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posted: 6/21/2012 5:00 AM

The GOP's loosening grip on suburbia

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Decades ago when I was in graduate school, the famous University of Chicago professor Richard Wade uttered one of the most important truths about our political system: "Elections are about the past and present -- governing is about the present and the future." As usual my old "chief" was right on target, and north and northwest suburban Cook County today is a classic example of his wisdom.

The past: From 1976 to 1998, Illinois Republicans achieved seven straight gubernatorial victories (Jim Thompson, 4; Jim Edgar, 2; George Ryan, 1). Keying this win streak were the returns from suburban Cook County which cut deeply into the Chicago margins given Democrats. In fact, not once in any of these races did the GOP candidate garner less than a 100,000-vote margin. But times have changed.

The present: Recent general election and party primary returns reveal suburban Cook County is no longer a reliable Republican vote bastion that can partially counter Democratic vote power in Chicago. Moreover, as a Roosevelt University analysis shows, suburban Cook has become a vote-margin asset to Democratic candidates.

A brief look at the recent record.

Example 1. In 2010, GOP candidates won many gubernatorial elections, but not in Illinois. Pat Quinn, running after former Gov. Rod Blagojevich's impeachment and federal indictment, eked out a 32,000-vote victory over Republican state Sen. Bill Brady. Twenty years ago suburban Cook would have voted heavily for Brady; instead, it gave Quinn a 100,000-vote plurality. Ironically, it was south suburban Orland Township that gave Brady his biggest township margin of victory.

Example 2. In the 2012 primary, the Republicans captured most of the publicity as then-presidential nomination contenders made the state a pivotal contest. As for Cook County Democrats, they had low-key Supreme Court and circuit court clerk contests, and yet they had over a 20,000-vote higher turnout than the Republicans. To be sure, many northwest Cook townships led the GOP turnout parade, but only Wheeling and Palatine townships topped 10,000 votes. By comparison, south suburban Thornton township had a 20,000-plus vote turnout.

The future: No doubt Barack Obama will win Illinois in November and likely carry suburban Cook County. But what about 2014, when all statewide offices will be in play along with Dick Durbin's U.S. Senate seat? Also, locally many county offices will be up. Given recent voting trends, the GOP outlook looks gloomy. Why? Several factors:

1) Republicans need either a vote surge in Chicago or a political/philosophical split among the city's Democrats. However, like former Mayor Richard Daley, Mayor Rahm Emanuel is molding a multiracial electoral coalition that mitigates against either development.

2) Demographics and issues are also working against GOP hopes. Racial change has turned many south suburban townships into a suburban version of high-turnout, middle-class, South Side Chicago African-American wards. Additionally, significant numbers of suburban women, especially in the northern suburbs, are unwilling to go along with hard-line GOP positions on abortion, contraception and guns.

What does it all mean for the GOP, especially in north and northwest suburbia? They no longer have the numbers or unity to overwhelm suburban Democrats. Though the current economic mess may boost the GOP vote here for such contests as November's 8th Congressional District battle and certain legislative races, it seems that 2014 once again looms as a local GOP Cook County disaster.

In short, the past is over, the present is grim and the future looks bleak for suburban Republicans. Unfortunately for them, as for governing, that is a worry many of them will not have to face.

• Paul Green is director of the Institute for Politics at Roosevelt University in Chicago and Schaumburg.

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