I’ve seen that sentiment a lot along the state highways of rural Illinois, where “PRITZKER SUCKS” proliferate in expansive front yards. During the 2022 governor’s race, Republican Darren Bailey’s slogan was “Fire Pritzker.”
Pritzker won that election, with 54.6 percent of the vote — almost all of it from seven counties in Northeastern Illinois. He won only one county south of Springfield — St. Clair, which includes East St. Louis — losing most by much larger margins than in his 2018 landslide victory over Bruce Rauner. It wasn’t always that way. In 2002, Rod Blagojevich won most of Southern Illinois. Four years before, Glenn Poshard had the region’s unanimous support.
With the help of Democratic supermajorities in the legislature, Pritzker has passed laws that urban and suburban voters love and rural voters hate — on guns, on abortion, on the environment. His success has deepened the already deep divide between Chicagoland and Downstate, reawakening a secession movement that has inspired 27 Southern Illinois counties to pass resolutions in favor of forming a 51st state, so they won’t have to be governed by Pritzker and them big city libruls. The Pritzker Sucks movement is an example of what The New York Times’s Thomas B. Edsall recently called “place-based resentment,” the feeling that “rural areas are ignored by decision makers, including policymakers, rural areas do not get their fair share of resources, and rural folks have fundamentally distinct values and lifestyles, which are misunderstood and disrespected by city folks.”
Let’s start with guns, which in urban areas are associated with crime, but in rural areas with hunting and the need to protect a house that’s a dozen miles from the sheriff’s office. Earlier this month, Pritzker signed a law banning assault weapons in Illinois. Dozens of Downstate sheriffs announced they will not enforce it. An Effingham County judge issued a temporary restraining order.
“The difference between the governor and my fellow sheriffs is that we have the Constitution and lawful authority supporting our action and our stance,” said Jefferson County Sheriff Jeff Bullard, the long arm of the law in a Southern Illinois county with 37,000 residents. “The case law is on our side,” he continued. “The Second Amendment is on our side, and the governor just doesn’t have the authority, nor does the General Assembly, to do what they’re doing.”
Then there was the Reproductive Health Act, which made abortion a fundamental right in Illinois. Before the bill was passed, a Southern Illinois clergyman delivered an invocation asking God to “judge Illinois for the sanctioned destruction of the innocent unborn.”
“As a whole, people in our area are very, very opposed to abortion,” says Pastor Corey
Musgrave of New Beginnings Church in Fairfield. “I think some of it has to do with the
difference between rural and urban mindsets. This is a rural area. Sometimes in smaller
communities, you have tighter-knit relationships, and value life.”
Yet nowhere has the law increased access to abortion more than in Southern Illinois, an easy drive from Missouri, Kentucky, Tennessee, and Mississippi, states that have restricted abortion since the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade. Since Pritzker signed the Reproductive Health Act, new clinics have opened in Fairview Heights and Carbondale.
Last year, Pritzker signed a law that will shut down all of Illinois’s coal-fired power plants by 2045. Illinois produced 31 million tons of coal in 2020, all of it in deep Southern counties where coal mining is the only six-figure job. West Frankfort holds an annual Old King Coal festival to celebrate the sedimentary rock that made Little Egypt famous. State Rep. Dave Severin — a Republican swept into office on the Trump wave that swept out the last of Southern Illinois’s legacy Democrats — once declared that when he leaves Springfield, he tells fellow legislators, “I’m going to God’s Country, where it’s God, guns, and coal. I even tell that to the people from Chicago, where they can’t even spell coal.”
“Trump has come in and convinced a lot of the working people that he’s on their side,” Poshard says. “In the case of the coal community, he’s taken some of the environmental protections off. That’s stimulated some jobs, but he hasn’t thought about the long-term environmental impact. I’ve got a young friend in Franklin County, his family were solid Democrats, but he’s got a Trump sign in his yard. He’s a miner. ”
(In 2018, Pritzker got 34 percent of the vote in Franklin County; in 2022, 21 percent. That was typical of his Downstate decline. Does Pritzker care what Franklin County thinks of him? Probably not. Only 13,664 people voted there. Sixty percent of the state’s vote is in Cook, Lake, DuPage, Will, Kane, Kendall, and DeKalb counties. Pritzker won them all — by larger margins than in 2018. The people whose votes matter don’t think Pritzker sucks. They love them some Pritzker.)
During the COVID-19 pandemic, Pritzker’s school closures and mask requirements were unpopular with rural residents who didn’t feel the need to social distance as much as the packed-together city dwellers.
“The guys in the taverns, they don’t like to be told by Chicagoans how to behave,” said Jim Nowlan, a former Republican legislator who lives in Princeton.
In 2019, when Pritzker doubled the gas tax from 19 cents to 38 cents, “that affected people outstate more than people in urban areas who take public transportation,” said G.H. Merritt, chairman of New Illinois, a Downstate secession movement.
Then there was the congressional remap, in which the Democrats reduced Republican representatives from five to three — the fewest since the party was founded, in the 1850s. FiveThirtyEight.com called it “the worst Democratic gerrymander in the country” and the Princeton Gerrymandering Project gave it an “F” for fairness.
Can you blame Downstate for wanting to form its own state? Imagine if Gov. Darren Bailey banned abortion, canceled the Firearm Owners ID requirement, subsidized coal plants, and refused to allow schools and businesses to require masks. Secession would get 82 percent of the vote in Chicago — as much as Pritzker got.