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Legislative Races: GOP Aims to Eat Into Democratic Majorities in the General Assembly

State representative candidate Mel?Thillens
WUIS/Illinois Issues


Republican Mel Thillens is a first-time candidate for the Illinois House, but his name has been carried across the state on the sides of large trucks for years.

The third-generation owner of the armored truck company that bears his name, Thillens is one of dozens of GOP candidates trying to reverse the damage his party suffered two years ago.

In 2012, Democrats drove over Republicans in nearly every competitive race for the Illinois General Assembly — riding President Barack Obama’s top-of-the-ticket coattails and a new, friendly map of legislative districts they drew — to unprecedented numbers at the Capitol in Springfield.

All that, despite persistent state financial problems and a lagging economy that have festered during Democrats’ decade-long rule in Springfield. Now, Republicans in 2014 are trying to reverse that damage in part on their own set of coattails, hoping the financial fortune and momentum of Winnetka businessman Bruce Rauner’s campaign for governor can help lift them out of the political hole they face at the Statehouse. Thillens knows this better than anyone. The Park Ridge Republican shares office space with a Rauner field organizer. “There’s a ton of energy in the office,” Thillens says.

Republicans’ biggest chance is in the Illinois House. In the Senate, only a third of the 59 seats are up for election. So simple math seriously limits their opportunities to put a dent in Democrats’ 40-to-19 advantage there. Every seat is up in the House.

Still, in a state that’s been reliably Democratic statewide for years and a political map that remains a big challenge for Republicans, Thillens and his colleagues will need more than energy to gain numbers in Springfield. Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn has argued that the economy is improving. He’s signed same-sex marriage into law and appealed to liberals and moderates with a push to raise the minimum wage and campaign rhetoric painting Rauner as too wealthy and out of touch. 

What happens at the top of the ballot is critical for legislative candidates farther down. Despite their direct impact on voters’ lives, state lawmakers often go unknown by average constituents. Therefore, every vote turned out by a top candidate could help everyone below him on the ballot. “I think with Gov. Quinn’s situation, it will be a little more difficult,” state Sen. Mike Jacobs says of his fellow Democrats’ campaigns in light of Quinn’s low approval ratings. “The governor’s race will be telling in a lot of our races.”

State Rep. Marty Moylan
Credit WUIS/Illinois Issues
WUIS/Illinois Issues
State Rep. Marty Moylan

  Thillens is running against state Rep. Marty Moylan, a Des Plaines Democrat, energetic legislative freshman and former mayor. And Moylan has an asset many freshmen in suburban Chicago share: He promised he wouldn’t vote to extend the state’s 2011 income tax hike beyond its January 1 reduction. And he didn’t. No one did. Quinn called for such a vote, pleading with lawmakers that the lost revenue from a drop in the income tax rate would be devastating for children in schools, vulnerable people who need care and anyone else he could think of.

Instead, lawmakers sent him a budget that procrastinated on the state’s biggest financial questions, and they hit the campaign trail without having to answer for massive cuts to services or a looming tax increase on the horizon.

And Moylan, like a lot of candidates, is walking door to door in his compact suburban district all summer, telling voters, among other things, “that the (tax extension) died in the House because a lot of us didn’t want to vote for it.”

“People who have tan faces and tan hands are out walking,” Moylan says. “People who have the tan bodies are lying on the beach.” Some candidates, as usual, can afford to lie on the beach. A bulk of the Statehouse electoral energy will be limited to a handful of districts at least in part because many won’t see races at all. Other incumbents have opponents who, no matter their drive, backgrounds or views on the issues, won’t have much of a chance because the districts they’re running in lean so heavily to one side or the other.

The districts in play can change throughout the months of election season; as polls move, candidates gain popularity or lose it to campaign trail gaffes, and advertising starts to take hold in the voters’ minds. Plus, while the district boundaries meant to favor Democrats haven’t changed since 2012, the population inside them and their political views might. “It’s never static,” says Christopher Mooney, director of the Institute of Government and Public Affairs at the University of Illinois. “It’s always dynamic.”

Some of the potentially hot races mirror the Moylan vs. Thillens race in that they’re in the Chicago suburbs and feature freshmen lawmakers who often can be among the most vulnerable incumbents. The north and northwest suburbs in particular are full of moderate districts that could change hands with a change of the political winds.

Republicans are likely to play more offense than defense, if only because they’re already significantly outnumbered in the Illinois House by 71 to 47. “They’re so exposed,” Mooney says of Democrats — the size of their past success making it harder to replicate in the future.

State Rep. Sam Yingling, a freshman Democrat from Grayslake in central Lake County, faces prosecutor Rob Drobinski of Wauconda in an area of the state that has tended to send Republicans to Springfield in the past. State Rep. Deborah Conroy, a freshman Democrat from Villa Park in central DuPage County, faces Heidi Holan of Glen Ellyn. Conroy was one of two Statehouse Democrats elected from the historic GOP stronghold of DuPage County in 2012, a year where Obama beat Mitt Romney there, troubling some local GOP leaders. With Obama on the sidelines, that seat could get attention from Republicans. And in the Joliet area, freshman Democrat Natalie Manley could see a spirited matchup with Republican Yvonne Bolton of Plainfield.

