad against Pritzker that some said mocked same-sex marriage.
“If you want to be purely political about it, the numbers just don’t hold up,” he said. “White people aren’t going to be around (as a majority) much longer. You look at what’s coming up, young people, people of color, we’ve got to figure out a way to attract them. You may not carry all of those, but you’ve got to do better than we did in this election.”
Greg Baise, the outgoing president and CEO of the Illinois Manufacturers’ Association, faulted Republican leaders in the suburbs for not actively recruiting support among a changing electorate after years in which the GOP just assumed newcomers largely from the city would become Democratic defectors. Baise cited the retirements of some women suburban legislators whom local GOP leaders replaced with suburban men as one example of a failure to look forward.
“We don’t take the opportunity, when you’re trying to grow in the suburbs,” Baise said. “Is there any effort to find Hispanic business leaders that are Republican-oriented and to promote them and to talk with them and have them a part of any activity? Any effort like this? I haven’t heard of any if there is, whatsoever.”
“The business community, we get the phone calls (from campaigns) at election time: ‘Oh, can we have somebody walk through a manufacturing facility?’ Well, guess what they see when they walk through the manufacturing facility?” he said, noting that many have large numbers of Latino factory workers. “And half of the supervisors for the owners of those companies have to speak Spanish.”
With Rauner soon to be gone — and expected to take with him his heavy financing that rebuilt the state GOP apparatus — Republicans face finding new leadership at a critical time. With their control of state government, Democrats will have the power to redraw congressional and legislative district boundaries that threaten to further reduce GOP representation in Illinois and its Washington delegation.
Edgar said the GOP losses particularly stung since the party normally makes its gains in off-year elections in a state that has turned Democratic in presidential election years.
“This time we got hurt by the top of the ticket, even though (Trump) wasn’t running, to some extent,” he said. “We’re going to be starting behind after an election in which we usually make some gains. So that’s going to make it a challenge in 2020.”
The former two-term Republican governor said he believes the party’s leadership decisions belong to the state’s two GOP legislative leaders, Jim Durkin of Western Springs in the House and Bill Brady of Bloomington in the Senate.
“These guys in the legislature realize they’ve got to be a little more in the middle if they’re going to pick up some seats,” Edgar said.
Baise said Republicans should look at younger leaders. He recommended state Sen. Jason Barickman of Bloomington, a 45-year-old assistant Senate GOP leader who helped shape a bipartisan deal on a historic change in state funding for schools. Or, he said, Republicans should turn to four-term U.S. Rep. Adam Kinzinger of Channahon, 40, who has not been shy about criticizing Trump.
“I think there’s your future of your leadership when you can find that kind of young talent that has got to step to the fore,” Baise said, noting that both represent Downstate areas. “Those guys have to take some responsibility in leading us forward because they are younger, they have a broader viewpoint, they’re not looking at it from a philosophical, social issue standpoint. They’re economic conservatives and it’s got to be those kind of people that lead the serious discussion.”
Then there’s Ives, who lost to Rauner by 3 percentage points in the March primary for governor. She pushed a sharply social conservative message backed by talk show host and failed 2010 GOP governor candidate Dan Proft and was funded in part by wealthy conservative megadonor Richard Uihlein, founder of the shipping products firm Uline.
Proft’s independent expenditure political action committee, Liberty Principles PAC, backed 19 GOP state legislative candidates Tuesday. A dozen lost to Democratic challengers, including Rep. Peter Breen of Lombard, the House GOP floor leader. Among the remaining seven, six won including three incumbents, and one race was undecided.
Ives, soon to be out of the legislature, has sought to keep relevant since losing the primary and even offered herself up for election commentary. On the eve of the election, she criticized now-U.S. Rep.-elect Lauren Underwood of Naperville, who defeated four-term GOP Rep. Randy Hultgren of Plano, for still living with her parents.
“Underwood … still sleeps in her childhood bedroom, down the hall from her mother and father in the home where she grew up. There was once a time when a 32-year-old might be embarrassed, perhaps even mortified to rely on their parents to pay their credit card bills. But no longer,” she said, belittling it as “failure to launch.”
A study by online real estate database company Zillow found in May that nearly 23 percent of millennials were living with their mother or both parents, up about 9 percentage points from a 2005 survey.
Amid a changing suburban demographic, Downstate Illinois keeps turning more deeply Republican. That accentuates the potential for problems within the GOP in trying to find unity in a state divided both geographically and ideologically on some issues.
In the suburbs before the election, the Gun Violence Prevention PAC endorsed four suburban Republicans seeking re-election. But down in Crawford County, just days before Election Day, the local county Republican Party sponsored a drawing at the annual Oblong Chamber of Commerce’s Fall Follies.
The prize: a Glock 43, a 9 mm pistol described in sales literature as “ultra-concealable” and “the answer to your everyday concealed carry needs.”
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November 10, 2018 at 08:10PM