Saturday, November 7, 2020

Election 2020—Shaking Out Illinois and McHenry County

As expected, Joe Biden won deep Blue Illinois.

Over the last couple of decades Illinois has gone from a swing state in Presidential elections to being among the deepest and most reliably Blue States along with the likes of Massachusetts, New York, and California.  It has gone for every Democratic Presidential candidate since Bill Clinton in 1992.  Not only does it deliver a near landslide popular vote and reliable Electoral College vote, but it keeps both Senate seats in Democratic hands, as well as almost all state-wide offices.  If it once showed a soft spot for Republican governors despite the shenanigans of bad-boy Rod Blagojevich the disastrous term of millionaire “reformer” Bruce Rauner may have put an end to that exception.

In the days of the old Daley Machine the Democratic vote out of Chicago, along with enclaves downstate was pretty evenly matched by GOP turn out in the rest of the state and especially by suburban Cook County.  But migrating Chicagoans stopped shedding their Democratic loyalties the instant they crossed into the County and now most, if not all of Cook is Democratic.  Similar movements spread to the collar counties giving Democrats control of Lake and Will Counties as well as making inroads in former Republican bastions like DuPage and McHenry.

This chart shows the explosive growth of the Democratic vote in the Collar Counties and in Downstate population centers.

All of this played out predictably this year in Illinois which was once nearly alone among upper Midwest rust belt states to remain reliably Democrat.  Joe Biden easily carried the state by a 56.5% to 42.6% margin.  Dick Durbin, the second ranking Senate Democrat coasted to a fifth term even though his margin was narrowed by gadfly Willie Wilson, a Black millionaire who previously ran for Mayor of Chicago.  Wilson’s candidacy seemed to be encouraged and abetted by Republicans to syphon off some Black votes.  Wilson did get 4% of the vote, but not enough to help out Republican nominee Mark Curran who could only muster a pitiful 40.5%.

The big news state-wide was the resounding defeat of the Fair Tax Amendment for a progressive income tax backed by Governor J. B. Pritzker to both address the state’s long term budget woes and deal with the economic impact of the Coronavirus pandemic.  Millions of dollars were spent on both sides for massive TV and other media buys.  The pro-tax campaign was out of the gate earlier and seemed to be attracting wide support.  Enter Illinois billionaires who funded a late ad blitz aimed at convincing, against all proof that the “politicians” will come after the middle-class and retirees next.  Anti-tax sentiment helped fuel Trump support in parts of the state, including McHenry County.

Governor J.B. Pritzker's new Covid-19 restrictions announced two days before the election helped fuel a Trump backlash.

Although it was not on the ballot Covid-19 and restrictions to combat the current second wave surge.  Early on Governor Pritzker’s firm response along with Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s aggressive policy helped keep Illinois from becoming a national hot spot.  But the state is surrounded by Wisconsin, Indiana, and Iowa where wide-open policies inevitably led to disastrous surges that could not be stopped at the border.  As Illinois numbers spiked to new records Pritzker imposed tight new restrictions on every zone in the state two days before the election.  It was deeply unpopular with businesses, particularly the hard-hit hospitality and personal services industries as well as with Covid-weary folks fearful of a new lockdown over a long winter.  Schools that had begun to cautiously reopen were forced to roll-back in-person learning and return to virtual computer classes to the dismay of frazzled parents.

Like the tax issue these resentments fed Trump’s claims that the pandemic was largely a phony issue, a hoax, and that the economy needed to opened up and damn the torpedoes.  Restaurants and bars in McHenry County and elsewhere announced that they would defy new restriction and local Republican office holders catered to them and egged on defiance.

Meanwhile Democrats managed to retain their seats in the House of Representatives including well established Jan Schakowsky and Brad Schneider on the North Shore and Bill Foster in the south west ‘burbs.  Progressive new comer Marie Newman handily won the seat formerly held by conservative anti-choice Representative Dan Lipinski.  First termer Raja Krishnamoorthi swamped a Republican challenger.

Freshmen Sean Casten (6th District) and Lauren Underwood (14th District) both won office in deep red districts and had a harder re-election campaign.  Casten, a businessman/scientist who has become one of the leading environmentalists in Congress beat back a strong Republican challenger and was able to claim victory on Wednesday with 52.1% of the vote over extreme right-wing firebrand Jeanie Ives. 

Representatives Sean Casten and Lauren Underwood each have survived efforts to unseat them.

Underwood—my Representative—is a young Black woman from an overwhelmingly White district. Despite her strong record as a leading health care reformer who kept close contact with voters through frequent district visits, town halls, and attendance at important local events, Underwood has narrowly lagged milk magnate and you-name-it-I’ll-run-for-it Jim Oberweis.  Trump clone Oberweis declared victory Wednesday but Underwood has refused to concede with thousands of mail-in, absentee, and overseas ballots yet to be counted.  Many of those are from Democratic leaning Lake County and McHenry County where Democrats overwhelmingly voted by mail.  As results trickled in, Underwood has steadily eroded Oberweis’s election night 800 vote lead.   Both she and many observers believe there are more than enough votes for her that are yet to be counted or reported to put her over the top.  Perversely, alone of all County Clerks in her district, Republican Joe Tirio is not reporting those ballots as they come in but will not announce them until the official canvas on November 18.  Underwood should win.

