Wednesday, November 16, 2016 - Updated: 9:35 AMThere’s been a lot of spin from the Illinois House Democrats about how last Tuesday’s losses were not that big of a deal. Don’t believe it.
During the national Republican electoral wave two years ago, Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn lost by four points to Republican Bruce Rauner and Quinn won no counties at all 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 7-seat net gain in the House two years earlier, was a great firewall.
This year, Democrat Hillary Clinton won Illinois by 16 points, taking ten 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 5 points).
Even so, state Democrats lost a net of four Illinois House seats. Losing state legislative seats in a presidential year is rare. The House Democrats lost a net of one seat twelve 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 Mrs. 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 overwhelming won suburban Cook County 65-30, took Lake County 57-37 and romped in DuPage with a 53-39 score. But the 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 at the doors, even in districts that weren’t in play.
Illinoisans don’t care much for Gov. 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, not a state issue.
The last time Madigan truly innovated was when the 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 Rep. 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 basically a wash because they figure they’ll pick up seats during President Trump’s first midterm race. 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: Rep. Brandon Phelps (D-Harrisburg). Rep. 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.
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Rich Miller also publishes Capitol Fax, a
daily political newsletter, and CapitolFax.com.