Wednesday, November 07, 2012

Stars align for big Democratic wins throughout Illinois

By Jamey Dunn

Not only did Democratic incumbents facing competitive races for the General Assembly hang onto their seats yesterday, Illinois Democrats emerged from the election with veto-proof majorities in both chambers.

“Senate President John Cullerton and House Speaker Michael Madigan have to feel pretty good about their new muscle today and their new recruits,” said John Jackson, a visiting professor with the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at the Southern Illinois University in Carbondale. In the General Assembly that will be sworn in in January, Democrats will hold 71 House seats to the Republicans' 47, and 40 Senate seats, shrinking the Republican Senate caucus to 19 members. This means that if legislative Democrats unify behind a bill, not even Gov. Pat Quinn’s veto pen can put a stop to it.

When asked if the majorities weakened his power, Quinn told reporters in Chicago today, “not at all.” He noted that the Democrats are a diverse bunch who come from all areas of the state. “I think it’s important to see that the Democratic Party made great inroads in suburban communities, and I think that’s helpful for our democracy in Illinois. It’s not just one party in one part of our state.” Quinn was not a public face on any legislative campaigns, perhaps because of his abysmal public approval rating. An October poll from the Chicago Tribune pegged the governor’s approval rating at 26 percent. However, he claimed some credit today for Democratic victories. “I helped a lot of the folks who won yesterday, and I’m very happy they won. I think we have the opportunity to have a progressive majority in Illinois to make reforms that are necessary and overdue.” When asked what “progressive reforms” he would like to see happen, Quinn said his focus is on pension reform, economic growth and jobs. He would not give a direct answer to questions about the possibility of the new majorities giving a boost to issues such as same-sex marriage or gambling expansions. When Democrat Sam Yingling, who beat Republican Rep. Sandy Cole in the 62nd Illinois House, is seated in January, he will be one of four openly gay House members.

Schaumburg Democratic Rep. Michelle Mussman, Northbrook Democratic Rep. Elaine Nekrtiz, Park Ridge Democratic Sen. Dan Kotowski, Peoria Democratic Sen. David Koehler, Rushville Democratic Sen. John Sullivan, Alton Democratic Sen. William Haine and East Moline Democratic Sen. Mike Jacobs all faced aggressive Republican challenges, and all will return in the next General Assembly.

Even ousted former Rep. Derrick Smith will be returning to the Statehouse. Smith was booted after being arrested on charges of taking a bribe just a week before the primary. However, he won the Democratic nomination for the 10th Illinois House District. On Tuesday, Smith handily beat challenger Unity Party candidate Lance Tyson — despite Tyson’s backing from several prominent members of the Democratic Party, including Quinn.

Democrats also rolled back the Republican wave that gave the GOP control of the state’s congressional delegation in 2010. Republicans picked up five seats that year, but Democrats were able to capture five of the six seats that were in play this time around. Democrats picked up victories in the Chicago suburbs, where Tammy Duckworth beat Republican U.S. Rep. Joe Walsh in the 8th Congressional District, Brad Schneider defeated U.S. Rep. Robert Dold in the 10th and former Democratic Bill Foster beat current U.S. Rep. Judy Biggert, a Republican, in the 11th Congressional District. Democrat Cheri Bustos won the 17th Congressional District over Republican U.S. Rep. Bobby Schilling. In the southeastern part of the state, Democrat Bill Enyart prevailed over Republican Jason Plummer in the 12th Congressional District.

Republicans will likely retain the seat in the 13th Congressional District, currently held by Republican U.S. Rep. Timothy Johnson, who is retiring at the end of his current term. While Democrat David Gill has yet to concede to Republican Rodney Davis, unofficial results show that Davis is up by more than 1,200 votes.

Many are attributing the Democrats' big wins in Illinois to their drawing of the new legislative map. Because they hold both chambers of the General Assembly and the governor’s office, Democrats were able to draw new state legislative and congressional districts without input from Republicans. “The map has got a lot to do with it, I think, undoubtedly,” said Christopher Mooney, a political science professor at the University of Illinois Springfield.  Mooney added that enthusiasm for President Barack Obama in his home state might have brought more Democrats out to the polls. Jackson agreed. “To me, the huge difference between [20]10 and [20]12 is the size and shape of the electorate.” He said the backlash over the Affordable Care Act and the rise of the Tea Party brought out populations that are more typically Republican, such as white and older voters in 2010. “It was kind of a totally different snapshot demographically.” He said Tuesday’s race brought out an electorate more like the one that sent Obama to the White House in 2008.

But Mooney said that not all the success could be attributed solely to the map or Obama’s coattails. He noted that Democrats picked up some state legislative seats that were not explicitly drawn as Democratic districts. “If a candidate just worked hard, and if you’ve got a lot of time to walk and knock on a lot of doors, that can have an impact in an open seat race.”

Still, many veteran Statehouse watchers did not expect the sweeping nature of the Democratic victories in Illinois. “I’m surprised that almost all of the contested races tilted ultimately to the Democrats. You can expect that in Chicago, but I did not [expect it] across downstate,” Jackson said.

“It’s just [that] all the stars were in alignment for them, and everything broke their way,” Mooney said of Illinois Democrats. “Sometimes you’re the windshield, and sometimes you’re the bug. And they were certainty the windshield this time around.”

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