Of all of the Collar Counties, McHenry was most influenced by the late Trump surge.  Democrats here have been able to score victories in some recent national and state-wide elections.  Notably it went for Obama, Senators Durbin and Tammy Duckworth, and several state candidates most notably Secretary of State Jesse White have carried the county while locally Dems have begun to win County Board races.  But this year Trump easily carried the county by a 51% to 47% margin.  Durbin lost 45% to 50% with 2% going to Willie Wilson in an overwhelmingly White county.

Sean Casten in the 6th District narrowly carried the county as of Wednesday but Loren Underwood in the 14th had apparently lost the county as of election night.  Both however, benefited by the Democrats strong push for early voting and even with County Clerk Tirio’s determination not to release additional ballots opened after election night.  Casten will widen his lead and virtually all observers now believe that Underwood will gain enough votes for re-election.

Time ran out for McHenry County Board Chair Jack Franks.  

The biggest shock of the night was Jack Franks’ bid for re-election as County Board Chair to virtually unknown political neophyte Mike Buehler by a 53% to 47% margin even wider than Biden’s loss in the county.  Franks became the first Democrat in decades to break through total Republican dominance when he narrowly won a seat in the state House of Representatives in 1998 and went on to be re-elected eight more times by increasing margins and often with no opponent.  He was one of the most popular elected officials in the county and attracted state-wide notice for leading the attack on scandal tainted Governor Rod Blagojevich.  He was also a meticulous, aggressive campaigner.  He turned his attention to the McHenry County Board and heavily promoted the voter referendum that switched from a County Board Chair elected from their own ranks by members of the Board to a chair elected directly by county voters.  Then he stepped into the job he created in 2016.  As board chair he promoted shrinking the size of the board and aggressive budget cuts.  He cast himself as a Tax Fighter and pressed other local government bodies including school boards to match the 10% across the board cuts he made to the county budget.  Republican resented him stealing their tax slashing issue and chaffed at his attempts to extend the executive authority of the Board Chair.

But this time out, after un-proven allegations of improper sexual harassment during his years in Springfield, Republicans finally had an opportunity to paint him as a corrupt politician, not a crusading reformer.  It seemed to take the wind out of Franks’ sails.  By his own admission this time he did not significant fundraising relying on existing reserves in his campaign fund.  He did not campaign aggressively, failed to mount his signature letter to the editor campaign in which his loyal supporters submitted letters over their own signature that were crafted by the campaign, published and circulated little literature, and bought almost no advertising.  He claimed that he could rely on the fact that he had never lost an election and his reputation.  Republican showered Buehler with cash that he spent on lavish direct mail campaigns and tons of signs.  Franks strikes me as to smart a politician to be so self-deluded.

Another avenue for an attack on Franks was an attack on his county-wide referendum to abolish the county Coroner as an elective office and replace it with a hired forensic professional similar to a medical examiner.  This common sense reform should have been relatively uncontroversial, but it would have denied the Republicans of a sinecure for one of their political hacks and a modest reserve of patronage plums.  They flooded the county with large signs reading “Fight corruption! Vote No” with no bother to explain how an appointed coroner would be corrupt.  They also erected a billboard and distributed other yard signs depicting Franks as a lying Pinocchio, corrupt pol, and sexual predator.  The coroner referendum lost.

Democrats did not slate a candidate for Coroner since the referendum would have eliminated the elected position before one could take office.  They also didn’t slate candidates for States Attorney or Auditor.  Their only county wide candidate was Renee Overlee, a long-time employee of the Circuit Court Clerk’s office who faced her boss, incumbent Katherine Keef.  She was swamped by a 20% margin.

Democratic signs on a McHenry County lawn.

It was not all bad news for local Democrats, however.  Suzzane Ness edged incumbent Allen Skillicorn in an expensive battle that featured TV ad buys in the Chicago market.  Ness was strongly backed by pro-choice groups her opponent who would ban abortions even in the cases of rape, incest, or to save the life of the mother.

On the County Board Paula Yensen, the dean of Board Democrats won re-election from District 5.  She led a list of exceptional women Board candidates.   Theresa Meshes in District 1 and Jessica Phillips in District 2 are apparent winners.  Tanya Jindrich in District 3 was only 178 votes behind in her race and could pull ahead when the late vote count is finally released by the County clerk.  Democrats are poised for a gain of three seats on the Board—still a minority, but a stronger one.

For me the most disappointing local losses were the three supremely qualified judicial candidates—Beth Vonau, Jeannie Ridings, and Kimberly Crum Klein—each of whom ran strong, community based campaigns to break of the judicial old boys club. 


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