Democrats still bullish on future McHenry County statehouse races after spending big, flipping one GOP seat

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Illinois Democrats and their financial backers spent big – much more than Republicans – on races for statehouse districts that include portions of McHenry County in this month’s election, but ultimately failed to flip more than one area seat.

The sole Illinois House win for local Democrats came in District 66, where Suzanne Ness of Crystal Lake beat incumbent Allen Skillicorn, R-Sleepy Hollow, in a race that remained tight despite little fundraising and campaigning by Skillicorn, giving local GOP leaders a strong feeling they could recapture the seat in 2022, they said.

Ness has reported receiving just over $2.26 million since July 1, according to the third-quarter report her campaign filed as well as reports filed through Nov. 19 that show donations worth at least $1,000. That translates to about $75 received per vote she garnered, by far the most out of any candidate in the five statehouse races for seats representing parts of McHenry County.

Ness received more than 9,000 more votes than Nancy Zettler did in 2016, when Zettler ran as a Democrat and lost to Skillicorn by more than 7,000 votes.

Meanwhile, Skillicorn’s largely self-funded 2020 campaign translated to about 70 cents per vote cast for him, with the Democrat’s margin of victory coming by just more than 2,000 votes in a race that saw nearly 60,000 ballots cast.

District 66 runs from Crystal Lake and Lakewood in the north through Lake in the Hills, Huntley and Algonquin into Kane County, where it also includes Gilberts, Sleepy Hollow and West Dundee.

"I think this election showed a lot of the electorate agreed with Republican values and policies, and we don’t necessarily have to spend as much if we’re strong on the policy," McHenry County Republican Party Chairman Tyler Wilke said.

Despite Republican campaigns being at a huge fundraising disadvantage to Democrats in the three races for the statehouse seats representing the southeast corner of McHenry County, the GOP still put in more effort to hang onto those three local state offices than it has in the past, McHenry County Democratic Party Chairwoman Kristina Zahorik said.

She pointed to Republicans holding an event late in the campaign season at Bull Valley Golf Club featuring high-profile names in their party, Donald Trump Jr. and Fox News host Kimberly Guilfoyle, as evidence that the GOP had to fight harder than in previous elections to maintain its grip on McHenry County’s state House delegation.

"It’s clear that McHenry County is not like the other collar counties," Zakorik said. "We do have a significant portion of our county that has traditionally leaned red, and I think that this cycle didn’t necessarily highlight anything differently other than that there was a very orchestrated effort on the right side of the aisle to motivate their voters to come out and vote. Part of the reason for that extra effort was a feeling on their side of the aisle that we were making headway."

Indeed, the Democrats, even in races they lost, fared better in statehouse contests this year than in the 2016 election, the last to also feature presidential tickets.

Democrat Martha Paschke gave incumbent Republican Dan Ugaste a run for his seat in the District 65 race, with Paschke falling less than 2,500 votes short of a victory after her party four years ago didn’t even put a candidate on the ballot in the statehouse race.

Paschke raised more than $1 million more than Ugaste, translating to $50.13 raised per vote received, while Ugaste’s campaign was given just $8.49 per vote he received.

"I think we have energized the party," Ugaste said. "I think we have shown voters something we haven’t seen in a long time. There is a structure, there is a party that can win whether it be on various issues such as the graduated income tax or in races, and we can make a difference going forward."

Republican Martin McLaughlin, who handily won election to the District 52 seat over Democratic challenger Marci Suelzer and Green Party candidate Alia Sarfraz, said he thinks the varied geography of his supporters shows there is a conservative tilt among voters in the region visible across jurisdictional boundaries.

McLaughlin earned more votes than Suelzer in each of the four counties – McHenry, Lake, Cook and Kane – that make up his district.

"That’s a good sign that our message cut across the main street communities in the 52nd (House District) and the bedroom communities, and all different kinds of economic and social metrics," McLaughlin said.

Zahorik, the McHenry County Democrats head, predicts that her party will continue to have a shot at picking up state legislative seats among districts encompassing parts of McHenry County and that funding from state party organizations will continue to be sent to candidates in this area even after statehouse results that some Democrats called disappointing.

"I think there was a hope and a desire that, based on previous numbers in 2016 and 2018, there was an opportunity and a chance. I suspect it’s still there," Zahorik said.

Additionally, Democrat Brian Sager, the longtime mayor of Woodstock, lost his bid for the District 63 statehouse seat to incumbent Republican Steve Reick by about 1,000 votes less than John Bartman did when he ran as a Democrat four years ago and also lost to Reick.

This election showed that Democrats are chipping away at Republican margins of victory in McHenry County statehouse districts, said JR Patton, a founding partner of the 1833 Group, a Naperville-based political consulting firm that works with Democrats.

"I think it’s a multi-cycle process," Patton said. "As a Democratic Party in Illinois, we could do a better job building the bench and preparing good candidates to run two, four, six years down the road. That’s how you close the gap. These gaps don’t get closed overnight. I think you have to have incremental change."

House District 63, which covers the the entire western half of McHenry County and most of its northern portions, saw more fundraising on the Republican side both this year and in 2016. Sager’s campaign actually received $200,000 less than Bartman’s did, in large part because Sager used personal loans to finance much of his campaign.

Reick’s campaign in 2016 out-raised Bartman’s. The Republican received $48 per vote for him compared to Bartman’s $16.63, and Reick again outdid his opponent in that category this year by getting $7.75 per vote as Sager got $4.41.

"Everyone was banking on a much larger blue wave than we saw," said Nick Daggers, also with the 1833 Group. "All hope is not lost, absolutely. Here in Illinois, I know there was a lot of depression among Democrats and people saying because the Fair Tax went down, and we didn’t pick up some of these seats, Democrats were in disarray. But I don’t buy that at all."

Ness, the District 66 winner, agreed, pointing to the Democratic gains on the McHenry County Board, a body on which she currently sits.

"We have doubled our size on the county board. At least locally, people recognize the value of having different voices at the table," Ness said.

Politicians and officials of both parties will be closely paying attention to whether state legislative districts in McHenry County get remapped in any significant ways before the 2022 state House elections. Redrawing can occur at the start of each new decade with the results of the decennial U.S. Census

Plus, Patton and Daggers theorized Democrats’ chances in statehouse races would be impacted by how the Republican Party responds to Trump’s likely departure from the White House. The Illinois GOP’s reaction, they said, could be embodied by the type of candidate the party puts forward in the 2022 gubernatorial race, and if it is one whose political strategy aligns with Trump’s populist rhetoric, they predict an edge goes to Democrats.

"What does the Republican Party do over the next two years? Do they stay in the model of Trump with this right-wing, outlandish agenda? Or do they go back to the moderate, suburban, country club Republicans? If it’s the latter, it makes it harder for Democrats," Patton said.

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November 22, 2020 at 12:16PM

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