House Speaker Michael Madigan, you may have heard, has been implicated in an influence-peddling scandal with Commonwealth Edison, allegedly recommending his political cronies for jobs with the power company in exchange for favorable legislation. It’s the biggest scandal in Madigan’s half century as a state legislator.
In spite of Madigan’s patronage games, the speaker looks poised to win the biggest electoral triumph of his career. His Democrats now hold a 74-44 majority in the state House, the most seats Madigan has ever controlled. After November, he’s going to control even more.
That has nothing to do with Madigan, and everything to do with Donald Trump.
As much as the Illinois Republican Party is trying to make Madigan an issue in the November election, his name will only appear on the ballot in one of the 118 House districts — the one he represents, on the Southwest Side. Trump’s name will appear at the top of every ballot in every district. And in Illinois, where Trump has a 31 percent approval rating, the president’s name might as well be a sticker that says “Vote Democratic.” According to St. Louis University political science professor Steven Rogers, voters choose legislative candidates primarily based on how they feel about the incumbent president.
“While voters elect and hold the president responsible for one job and state legislators for another, the outcomes of their elections are remarkably related,” Rogers wrote in a study titled National Forces in State Legislative Elections. “Thus, while state legislatures wield considerable policymaking power, legislators’ electoral fates appear to be largely out of their control.”
It wasn’t always this way. Early in Madigan’s career as speaker, he was able to maintain control of the House even when his party lost the presidency in a landslide. In 1984, Ronald Reagan carried Illinois with 56 percent of the vote, but the Democrats won a 67-51 majority in the state House. This was the era of the Reagan Democrat, a political creature who voted Republican at the top of the ticket, but maintained an ancestral loyalty to the party of their forebears further down the ballot. In 1980, Richard M. Daley was elected Cook County State’s Attorney. That year, he observed, “a lot of tradesmen were voting for Reagan.” But they also voted for Daley.
Ticket splitting, though, has become a thing of the past. Since the 1980s, the Democrats have become monolithically liberal, the Republicans monolithically conservative. The parties are now tribal entities that represent rival ways of life more than rival governing philosophies. Partisanship is now tied so closely to personal identity that parents would be more upset about their children marrying someone of a different political party than a different race or religion. Most Illinois Democrats would wear a Green Bay Packers jersey before they would vote for a Republican, even for a minor office. And vice versa.
The one time Madigan lost his majority, and thus the speakership, was 1994, the year of the so-called Republican Revolution, when the GOP also took over the U.S. House of Representatives for the first time in 40 years. During their brief period of unified control in Springfield, the Republicans banned straight-ticket voting. That hasn’t helped them. Madigan won the speakership back in 1996, riding Bill Clinton’s re-election to a 60-58 majority. He’s been building those numbers ever since, as Illinois has become one of the bluest states in the nation, voting Democratic in seven — and soon to be eight — presidential elections.
The Republicans lost seven seats in the 2018 election, which was the first referendum on Trump’s presidency. Split-ticket voting hit a historic low that year, according to fivethirtyeight. The party took an especially bad beating in the Chicago suburbs, where Trump’s unpopularity is hastening a realignment from Republican to Democrat. This year, suburbanites may beat up the few survivors. Among the endangered Republican incumbents are Brad Stephens of Rosemont, Grant Wehrli of Naperville, and Tom Morrison of Palatine.
The Republicans are also trying to use Madigan’s scandals to defeat the Fair Tax constitutional amendment. That effort has a better chance of succeeding. The Fair Tax is a non-partisan ballot issue that doesn’t require voters to plunk for the Party of Trump to show their disapproval of the speaker’s conduct. Even if the fair tax fails, though, expect Madigan to succeed, and to be re-elected as speaker, with votes from freshman representatives who received money from the $22 million in campaign funds Madigan controls. Madigan may be an atavism from an ancient era of Machine politics, but our modern Red vs. Blue era is making him more powerful than ever.