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Ends and Means: No GOP Landslide Here

Charles N. Wheeler III
WUIS/Illinois Issues

The Republican tsunami that swept the nation last month was little more than a gentle comber when it reached Illinois. Indeed, one might argue the GOP wave did about as much damage to Illinois Democrats as the annual Nile flooding did to ancient Egyptians, who depended on the overflowing river to enrich their fields for the coming planting season.

A superficial glance might seem to show Republicans making big gains: claiming President Barack Obama's old U.S. Senate seat, picking up four U.S. House seats, breaking the Democratic monopoly on executive branch offices and paring back the Democrats' majorities in the General Assembly. Yet a closer look reveals less there than meets the eye.

Consider, for example, the Obama seat. Sure, it's an embarrassment for the president and his party mates, but U.S. Rep. Mark Kirk's win didn't provide Republicans a particularly critical vote in the U.S. Senate; instead, he'll be one more voice for the GOP filibusters.

As a grizzled Chicago Machine ward-heeler once remarked to a fledgling reporter, "How many jobs does a U.S. senator have?"

Their gains here helped propel national Republicans into the U. S. House majority, but in another sense, all but one of the GOP victories represented a return to the way things were supposed to be. The horribly gerrymandered map under which congressional candidates have run for the past decade was crafted by then-House Speaker Dennis Hastert, a Republican, and then-U.S. Rep Bill Lipinski, the state party's de-facto House leader, to protect 10 Republican and eight Democratic incumbents.

In subsequent elections, Democrats picked off three of the supposedly-safe GOP seats, only to lose the trio last month. Only one district ran counter to the map-makers' intent: the west-central 17th. Despite its tortuous Democratic design, Republican Bobby Schilling, a Colona businessman, ousted Democratic U.S. Rep. Phil Hare by a surprising 10-point margin, giving the GOP an 11-7 margin in the Illinois delegation.

Republicans also captured two statewide offices, comptroller and treasurer, but lost the biggest prize of all, the governorship. Despite steadfast support for an income tax increase, Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn eked out a roughly 20,000 vote win over his GOP challenger, state Sen. Bill Brady, and three other hopefuls. Quinn's victory reaffirmed one long-held axiom — social conservatives don't fare well in statewide races — and debunked another bit of conventional wisdom — support for higher taxes is politically fatal.

While the GOP also posted net legislative gains of two state Senate and six Illinois House seats, come January, Democrats still will have majorities of 35-24 in the Senate and 64-54 in the House. Control of the governorship and both legislative chambers will give Democrats a free hand in drawing new congressional and legislative districts next year, the first time either party has enjoyed a redistricting monopoly since 1955. With any cartographic skill at all, Democrats should be able to consign Republicans to something like permanent minority status in the General Assembly for the next 10 years.

Even the GOP legislative gains may turn out to be a blessing for Democrats, who now will have fewer incumbents to protect, always the top priority for mapmakers. Further simplifying the Democrats' redistricting puzzle, seven of the party's nine losses came in districts outside the Chicago area, where population growth has been modest at best over the last decade, according to U.S. Census Bureau estimates.

The federal demographers calculate the state's 32 southern counties lost more than 7,000 residents, about the same number as the increase estimated for 44 central Illinois counties. Madison and St. Clair counties in the Metro East region are expected to grow by about 17,000, and 18 northern Illinois counties are expected to increase in population by about 115,000.

On the other hand, Democrats successfully defended 26 of their 28 suburban seats up for election this year and picked up one GOP House seat in the suburbs along the way. Virtually all of the state's net population growth since 2000 has occurred in suburbia; while Chicago and suburban Cook lost about 90,000, the Census Bureau estimates a net growth of about 450,000 in the collar counties, out of a total state increase of about 500,000, to 12.9 million.

The population growth means that the target for each House district will be roughly 109,000 residents, about 4,000 more than the 2000 figure. Senate districts will need to grow by about 8,000 residents.

So the new bottom line: There will be relatively fewer people to distribute among downstate districts, meaning individual districts will need to add territory under the new map. With fewer Democratic incumbents to worry about, party mapmakers will have lots more flexibility in finding those additional people.

Meanwhile, the expected suburban population boom will leave many of the region's districts with too many residents, so the mapmakers will be able to craft new districts for Democratic incumbents keeping their strongest pockets of support while shedding more marginal precincts.

The Democrats' remap monopoly could provide leverage on other issues, too. Might some downstate Republicans be persuaded to break party ranks, say to vote for an income tax hike, in return for custom-designed lines? Particularly someone with a state university or a prison or some other state facility? Republican leadership hardly will be in a position to threaten punishment dire enough to offset a favorable district.

Voters might not object to a tax vote either, based on last month's election results. Eleven of the 12 Senate Democrats who voted for higher taxes two years ago and were on the ballot won another term, including five suburbanites. Democratic Sen. Deanna Demuzio of Carlinville lost, but so did Sen. Michael Bond, a Democrat from Grayslake who voted no.

In the House, 35 of 36 Democrats who voted for an income tax hike in 2009 and sought another term last month were successful. The exception was Rep. Michael Smith of Canton, one of five incumbent Democrats booted on Election Day. The other four voted against Quinn's tax plan.

National tsunami or no, Election 2010 was very good to Illinois Democrats, while state Republicans were the ones left under water.

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

Illinois Issues, December 2010

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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