Amid talk of wave, Dems turning tide in suburbs
Votes cast there will be key in shaping Illinois’ immediate future
In 1995, the suburbs were the center of Illinois’ Republican universe, the bucolic backyards the home of the leaders of the state legislature as they strove to drive an agenda as a political force to be reckoned with for future generations. Nearly a quarter-century later, it is the Democrats who have advanced in collar counties that were once the Republican firewall to Chicago’s massive Democratic vote — a confluence of changing demographics, uncertain GOP messaging and a partisan mapmaking process.
While Democrats talk of a “blue wave” sweeping nationally as Election Day approaches on Tuesday, it’s clear they’ve already begun to turn the tide by encroaching into the traditional GOP-leaning suburbs. The votes cast there will be key in determining Illinois’ immediate future,
with potential long-term consequences for both political parties as ballots are cast for governor, the state’s congressional delegation and deciding the makeup of the General Assembly.
And among those suburban areas, there is no place more central to Illinois’ fate than DuPage County, where there has been an evolution politically, ideologically and demographically.
“DuPage is really the epicenter” of this election, said Christopher Mooney, a political scientist who is part of the University of Illinois’ Institute of Government and Public Affairs, citing myriad congressional and legislative races as well as its influence on statewide contests including governor, where Democrat J.B. Pritzker is looking to oust first-term Gov. Bruce Rauner.
The state’s most populous county outside of Cook, with more than 930,000 people, DuPage always was known as a bastion of Republicanism in Illinois — the suburbs taking off in population as the end of the landing strip for white flight out of Chicago after World War II.
By the mid-1990s, GOP legislative majorities elevated Lee Daniels of Elmhurst to speaker of the Illinois House and James “Pate” Philip of Wood Dale to Illinois Senate president. Another product of the General Assembly, stalwart conservative Henry Hyde of Bensenville, chaired the U.S. House Judiciary Committee.
Today, Daniels’ state House district is represented by Deb Conroy and Philip’s state Senate district by Tom Cullerton, both Villa Park Democrats seeking re-election.
The 6th Congressional District seat Hyde held until making way for Peter Roskam in 2007 is one of the top targeted seats for a Democratic takeover through challenger Sean Casten of Downers Grove. Much of Hyde’s old territory in eastern DuPage is now represented by Democrats — U.S. Reps. Mike Quigley of Chicago and Raja Krishnamoorthi of Schaumburg — and former Republican Rep. Harris Fawell, who represented what is now Roskam’s 6th District, has a Casten sign in his front yard in Glen Ellyn.
Additionally, an exurban congressional seat that includes portions of DuPage, held by Republican U.S. Rep. Randy Hultgren of Plano, is under intense competition from Democratic challenger Lauren Underwood of Naperville.
All of this after Democratic U.S. Rep. Bill Foster in 2012 won a redrawn western DuPage County congressional seat in territory that had long been represented by Republicans.
The nature of the campaigning Saturday reflected the scene-shifting political landscape in the suburbs, capping a week that also saw visits by Democratic former Vice President Joe Biden on behalf of Underwood and Casten in St. Charles, and by Republican U.S. House Speaker Paul Ryan’s visits in support of Hultgren and Roskam.
Pritzker, joined by Democratic attorney general candidate Kwame Raoul, met with supporters in a crowded DuPage County Democratic headquarters office in Lombard. Both focused on President Donald Trump, whom Democrats perceive as a liability for Republicans in the county.
Pritzker took aim at Rauner’s visit to a Trump rally last weekend in southern Illinois, where the governor didn’t meet, get a shoutout or get called onstage to join the president. “We don’t want a governor who chases around after the president to southern Illinois to try to get a picture with him,” Pritzker said. “So bad is Bruce Rauner that even Donald Trump didn’t want to get a picture with him.”
Democrats on social media adopted the theme #BluPage to refer to their efforts in the county.
Nearly 300 miles to the south, Rauner was greeting tailgaters outside Saluki Stadium at Southern Illinois University — another stop on a bus tour that has concentrated on Downstate before it’s set to wrap up with a Sunday rally with the GOP ticket in Orland Park. “The big thing is we’ve got to remind everybody to get to the polls. Most people don’t vote, and that’s a problem,” Rauner said in Carbondale. “If we get out and vote, we’ll stop the corruption out of Chicago, we’ll stop the tax hikes, we’ll get more jobs here in southern Illinois and we’ll get a better future.”
Downstate is where Rauner is still trying to repair damage with social conservatives over his support of laws expanding abortion, immigrant and transgender rights that prompted a March primary challenge that he won by only 3 percentage points. In DuPage County, state Rep. Jeanne Ives of Wheaton defeated Rauner in the GOP governor primary by more than 4 percentage points.
With Rauner Downstate, the rest of the entire Republican statewide ticket joined with Roskam on Saturday in the driveway of a Naperville home before heading out to knock on doors.
Roskam addressed the group while holding a copy of The Wall Street Journal bearing a headline about rising wages as he called the idea that a Democratic wave could hit the suburbs “hype.” He touted last year’s Republican tax overhaul he helped engineer and blasted Casten as a candidate the suburban district “can’t afford.”
“You get good economic policy, that is a regulatory approach that makes sense and tax relief that allows the economy to flourish, and that’s exactly what’s happening,” Roskam said.
Later, Roskam bounced throughout the northern part of the district, visiting a veterans event at the Masonic Temple in Barrington and shaking hands with high school football fans in Lake Zurich during the team’s playoff game against Mount Carmel.
