Don't write Illinois GOP's eulogy just yet, election expert says
The Republican Party took a beating in Illinois on Election Day, especially in suburban areas that once were conservative strongholds.
The Democrats picked up county board, countywide and legislative seats that formerly had been held by Republicans, and the congressional delegation representing the North and Northwest suburbs will now be entirely Democratic after new lawmakers take office in January.
"How many ways can you spell 'disaster' for the GOP?" said Republican state Rep. David Harris of Arlington Heights, who didn't seek re-election Tuesday and saw his 53rd District seat go to Democrat Mark Walker.
But don't write a eulogy for the state GOP just yet, said Kent Redfield, an election expert and professor emeritus of political science at the University of Illinois at Springfield.
Not only does the Republican Party still dominate all levels of government downstate, Redfield said, but Democrats controlling the General Assembly need to create "tangible" legislative accomplishments, perhaps with a capital improvement plan or gun control, if they want to hold those seats.
"The Democrats could screw this up," Redfield said.
Demographically and politically, Chicago's suburbs have been changing during the last two decades. As the suburbs' racial and ethnic diversity have increased, he said, they've also been shifting to the middle or the left politically.
"(That) certainly crested last night," Redfield said.
The opposite is happening downstate, however, with communities solidifying behind Republican candidates, Redfield said.
But the downstate conservatives didn't have the numbers to overcome the Chicago-area moderates and liberals who propelled Gov.-elect J.B. Pritzker, incoming Attorney General Kwame Raoul and other Democrats to statewide office Tuesday.
"Running socially conservative candidates like (failed attorney general candidate) Erika Harold statewide is not necessarily a recipe for success," Redfield said.
Likewise, local governments such as the Lake County Board -- which could have its first Democratic majority, depending on the final vote tally for one very close race -- are reflecting that statewide shift, Redfield said.
Conservative Republican state Rep. Jeanne Ives of Wheaton, who narrowly lost to Gov. Bruce Rauner in the GOP gubernatorial primary, said state party leadership failed this election cycle.
"The Illinois Republican Party needs new leadership at this point," she said, suggesting Republicans from downstate or central Illinois could be up for the task.
With Gov. Bruce Rauner out of the picture, so, too, is the money he sunk into GOP campaigns -- and that'll cause problems for Republican candidates, Redfield said.
The GOP also will struggle until it finds its identity, Redfield said. The conservative wing led by Ives and activist Dan Proft has been targeting socially moderate Republicans to the detriment of the party, he said.
"I suspect there's going to be a real battle for control (of the state party)," Redfield said. "If they're not sure who they are and they don't replace Rauner's money, they're going to be in a world of hurt in two years, especially with (President) Trump at the head of the ticket."
Based on voter demographics, Republican political consultant Brad Goodman said, the party will become less and less relevant unless it can put up candidates young suburban women will support.
"The party needs to become younger, less male, and more diverse," said Goodman, whose clients this cycle included Lake County Board members Ann Maine and Carol Calabresa, both of whom won re-election, and board member Chuck Bartels, whose race against Democratic challenger Jessica Vealitzek remains too close to call. "The party must reflect the state, and candidates must reflect the areas they represent."
Regardless, if Democratic leaders don't develop some notable legislation in the next two years and if the state's financial picture doesn't improve, Redfield thinks the GOP could stage a comeback.
Hanging their hopes on Pritzker's graduated income tax proposal, which is designed to get more cash from richer Illinoisans, isn't going to be enough, he said.
Ives thinks Pritzker's swearing-in should charge up Republicans feeling deflated by Tuesday's losses.
"A 100 percent Democratic government in Springfield will have a unifying effect," Ives said.
• Daily Herald staff writer Marni Pyke contributed to this report.