There’s been a lot of spin from the Illinois House Democrats about how Tuesday’s losses were not that big a deal. Don’t believe it.
During the national Republican wave two years ago, Democratic Governor Pat Quinn lost by four points to Republican Bruce Rauner, and Quinn won no counties outside Cook. The Democrats lost the 10th- and 12th-congressional-district races and just barely managed to regain the state treasurer’s office. Through all that partisan turmoil, the House Democrats lost no seats, and the Senate Democrats lost just one. The Democrats’ legislative-district map, which produced a seven-seat net gain in the House in 2012, was a great firewall.
This year, Democrat Hillary Clinton won Illinois by 16 points, taking 10 counties outside Cook. The Democrats regained a U.S. Senate seat (winning by 14 points), the comptroller’s office (by a four-point margin), and the 10th-congressional-district seat (by five points).
Even so, state Democrats lost a net of four Illinois House seats.
Losing state-legislative seats in a presidential year is rare for Illinois Democrats. The House Democrats lost a net of one seat 12 years ago and five seats 24 years ago.
However, 1992 was the first election under a new Republican-drawn district map, so the Democrats were at a disadvantage. And it was a different era: Bill Clinton was the first Democratic presidential candidate to win Illinois in 20 years, but he took it with less than 49 percent of the vote, compared to Hillary Clinton’s 55 percent last week.
Yes, Donald Trump’s Downstate margins certainly played a key role on Tuesday. Counties don’t vote, but he won more Downstate counties than any Republican presidential candidate since 1984.
House Speaker Michael Madigan blamed Trump and Rauner’s money for his losses. He was right on both counts. But Rauner’s money was used to craft a powerful anti-Madigan message, and there is no doubt that the message contributed heavily to Madigan’s losses. It really isn’t rocket science. Madigan is, by far, the most unpopular politician in Illinois. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that tying Democratic candidates to him with tens of millions of dollars in disciplined messaging will work.
Clinton overwhelmingly won suburban Cook County 65-30, took Lake County 57-37, and romped in DuPage 53-39. But Republicans lost no suburban incumbents this year. Why? Most likely it was because they tied all Democratic challengers as closely as they could and as often as they could to Madigan.
Ask anyone who walked a precinct this year and they’ll tell you that Madigan was a major issue, even in districts that weren’t in play.
Illinoisans don’t care much for Rauner, either, but Madigan didn’t make any sort of real effort to attach GOP candidates directly to the guy, choosing to stick mainly to his tired, old issues of accusing Republicans on the flimsiest of evidence of being soft on sexual predators and warning that Republicans wanted to take away Social Security benefits, even though that’s a federal issue.
The last time Madigan truly innovated was when Republicans took the majority away from him in 1994. His operation is now out of date and out of touch.
The Democrats’ one Downstate bright spot this year was GOP Representative Dwight Kay’s loss in the Metro East. But the pro-choice Personal PAC’s heavy involvement in that contest probably had as much to do with Kay’s loss as anything else. During a House floor debate, Kay essentially equated birth control with promiscuity. Not good.
Plenty of Democrats view this year’s contest as a wash because they figure they’ll pick up seats in two years. That may happen, but if the Democrats couldn’t pick up suburban seats this year with Clinton’s big boost, 2018 won’t be easy, either. They’ll probably have to depend on Trump’s white-working-class base turning against him Downstate.
But the historical record shows that once a Downstate district moves from the Democrats to the Republicans, it almost never goes back to being Democratic. The Democrats used to rule southern Illinois. They are now down to just one true, totally non-Metro East southern-Illinois legislator: Representative Brandon Phelps (D-Harrisburg). Phelps caught a break this year because his Republican opponent turned out to be seriously flawed.
The bottom line is Madigan has led his party into an endless war with a kabillionaire, and it wound up costing him four seats in a year when his people should’ve been coasting.
Rich Miller also publishes Capitol Fax (a daily political newsletter) and CapitolFax.com.