Casten spoke to dozens of supporters Saturday morning in a Lombard storefront office as they stood in line for clipboards that would help volunteers going door-to-door know which voters they needed to talk to. “This is described to me as the absolute best kind of canvassing because we’re long past the point of trying to figure out whether you’re a racist, Trumpy person,” he told the crowd to laughs, “or one of the good ones.”
Roskam has made criticism of the tone of Casten’s rhetoric a key argument of the closing weeks of his campaign.
Casten and Underwood are scheduled Sunday to join Pritzker and other members of the Democratic ticket for a rally with former President Barack Obama at the University of Illinois at Chicago. The home-state president became the first Democratic White House candidate to win DuPage County since Franklin Pierce in 1852 and the first non-Republican since Theodore Roosevelt led the Progressive Party in 1912.
Obama’s wins in DuPage were followed in 2016 by Democrat Hillary Clinton beating Trump in the county by more than 14 percentage points. And in a sign of the shifting suburban electorate, Clinton won in all of the collar counties except McHenry County.
Contrast that to 2000, when George W. Bush defeated Al Gore in DuPage County by 13 percentage points, having keynoted a rally with running mate Dick Cheney at the College of DuPage just days before the election. The event became best known in Illinois political lore for then-Gov. George Ryan inexplicably introducing legendary Chicago Bears coach Mike Ditka as “Dick Butka.” Hall of Fame linebacker Dick Butkus wasn’t present.
Daniels, speaker of the Illinois House from 1995 to 1997 — two years that interrupted Democratic House Speaker Michael Madigan’s streak of holding the office since 1983 — said Tuesday is lining up to be “almost a perfect storm” against Republicans in DuPage County, the collar counties and in Illinois.
Daniels cites the traditional “swing of the pendulum against the party in power” in the White House, what he calls an “unconscionable” amount of money being spent on legislative contests, including by Democrats, utilizing expensive Chicago TV for ads. Then there are divisions inside the Republican Party between its socially moderate and conservative factions.
But there are other factors at play — such as the demographic shift DuPage County has been experiencing. DuPage is becoming less white, and its white population is growing older, according to statistics compiled by the county’s public health department. At the same time, its racial and ethnic minority population is growing, and it’s trending younger.
Overall, the most recent federal Census statistics show DuPage County’s population breaks down to 68.3 percent white, 14 percent Latino, 11 percent Asian and 4.5 percent black.
Between 1990 and 2013, the county’s Latino population increased by 275.4 percent and the AfricanAmerican population increased by 175 percent, the DuPage health department report said. During that time period, there was a 124.3 percent increase in the 55-to-59 age group and a 162.4 percent increase in the 85-and-over age group.
“Yes, I’m a partisan,” said Daniels, an attorney who also has done strategic work for Elmhurst College. “It’s our responsibility as Republicans to meet that changing demographics and to present the programs clearly and articulately as to why we’re the best party to serve as the governance of these areas. And if you don’t do that, you’re going to suffer the consequences.”
Daniels said for Republicans today there’s “so much misunderstanding” of the party’s basic tenets in trying to conduct voter outreach. “What is the position of the Republican Party on taxes, on education reform, on criminal justice reform? How are we dealing with the violence that we’re seeing coming out, not just in Chicago, but the country as a whole? Remember, one of the principle responsibilities of government is health, safety and welfare. Where’s the safety factor?” he asked.
A critical subset of suburban voters are women — fiscally conservative but socially moderate who are true swing voters who can hold strong sway over the outcome of Illinois elections. “I’ve got a picture of her on a PowerPoint,” said Mooney, the UIC political scientist, explaining one of his class exhibits. “She’s about 34, she’s got a kid in the back seat that she’s taking to day care or to soccer, she’s driving an SUV and she’s driving around in Schaumburg or Lisle or something like that. She’s socially fairly liberal. She has no problem with gay people. Immigrants maybe make her a little nervous but not that much. But she doesn’t like her taxes, and she doesn’t like Donald Trump and all these nasty things about people.”
Concerns about family health and safety are at the forefront for suburban women, past polling has shown, including support for more regulations on guns amid numerous mass shooting incidents across the country that also have included schools.
Health and safety concerns also find DuPage County at the center of a late campaign controversy over the Rauner administration’s handling of an equipment sterilization plant in Willowbrook that emits cancer-causing ethylene oxide. The company, Sterigenics, is owned in part by the private-equity firm co-founded by Rauner and has said it is operating within state and federal guidelines, though a lawsuit that was jointly filed by Democratic Attorney General Lisa Madigan and Republican DuPage County State’s Attorney Robert Berlin seeks to either shut down the plant or seek more stringent rules over its emissions.
The Tribune previously reported the Rauner administration knew about cancer risks from Sterigenics pollution in December but deferred to political appointees in the Trump administration to determine when and how the public was informed. An Environmental Protection Agency report on the cancer risk wasn’t released until late August.
Daniels called the votes of suburban women “the vote that matters” and said the fact that many Republican seats are in jeopardy in Congress and the state legislature “is an indication that we need to do a better job” communicating.
Communication, Daniels said, includes the threat that Democratic control of state government poses for Republicans in the future through the process of redrawing political boundaries following the 2020 Census. A Republican governor could veto a Democratic-drawn map — forcing a tie-breaker that the GOP could win.
It was the one-party, Democratic control of the governor’s office and the legislature following the 2010 census that led to Democratic supermajorities for much of the decade and pushing out boundary lines from Democratic areas to encompass suburban Republican strongholds.
“That’s what’s at stake,” Daniels said of the election’s impact on the future of suburban Republicanism. “It’s the redistricting of 2020.”
The 6th Congressional District seat held by Republican Peter Roskam, above, is one of the top targeted seats for a Democratic takeover through challenger Sean Casten, top.