Politics: One-party legislative races after remap counter conventional wisdom

Feb 1, 2002

Charles N. Wheeler III
Credit WUIS/Illinois Issues

“In this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.” 

Benjamin Franklin, 1789

Were Old Ben around today, he might be tempted to amend his well-known maxim to add a third category: a sure General Assembly seat for whoever wins the primary in most of the state’s new legislative districts.

He’d need no crystal ball; a quick glance at who’s running would suffice. He’d see that in only 17 Senate and 53 House districts did both major parties field candidates. In the other 42 Senate and 65 House districts, only one party’s hopefuls are on the March ballot.

The lack of competition might dismay Franklin and his fellow Founders. It certainly runs counter to conventional political wisdom, which says the election after redistricting should see a bumper crop of candidates, encouraged by a new political geography that prompts some incumbents to retire, places others on unfamiliar turf and even offers a few open districts with no sitting lawmaker.

The reasoning seems sound. In fact, more than 30 lawmakers are stepping down, some to run for the other chamber or statewide office, some to pursue other interests or retire. Many of those hoping to stay find themselves in districts radically restructured under the new map, while in 12 Senate and 21 House districts, no incumbent is running. Yet, despite all the upheaval, the level of competition is at its lowest in decades.

The trend toward one-party races seems especially strong in the Senate, with 42 districts uncontested after candidate filings for the March primary. In contrast, the primary after the 1991 remap saw only 32 districts with candidates of only one of the major parties on the ballot. Competition was even keener after the 1981 redistricting, with primary candidates from both parties in 36 districts. But even that was a dramatic drop from 1972, which saw both Democrats and Republicans running in 55 of the 59 districts crafted under the 1971 map.

Would-be senators can write themselves in for an open nomination, of course, and party leaders can fill vacant spots after the primary, setting up contests for November, at least on paper. But those races are rarely competitive. In 1991, for example, 16 Senate candidates were added after the primary, none of whom garnered even 45 percent of the vote. In fact, in the last five elections, no late-starting candidate has won a Senate seat, a 0-for-34 streak in futility. Only four broke 40 percent; one claimed less than 7 percent of the vote.

Perhaps the most plausible explan-ation for the dearth of competition lies in the skill of the mapmakers. Armed with sophisticated computer software that marries census data to precinct voting behavior with ever-greater precision, they are able to produce districts that are virtual locks for one party or the other, and both partisan camps know it. Mounting a credible campaign requires a great deal of time, energy and money, so it probably should be no surprise that the role of designated loser is not that appealing. And because Democrats drew the map this time, most of the designated losers likely would be Republicans.

In fact, the clever cartography was intended to produce Democratic majorities in both the Senate and the House over the next decade. A review of the candidate filings for March suggests the plan is right on track. Consider the Senate, where Republicans now hold a 32-27 edge. Republicans have no Democratic challengers in 16 districts, virtually guaranteeing their election in November. But Democrats are uncontested in 26 districts, just four shy of the 30 needed for a majority. So the party needs to win in only four of 17 contested districts to end a 10-year GOP hold on the Senate.

Mounting a credible campaign requires a great deal of time, energy and money, so it probably should be no surprise that the role of designated loser is not that appealing.

Democratic hopefuls in the 17 contested districts include four incumbents elected under a less favorable map drawn by Republicans in 1991: Sens. Louis Viverito of Burbank, Pat Welch of Peru, William O’Daniel of Mount Vernon and James Clayborne Jr. of Belleville. Two others are House members hoping to move up in new suburban districts: Reps. Jeffrey Schoenberg of Evanston and Susan Garrett of Lake Forest, who has a primary challenge for the chance to face Sen. Kathleen Parker, a Northbrook Republican, in November. Finally, another of the contested districts runs from Chicago’s West Side out to O’Hare International Airport and includes among its residents some 45,000 African Americans and more than 44,000 Hispanics, together comprising 42.4 percent of the total population.

Democrats easily could win all seven districts, so victory in at least four — and thus a Senate majority — seems a pretty safe prediction.

In the House, Democrats appear to be in a similarly favorable position to retain the majority — now 62-56 — they’ve held since 1997 despite the Republican map. No Republicans filed in 36 districts, while Democrats took a pass in 29. While the percentage of contests is higher than in the Senate, the difference is deceptive.

November is still 10 months away, of course, and the political landscape can shift dramatically before then. Heading into Election 2002, though, Democrats have the edge in legislative races.

The contested districts include 11 in which the majority of residents are either black or Hispanic, and no minority district has ever elected a Republican in a one-on-one race. Incumbent Democrats, including House Speaker Michael Madigan of Chicago, are running in 13 other contested districts, while Sen. Robert Molaro of Chicago is seeking a House seat from a district rooted on the Southwest Side. Lastly, in two new suburban districts, one in Lake County and another centered in Aurora, blacks and Hispanics added together make up the majority of residents. In all, that’s 27 districts in which Demo-crats should be heavy favorites, for a potential total of 63.

November is still 10 months away, of course, and the political landscape can shift dramatically before then. Heading into Election 2002, though, Democrats have the edge in legislative races, thanks to a map that has the GOP conceding more than a third of the districts before a single vote is cast. 

 

 

Charles N. Wheeler III is director of the Public Affairs Reporting program at the University of Illinois at Springfield.

Illinois Issues, February 2002