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Ends and Means: Growing population and shifting demographics should cheer Illinois Republicans

Charles N. Wheeler III
WUIS/Illinois Issues
Most significant for GOP hopes, more than 98 percent of the estimated net growth, or almost 405,000 new residents, occurred in the five collar counties, historically Republican strongholds.

The party of Abraham Lincoln has fallen on hard times in the Land of Lincoln, but a recent U.S. Census report may hold a ray of hope for beleaguered Illinois Republicans.

The party's fortunes seemed to hit rock-bottom last November, when Democrats swept every statewide office, shutting the GOP out of the executive branch at the polls for the first time in 42 years. Moreover, the washout came just a dozen years after Republicans claimed all statewide offices.

Democrats also rocked in legislative races, picking up five Senate seats for a total of 37, probably the most Democratic senators ever (at least since 1880), and giving Senate President Emil Jones Jr. the party's first veto-proof majority in 70 years. In the House, Democrats added another seat, for a 66-52 edge.

As a result, legislative Republicans largely have been relegated to the sidelines since January, hoping that dysfunctional Democrats would blow the May 31 deadline for adjournment so that GOP lawmakers once again become relevant.

Against that dismal backdrop, the U.S. Census Bureau's most recent population estimates should be welcome news for Republicans. Bureau demographers pegged the state's population growth since the 2000 Census at slightly more than 412,000. The estimate is based on calculations of natural growth — births in excess of deaths — and net migration — the number of people moving into the state as opposed to those leaving.

Most significant for GOP hopes, more than 98 percent of the estimated net growth, or almost 405,000 new residents, occurred in the five collar counties, historically Republican strongholds. The estimated growth included almost 166,000 in Will County — the 10th larges county increase in the nation — almost 90,000 in Kane County, more than 68,000 in Lake County, more than 52,000 in McHenry County and more than 28,000 in DuPage County. In addition, Kendall County, on the far western reaches of the metropolitan area, gained an estimated 34,000 residents, a 62 percent gain from the 2000 Census, the largest in the state and second highest in the nation.

In contrast, Chicago and Cook County lost almost 88,000 residents, census statisticians reported. The net figure masks a more significant, ongoing trend: an exodus of residents from the city and its older, close-in suburbs, many of them to outer suburbs where homes are cheaper, schools better and the pace of living more relaxed. More than 600,000 people abandoned Cook County in the last half dozen years, census demographers calculated. Offsetting the outbound trend was a gain of almost 275,000 people born outside the United States, as well as some 240,000 more births than deaths.

The 2006 estimates continue a demographic pattern that's been in place since the end of World War II. Suburban Chicago's population stood at 1.5 million in 1950, less than that of the 96 downstate counties. By 2000, the roles were reversed, with suburban population counted at 5.2 million, some 900,000 more than downstate. The latest estimates push the number of suburbanites to more than 5.6 million, about 44 percent of all Illinoisans.

Conventional wisdom suggests the suburban growth should help GOP chances, given the long history of the suburbs — especially the collar counties — backing Republican candidates. However, four of the five Senate seats Democrats picked up in November are in the suburbs, and three include collar county territory never before represented by a Democrat in the Senate — the 31st in Lake County, the 22nd in northwest Cook and northeast Kane County and the 42nd, mostly in southeastern Kane and western Will County. The other suburban district takes in a chunk of northwest Cook County that's been a GOP bastion since the Great Depression. (The fifth district lies mostly in Champaign County, which last sent a Democrat to the Senate in 1936.)

A key factor Democrats exploited to conquer new territory was the growing number of Latino voters, especially in the Elgin and Aurora areas, the population centers of the 22nd and 42nd districts, respectively, each of which counted roughly a quarter of its voting age population as Hispanic in 2000.

Since then, the number of Latinos has grown by about a quarter in both districts, according to a study by the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights. Similar growth has occurred in other suburban areas, according to the coalition, which is working for full inclusion of immigrants into Illinois society.

Overall, the study found the number of Hispanic immigrants jumped by more than 276,000, while the number of Asian immigrants grew by more than 90,000, with a healthy chunk of the growth occurring in the suburbs.

While many of the immigrants are not U.S. citizens, and thus cannot vote, the number of naturalized citizens has grown about 17 percent since 2000, according to the study, with the most dramatic percentage growth occurring in districts now held by GOP lawmakers.

The growing number of potential Latino voters poses both opportunity and challenge for the GOP. Although only about 20 percent of Hispanics identify themselves as Republicans in national surveys, President George W. Bush claimed about 40 percent of the Hispanic vote in 2004. But the hard-line stance on immigration taken by conservative Republicans in Congress may have undercut any permanent GOP gains: Just 9 percent of respondents said the Republican Party had more concern than Democrats for Hispanics, while 37 percent picked the Democratic Party, in a 2006 national survey of Latinos by the Pew Hispanic Center.

Illinois Republicans don't seem ready to contest that perception; certainly, putting 40 "no" votes on the House board against an eminently sensible proposal to allow illegal immigrants to get driving certificates won't win many Hispanic votes. And if Republicans can't make inroads into that rapidly growing demographic, they probably haven't yet bottomed out. 

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

Illinois Issues, June 2007

The former director of the Public Affairs Reporting (PAR) graduate program is Professor Charles N. Wheeler III, a veteran newsman who came to the University of Illinois at Springfield following a 24-year career at the Chicago Sun-Times.
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