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How Downstate Lost Its Political Power

When the new General Assembly takes office on Tuesday, Illinois will be bluer than ever. That has a lot to do with the changing GOP — and the suburban voters it has lost along the way.

Bruce Rauner campaigns at Knight Hawk Coal in Cutler in 2014.   Photo: Brian Cassella/Chicago Tribune

There was a time, not too many years ago, when some of Illinois’s most powerful Democrats were from the southern part of the state: House Speaker and Secretary of State Paul Powell, senators Paul Simon and Alan Dixon, Congressman Glenn Poshard, the party’s nominee for governor in 1998.

Today, though, the Southern Illinois Democrat is as rare as the Southern Democrat in general. A number were swept away by the Trump wave of 2016, and this past election saw the defeat of Natalie Phelps Finnie, whose father, David Phelps, was a Democratic congressman from Eldorado.

Southern Illinois’s turn to Republicanism has mirrored that of the South, to which it has cultural and ancestral links. It’s also based on the region’s desire to protect its coal industry, guns, and religion — all conservative causes. The prairie counties have skewed Republican since the days of Lincoln, but moved even further to the right in the Trump era, a reaction to the globalization that has gutted former manufacturing towns like Galesburg, Peoria, and Decatur.

In last year’s election for governor, JB Pritzker won only 15 of the state’s 102 counties. But he still won the election by 15 points, taking every county in the Chicago area. 

Elsewhere, despite getting shut out in Southern Illinois, House Democrats picked up seats in the suburbs, winning a supermajority that will allow them to override any Republican objection that comes their way.

In other words: By aligning with a changed Republican Party, Downstate has rendered itself politically irrelevant in this blue state.

It wasn’t always like this. Throughout the 20th century, political power was closely balanced between upstate and down. The Republicans dominated suburbia and the farm counties, while the Democrats prevailed in Chicago and Southern Illinois.

“Downstate was the swing area,” Kent Redfield, a former legislative staffer and professor of political science at the University of Illinois at Springfield, told me last year. “Having Downstate candidates was important for balancing the ticket.”

But today, Chicago and its suburbs have abandoned political opposition in favor of political alignment. “Downstate is solidly Republican, but it’s much less important,” Redfield said. “Look at the legislative leaders.”

House Speaker Michael Madigan and Senate President John Cullerton hail from Cook County. So did the last three governors — Rod Blagojevich, Pat Quinn, and Bruce Rauner — and the next one, Pritzker.

Currently, the only Downstaters holding statewide office are Treasurer Michael Freirichs of Champaign — a college town that’s a blue dot on the prairie — and Senator Dick Durbin of Springfield, a holdover from the days when Democrats competed in rural Illinois. Durbin represented a Central Illinois House district until he was elected to the Senate in 1996. he was replaced by Republican John Shimkus, who is still in Congress.

The practical result is a General Assembly focused on the wants and needs of Chicago and its suburbs, with little regard to Downstate’s concerns.

That could have major implications for the state. As pollster Brian Stryker put it in a tweet:

“I predict the big policy winners from this [shift] over time will be pro-choice groups and gun-safety groups. Suburban voters align with those two groups, and suburban Dem politicians won’t blink on those issues like a more rural caucus would. IL will be a good test case where the Dem caucus has grown by a few over 8 yrs, but notably it’s lost 6-8 rural members while adding 12-15 suburban ones. With a Dem trifecta (Sen/House/Gov), I bet this legislation moves MUCH easier than the last Dem trifecta in 2013.”

(Rural Democrats, when they still existed, were often pro-labor, but also pro-gun and anti-abortion.)

Added Rich Miller on his Capitol Fax blog:

“Mass transit is gonna be a much bigger issue than it already is now that the suburbs are such a large part of the two Democratic caucuses and Downstate opposition will be more muted. Also, building true high-speed rail lines to Champaign, Rockford and maybe the Quad Cities while boosting MetroLink in the Metro East would take care of many Downstate Democrats’ concerns.”

(Champaign, Rockford, the Quad Cities, and Metro East are among the few remaining Democratic areas of Downstate, so they’ll get trains.)

Downstate’s power outage is all the more dire because it is poorer and more dependent on state funding than Chicago and the suburbs. Most of the state’s universities, parks, and prisons are Downstate. According to a study by SIU’s Institute for Public Policy:

“The south region receives $2.81 in state funds for every $1 generated. The Central Illinois region … receives $1.87 back for every $1.00 sent to Springfield. All of the downstate regions receive more from the state budget than they pay in taxes. By comparison, Cook County receives 90 cents for every $1, and the suburban counties only 53 cents for every $1 generated.”

Given Illinois’s current political alignment, Downstate would really benefit from the old “Big House” system of government, which Pat Quinn abolished with his Cutback Amendment in 1980. Under that system, every legislative district sent three representatives and a senator to Springfield. It was customary for each party to run only two candidates in each district, so Republicans could win in the city, and Democrats could win in the farm counties.

Ensuring that every part of the state was represented by both parties was the original intent of the Big House. In 1870, when Illinois drafted its second constitution, the legislature was bitterly divided between southern Democrats and northern Republicans. Chicago Tribune publisher Joseph Medill proposed the system so “the strong men of a party throughout the state may be elected, although living in districts where their party is in a minority.”

We’re living in a similar era of regional and political division. The result is one party, and the great mass of the state, completely shut out of power.

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