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Why It’s so Hard for Republicans to Win in Illinois

Democrats and Republicans were once evenly matched in Illinois. So how did the Party of Lincoln fall behind in his own homeland?

It’s hard out here.   Photo: Brian Cassella

November is looking grim for the Illinois Republican Party. Its standard-bearer, Gov. Bruce Rauner, is trailing his Democratic opponent, JB Pritzker, by 16 points. Its president, Donald Trump, has a 31 percent approval rating. Trump has made the party so unpopular in Illinois that its number one nemesis, House Speaker Michael Madigan, may regain a supermajority in his chamber.

It’s going to be another tough election in what has so far been a tough century for Illinois Republicans. Since 2000, the party has won only six of the 32 statewide elections — an 18 percent success rate — becoming the permanent minority party in Illinois. Republicans don’t win elections here; Democrats just occasionally lose them, putting up weak candidates like Carol Moseley Braun, Alexi Giannoulias, and Pat Quinn. The Republicans who beat those losers — Peter Fitzgerald, Mark Kirk, and Bruce Rauner — were all flukes. They were or will be turned out of office after a single term. The last Republican senator to win re-election was Charles Percy, in 1978; the last governor was Jim Edgar, in 1994.

So how did the Party of Lincoln become such an ineffectual force in his homeland?

It’s possible to trace the divergent fortunes of the Republican and Democratic parties in Illinois by looking at the voting histories of two counties: DuPage, in the suburbs of Chicago, and Franklin, in Southern Illinois coal country.

DuPage was once a bulwark of the Illinois Republican Party, having supported its presidential candidates since the days of Abraham Lincoln. After World War II, DuPage’s villages burgeoned with middle-class homeowners who had fled Chicago’s corrupt political machine, and considered Republicans the party of good government and fiscal responsibility.

Franklin County’s history, on the other hand, has been defined by labor militance, from the 1922 Herrin Massacre of strikebreaking coal miners to the Orient No. 2 Mine explosion, which in 1951 killed 119 men and led labor boss John L. Lewis to lobby for stricter mine safety laws. As a result of its union loyalties, Franklin was so yellow-dog Democratic it even voted for Walter Mondale.

For most of the 20th Century, Democrats and Republicans were evenly matched in Illinois. The Democratic base resided in Chicago-proper and Southern Illinois, while Republicans dominated the suburbs and the prairie counties. Republicans were so successful they won six consecutive presidential elections and held the governor’s office for 26 years in a row. When Bill Clinton carried Illinois in 1992 — the first Democrat to do so since Lyndon Johnson — he won Cook County and most of Downstate, while losing the suburbs.

How times have changed. In 2016, Hillary Clinton won Illinois by an even larger margin than her husband, but she won only 12 counties, most of them in the Chicago area. She won DuPage County 53%-38%, and lost Franklin County by 70%-25%.

Since 2000, the year the nation began dividing into red and blue enclaves, the Democrats have become the party of urbanized, well-educated voters, which has made them much more appealing to suburbanites. Today’s suburbanites are more likely than the previous generation to be pro-choice, pro-gay rights, pro-environment, pro-gun control, and pro-government, willing to tax themselves for schools and libraries — all values associated with the Democratic Party. When the Republican Party was dominated by moderates in the Midwest and Northeast, it won the suburbs comfortably. But as the party is increasingly led by conservative partisans, suburbanites are shying away. Even the Chicago Tribune, once the voice of Midwestern Republicanism, has not endorsed a Republican presidential nominee since 2004.

The same qualities that have made the Democrats so popular in the suburbs have repelled rural voters. In May, I visited Franklin County for the Old King Coal Festival in West Frankfort, which celebrates the area’s biggest industry. The local state representative, Dave Severin, who took office after defeating a Democratic incumbent in 2016, began his speech by shouting “God, Guns and Coal!" Then he cracked, “In Chicago, they don’t even know how to spell ‘coal.’ ” In socially conservative Franklin County, the Democrats are seen as hostile to Christian teachings on abortion and homosexuality, and to the coal industry, which Donald Trump promised to revive and protect.

Illinois is simply following national trends, said John S. Jackson, a professor of political science at Southern Illinois University, on Sunday’s WGN Morning Spin program. Southern Illinois has always been aligned with the South, culturally and politically, and has finally followed it into the Republican Party.

“We lagged the South and we’re a good deal later getting to that, but we have certainly come to that party and we’ve become increasingly red in presidential votes and even in congressional votes now,” he said. “This end of the state, particularly because of economic reasons, was always a bastion of Democratic strength, and the unions were a key part of that.”

Now, though, all the region’s working coal mines are non-union, so “the same thing that’s happened to the South has happened here, though ours came more recently.”

In this reordering of political allegiances, the Illinois Republican Party traded the Chicago suburbs for Southern Illinois, the Democratic Party vice versa. The Democrats got the better end of that deal, because the suburbs are far more populous. In fact, it’s been such a good deal that next year, the Democrats are likely to hold both U.S. Senate seats, a majority of the congressional seats, all the constitutional offices, and both houses of the legislature, making Illinois a one-party state.

Illinois Republicans really need another Lincoln.

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