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Democrats look to make downstate gains while Republicans go after Chicago suburbs in 2024

State Journal Register

Monday, September 18, 2023  |  Article  |  Patrick Keck

Illinois Democrats position themselves as a "big tent" party, attracting voters of varying backgrounds and statuses to the ticket. Heading into 2024, the question remains whether downstate voters will enter the fold.

Democrats' literal tent at the DuQuoin State Fair was part of their ongoing outreach to voters in deep red southern Illinois, ahead of an election battle for the White House, Congress, Illinois General Assembly, state Supreme Court and other local races.

Attending the tent was Marion resident Kelly Foster, a lifetime Democrat who has fundraised for candidates dating back to Paul Simon's campaigns for U.S. Senate. She is a member of a group known as Southern Illinois Democratic Women who are advocating voters to vote blue in the 2024 local and statewide races.

What the work looks like is promoting the work of President Joe Biden, the party's presumptive presidential nominee, such as the $65 billion Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act.

"All you have to do is drive on our roads and see those that need some work and those that are getting work," she said. "Joe Biden needs to get some credit for that."Democrats still hold sway in pockets of downstate, paving the way for state Reps. Jay Hoffman, D-Belleville, and Katie Stuart, D-Edwardsville, to win convincingly last November. Hoffman, in his sixth term, has won all of his races by more than 15 points.

In statewide elections, however, success in the region has alluded the party for years. Flip the calendar back to 2006 for the last time a Democratic gubernatorial candidate had a strong performance. That's when incumbent Gov. Rod Blagojevich used support along the Ohio River to secure a second term.

No other Democrat running for governor or other statewide candidate has fared as well. Even Democrats' most electorally popular officeholder - Comptroller Susana Mendoza - still routinely lost counties in southern Illinois by more than 50 points last November.

Downstate counties such as Shelby County, home to just more than 20,000 residents, have grown increasingly conservative. Gubernatorial candidate Glenn Poshard was the last Democrat to carry the county in 1998, joining a host of regional counties to back the unsuccessful campaign.

Fast forward to 2022, Shelby County voters gave Republican gubernatorial challenger Darren Bailey and U.S. Rep. Mary Miller, R-Oakland, close to 60% margins of victory over Democrats.

County GOP chair Ross Wilson credited his party's success, in part, to a robust door-knocking campaign - boosted by a funding advantage over Shelby County Democrats - and a messaging based around the issues.

Wilson, chair since March, said rural counties are tired of a lack of accountability in Springfield and the "ridiculous" budgets passed by lawmakers. The issues of urban areas also seem to be prioritized, he said, leaving rural voters to feel not adequately represented.

The chance for Democrats to turn attitudes around come 2024 could be dim.

"I didn't think so other than changing their philosophy and belief system, which isn't going to happen," Wilson said.

The sentiment of a rural-urban divide has played out on the floors of the state legislature, where downstate conservative lawmakers often claim legislation is too Chicago-centric. Most recently, GOP legislators have said the end of cash bail, effective Monday in Illinois, will ask more of state's attorneys. The impact opponents say will be especially hard on downstate counties with fewer resources.Others have gone as far as to push for separating Chicago from the rest of Illinois. Bailey had previously endorsed the idea and repetitively slammed the city on the campaign trail, infamously calling the city a "hellhole." The strategy appeared to resonate with voters in most counties, where he won 89 of 102 counties, but he still lost out on the governorship by double digits.

This trend of Republicans winning more counties, but still losing the popular vote extends beyond Bailey in Illinois, said Southern Illinois University Carbondale’s Paul Simon Public Policy Institute visitor professor John Jackson.

Jackson said Democrats have found a winning strategy by trading "land for voters," but perhaps at the result of losing more local races. Pushing more cultural issues such as gun control and transgender rights has played out in the suburbs, yet not downstate for Democrats.

"I think in a nutshell, culture wars have won out over economic and educational issues that used to drive that conversation," Jackson said in a recent interview.

Pritzker, party leadership address the challenge

Last year, the Democratic Party of Illinois decided to go in a new direction by electing state Rep. Lisa Hernandez, D-Cicero, as its chair. Replacing U.S. Rep. Robin Kelly, she was brought in to address the party's shortcomings downstate which some Democrats admitted former party chair and House Speaker Michael Madigan had effectively forgotten.

