Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Low voter turnout favored
well-established candidates

By Jamey Dunn

Yesterday’s primary saw low voter turnout and resulted in few surprises.

The new legislative map drawn by Democrats pitted several Republicans who currently hold seats in the General Assembly against each other. “It was essentially that the map was working the way that the Democrats designed to map to work,” said Kent Redfield, an emeritus professor of political science at the University of Illinois Springfield. He said the tactic of pushing incumbents to run against each other — either by mapping them out of their current districts or into districts with other Republicans under the new map — will allow Democrats to avoid facing incumbent Republicans in the general election. And looking ahead to next year, when the new General Assembly begins its session, the practice eliminates some incumbents who may have wielded political power in the legislature.

Races featuring current office holders involved negative campaigning, as candidates with similar records and views tried to differentiate themselves to a small pool of voters. “If there’s not any kind of policy difference, then it comes down to character issues, and those can be expressed negative or positively,” Redfield said. The State Board of Elections does not compile numbers for statewide turnout until a few weeks after the election, but media organizations across the state reported low turnout rates. The Associated Press reported that turnout was near 20 percent for many districts throughout Illinois. In some areas, this could mean record low turnouts. John Jackson, a visiting professor with the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University, said the low voter turnout favored well-established candidates with money, name recognition and the campaign infrastructure to get out the vote. “It leads to organizations and people with money getting their personal robocalls made.”

This played out in several Republican primaries. Sen. Carole Pankau from Itasca beat Rep. Randy Ramey from Carol Stream 58 percent to 42 percent in the primary race for the 23rd Senate district. Pankau has served in the General Assembly since 1993. She hit Ramey hard with negative ads about his recent DUI arrest.

Sen. Kirk Dillard defeated Rep. Chris Nybo 62 percent to 38 percent in the GOP primary race for the 24th Senate District. Nybo, who took his current seat in 2011, criticized Dillard for his long political career. But in the end, the senator — who worked for Gov. Jim Edgar, served in the Senate since 1993 and made a failed run for governor in 2010 — prevailed.

Redfield said the race for the 53rd Senate District was in some ways the exception to the trend. Rep. Jason Barickman from Onarga beat Sen. Shane Cultra, who is also from Onarga and has served in the General Assembly since 2003. Barickman was appointed to fill Cultra’s House seat when Cultra moved to the Senate in 2010. While the less-experienced candidate won in this case, the two do have similar stances on many issues.

Redfield said such races that sometimes got personal and very negative can lead to some hurt feelings within the party and could cause tensions for the rest of this year as lame ducks and candidates must work side by side. “In some cases, people feel like their turf is being invaded or that good form in politics is to wait your turn, and people are not waiting their turn,” he said. “That good form kind of goes out the window when you get into these circumstances because people feel that it’s down to survival.” He said many of the winners of hard-fought Republican primary battles can now breathe easily because they are sitting comfortably in districts that were drawn to produce Republican winners. Many do not have challengers in the general election, and Redfield said the few who do will probably not face a difficult race.

During redistricting, the party in power often draws very solid districts for the minority party because then there are fewer voters from the minority to deal with in the majority party’s districts. (Regional demographics play into the map making, as well, and sometimes an area just leans heavily one way or the other.) So especially in the first few elections after the map is drawn, there are many districts that are dominated by either Republican or Democratic voters.

According to a column from Charles N. Wheeler III for the current edition of Illinois Issues, 35 out of 59 Senate candidates do not face a challenger in the general election, and 81 out 118 House races only have on party’s candidate in the general election. Jackson said that he thinks most voters did not realize that so many of the races for the General Assembly and some congressional races were effectively decided in the primary. “I think they just weren’t paying attention,” he said “I doubt that was widely understood in the mass consciousness.”

Party power did not go as far as expected in at least one race on the Democratic side. Sue Scherer, a Decatur teacher backed by House Speaker Michael Madigan, won the House 96th District, but only by 70 votes. Redfield said that while Scherer won, her association with Madigan could hurt her in the general election in a downstate district. The 96th was drawn to give a Democratic candidate a chance, but Redfield said that the race could go either way. “Madigan got the person that he wanted, but the way the campaign turned out really does put her in a hole going forward.”

Jackson said that the low Democratic turnout can be attributed President Barack Obama not having a primary challenger, and the low Republican turnout may be indicative of many voters’ “lukewarm” feelings about Mitt Romney.

Perhaps the most controversial race in the state resulted in a win for a representative who was arrested on bribery charges last week. Rep. Derrick Smith, a Chicago Democrat, won the primary in the 10th House District. Democrats pushed for Smith’s election even after his arrest because they hope that he will step down, so they can replace him on the general election ballot. Smith’s opponent, Tom Swiss, is a former Republican who ran as a Democrat in the race. Smith won with 77 percent of the vote. “Obviously we lowered the bar a bit last night,” Redfield said. However, he said that most Democrats likely found Swiss “totally unacceptable” as a candidate and likely felt they were voting for Smith as a placeholder. “I think most people understand that Smith is not going to be around.”

The pressure for Smith to step down from his legislative position has already started. A group of House Republicans called for the creation of a House Special Investigative Committee to look into the charges against Smith. And his former employer and political supporter, Secretary of State Jesse White, has called for his resignation.

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