While more veteran suburban Democrats Fred Crespo, Carol Sente and Michelle Mussman didn’t have particularly tight 2012 races, the nature of their northwest Cook County and central Lake County districts keeps the districts in play most years.

Republicans could target freshman Democrats downstate, too. In the Quad Cities, state Rep. Mike Smiddy in 2012 knocked off incumbent Republican Rich Morthland, and Republicans have dispatched Republican Jim Wozniak of East Moline to try to take the seat back. Freshman Democrat and former teacher Sue Scherer of Decatur is getting some attention, too.

But if Republicans have any hope of picking up seats in the Statehouse, they’ll first have to avoid losing many. Two of the party’s most senior members in the Illinois House are making bids for higher office. Former House Republican Leader Tom Cross of Oswego is making a run for state treasurer, and state Rep. Mike Bost of Murphysboro is running for Congress. 

State Rep. Dwight Kay of Glen Carbon won in 2012 by a scant couple hundred votes, making him vulnerable in the eyes of Democrats. Kay will be opposed by the repetitively named Cullen Cullen, superintendent of the Venice school district. By the middle of August, House Speaker Michael Madigan had already shown a financial interest in Cullen and assigned at least two paid staff members to the race.

As always, Madigan and his Republican counterpart Minority Leader Jim Durkin will control their caucuses’ money and ultimately decide what kind of cash and staff resources end up in which races — essentially deciding where the real battles will be. Durkin trails Madigan in the money race. The Western Springs Republican got a late start, replacing Cross well into the process of recruiting candidates and preparing for the campaign. And he had to spend more than usual in the primary, defending his incumbents from more conservative challengers. Those challengers got big boosts from third-party spending, particularly in the Chicago area. Now, Durkin could hope to get some help from those same groups if they get involved in the general election.

After the first half of the year, Madigan had $2.8 million in just two of the campaign funds he controls. Durkin had about $1.2 million in two corresponding funds he controls. That’s where some Republicans hope Rauner will come in, providing more than just a figurative top-of-the-ticket boost to Republican candidates. Literal money could be very helpful to them, and Rauner spread wealth around in his primary campaign, dishing out money to local Republican organizations and candidates, perhaps foreshadowing how he could be helpful in the long run. “The guy knows he needs friends in the legislature,” Mooney says. “The guy is showing a significant amount of sophistication.”

Republicans need more than sophistication in the Illinois Senate, where Democrats’ stranglehold on the chamber would be tough to loosen much this year. One-third of the chamber’s seats are up for election, and many are seats considered relatively safe for either party. That might spark either side to fight battles in 2014 it might otherwise not prioritize if there were closer races on the list.

Two of the marquee races are likely to be downstate. For one, Democratic freshman Andy Manar of Bunker Hill will face challenger Linda Little, a Decatur Republican.

And just like in 2012, Jacobs is set to have a stiff challenge in the Quad Cities. This time, he’ll face firefighter Neil Anderson of Moline. Anderson ran for the Illinois House in 2012 against Democratic Rep. Pat Verschoore and lost. Now, he’ll try to unseat Jacobs in the Senate. Anderson says he’s not counting on much help from Rauner. “I stick to our race and what I believe,” Anderson says. But his rhetoric reflects the businessman’s campaign pitch closely. At a time when Rauner is running to demean the Springfield establishment, Anderson is trying to tell voters that Jacobs, who inherited the Senate seat from his father, is exactly that. Anderson says he’s also embracing term limits, a cause Rauner has tried to put front and center as well. “He’s one of the many who has lost touch with his constituents,” Anderson says of Jacobs. “We’re seeing the same people get re-elected time and time again.”

Despite the benefits of incumbency, Jacobs says he’s not taking Anderson’s challenge lightly. Jacobs argues Anderson might have trouble fully embracing Rauner’s message. The candidate for governor is perceived as especially distasteful to some public employees because of his anti-union message, and, as a firefighter, Anderson is a public employee.

In 2014, both sides have more tools at their disposal to get their voters to the polls. For the first time in a general election, voters won’t need an excuse to vote by mail. And they’ll be able to register online and on Election Day. By the end of August, the Illinois State Board of Elections was registering 100 new voters online every day.

Combined with ad campaigns that have bled from TV and mailboxes to the Internet and even streaming services like Hulu, voters can expect to see a spirited campaign from candidates all over the ballot. “It’s going to be a donnybrook,” Jacobs says. “It’s going to be a fight.”

Mike Riopell is Statehouse bureau chief for the Arlington?Heights-basedDaily Herald.

Illinois Issues, October 2014

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