DPI helped downstate candidates in 2022 like Hoffman and Stuart by funding mailers, spending hundreds of thousands on their campaigns. With no statewide elections this year, the party focused its attention on $300,000 in school and library board races throughout the state leading to 84 of its 117 recommended candidates to wins.

In the lead-up to next year's election, the party is partnering with the Illinois Democratic County Chairs’ Association to recruit and train candidates up and down the ballot.

An emphasis of the initiative will be identifying uncontested races after more than 40% of Illinois General Assembly races saw only one candidate make it to November ballots. The majority of Republicans' albeit few wins last election were in uncontested races, four of those coming in Sangamon County.

Sangamon County Democratic Party chair Bill Houlihan voted for Hernandez last year and is hopeful the plan will bring more competition in local races. Already, three potential 2024 candidates have been identified in the Illinois 95th House District represented by Rep. Mike Coffey, R-Springfield.

Turning the party's fortunes downstate will likely take more than one election cycle, Houlihan said, but certain variables such as a conviction of former President Donald Trump could budge the needle.

Houlihan, who also serves as Illinois 13th District State Central Committeeman, added who the candidate is often plays a much bigger factor than realized.

"Let's be honest, most Americans are more in the middle than anywhere else," he said in an interview at the county party office in Springfield. "You got 20% on the right fringe and 20% on the left fringe, and about 60% in the middle. And in the middle is you know, who does a better job of attracting them."

Pritzker was also a supporter of Hernandez in an intraparty dispute that was eventually resolved with a unanimous vote. The governor took three counties south of Sangamon in his inaugural run for office in 2018, taking 16 overall, but only won St. Clair County in 2022.

Still, he persists that his administration has invested in the region unlike prior governors- rattling off about the construction of new buildings at Southern Illinois University Carbondale and John A. Logan College in Carterville.

Pritzker discussed the investments during a ribbon-cutting for Walker’s Bluff Casino Resort, which will employ about 300 people and feature a hotel, restaurants, and 1,200-seat event center in Williamson County. The state's 14th casino will also send $25.3 million to the Rebuild Illinois fund to upgrade infrastructure throughout Illinois.

"Southern Illinois is no longer forgottonia," he said at a press conference last month, playing off a term U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin used during his 1980s congressional runs to describe western Illinois.

Republicans in 2024: Win back the suburbs

Pritzker and Democrats as a whole have their strength in the Chicagoland area known as the collar counties. Its newfound backing in DuPage, Kane, and Kendall counties especially has fueled victories in all statewide offices and super-majorities in the Illinois General Assembly.

Ahead of the 2024 election, Illinois Republicans say they have to address the shortcoming. Regular roundtable discussions are being conducted by the Illinois Republican Party to build this strategy.

"If we are to win again in Illinois, we have got to swing back the suburbs," party chair Don Tracy said during an Illinois Republican County Chairmen's meeting in August.

More than just the presidential race, at stake in Illinois come November 2024 are congressional races, all 118 House Districts and 20 state Senate seats. Democrats hold a 78-40 super-majority in the House and a 40-19 advantage in the Senate- currently having 17 of the 20 seats up for grabs next year.

Avoiding the abortion issue, which has been defeated at the ballot box in conservative states, might be seen as the way to win more votes in the suburbs. Abortion is legal in Illinois and is supported by most voters, according to a 2022 Chicago Sun-Times/WBEZ poll.

Still, Republican National Committeewoman Demetra Demonte promoted the discussion of abortion on the campaign trail during the IRCC meeting.

"The Democrats won by spewing lies in 2022 and, make no mistake, abortion will be their number one on their playbook in 2024. Why change a winning strategy?" she said. "We are the ones that must change. We Republicans must put Democrats on the defensive on abortion."

Addressing abortion is the subject of divide among Republicans nationwide, where some have called for a federal ban and some saying it's time to rebrand its "pro-life" stance as "pro-baby."

While previously signing a bill banning abortion after 20 weeks in her state, former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley said during the GOP presidential debate last month that the party needs to stop "demonizing the issue." Jackson said this is a path for Republicans to turn their luck in the suburbs.

"Nikki Haley was speaking for the position that you got to appeal to suburbs and educated women," he said. "Republican men are doing a terrible job of that."