'Light blue?': Democrats make historic gains in DuPage County

Political observers knew the tide was turning for years.

In 2018, Democratic candidates had an especially strong showing in DuPage County.

But Tuesday's election in DuPage still marked a sea change after decades of Republican dominance. For the first time since 1934, Democrats will take control of the county board, a show of strength that spilled over to forest preserve races.

The election results continued to chip away at a once rock-solid conservative bedrock that produced such GOP icons as former U.S. Rep. Henry Hyde, former Illinois House Speaker Lee Daniels and former state Senate President James "Pate" Philip.

"It's a stunning change in the fact that it's gotten down to the forest preserve," said Kent Redfield, emeritus professor of political science at the University of Illinois. "This is inside baseball political organization kind of stuff that speaks to the strength of local political parties."

The party's candidates will flip at least three of the six available county board seats to complete a Democratic takeover. In a fourth contest, Glen Ellyn Democrat Lynn LaPlante has a narrow lead over incumbent Republican Tim Elliott as ballots are still being counted.

Democrats are on track to sweep three seats on the forest preserve district board to seize the majority, with a Democratic president breaking the tie. Democrats won the county recorder race and even a judicial seat.

Along with other increasingly diverse suburbs closest to Chicago, DuPage is tilting blue. But there's still a strong Republican base, experts say. Two GOP incumbents retained their county board seats. And in northwestern DuPage, Republican challenger Seth Lewis ousted Democrat Diane Pappas in the 45th Illinois House District.

"It used to be solid red, and then it went purple, and now kind of the question is are we getting to light blue?" Redfield said. "And you probably need a couple more elections to figure that all out."

The Democratic gains can't be explained by just antipathy toward President Donald Trump, particularly among suburban women.

Part of the political evolution has to do with demographic changes. DuPage is 14.6% Latino, 12.7% Asian and 5.3% Black, according to the most-recent census statistics. The 2010 census showed the Latino population climbed 49% and the Asian population by more than 27%.

"Both of those populations have contributed to Democratic strength, and you can tell that in terms of the maps," Redfield said of legislative redistricting. "If you look at where the Democrats drew the maps in terms of all those funny-shaped districts where they're electing Democrats from, they have focused on areas where there were significant increases in Hispanic and Asian populations."

Democratic presidential candidates have carried DuPage since the county went into President Barack Obama's column in 2008. President-elect Joe Biden is outperforming Trump by more than 17 percentage points.

But further down the ballot, DuPage Democrats traditionally were a rare political breed.

Robert Peickert, a former chairman of the Democratic Party of DuPage County, remembers a yearly gala - one of the local party's biggest fundraisers - drew about 75 people in 2007. Attendance surged to 750 two years ago, one sign of an energized political organization.

"We have a lot of people on the streets that are walking and knocking on doors," Peickert said. "There's another change in what happened. The Republicans for years never had to do anything because no one was running. You had no Democrats running for office."

The local party didn't make significant gains until two years ago when a blue wave helped Democrats, all women, win seven seats on the 18-member county board. Elizabeth Chaplin, who had been the party's sole board member, credits the inroads to candidate recruitment.

"I think if the DuPage Democrats can keep coming up with very well-qualified candidates, and we can show that we can govern the next two years, I think we can be a force to be reckoned with in DuPage County going forward," Chaplin said.

Former gubernatorial candidate Kirk Dillard said the DuPage GOP should look to the strategy set by the Republican Party at the national level and run more women. Voters elected 32 Republican women to Congress, a record number, according to the Center for American Women and Politics.

"The Republican Party in DuPage County, like nationally, needs to diversify," said Dillard, a Hinsdale Republican. "I think we've done a good job of recruiting younger candidates, and we need to recruit women like (state) Rep. Deanne Mazzochi, former (state) Rep. Patti Bellock and former Congresswoman Judy Biggert."

Democrat Amy Chavez clinched a District 5 seat on the DuPage County Board.
Democrat Greg Schwarze has ousted a Republican from a District 6 seat on the DuPage County Board.
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