Illinois Democrats look to win more suburban state legislative seats in November despite corruption probe

After winning a slew of suburban state legislative seats long held by Republicans in 2018,

After winning a slew of suburban state legislative seats long held by Republicans in 2018, Illinois Democrats are looking to expand their reach even further in November as renewed controversy swirls around their powerful leader, longtime House Speaker Michael Madigan.

a man wearing a suit and tie smiling and looking at the camera: Illinois state Rep. Grant Wehrli.

© Grant Wehrli campaign/Chicago Tribune/TNS
Illinois state Rep. Grant Wehrli.

Republicans for years have built their campaign strategy around vilifying Madigan, who has been speaker for all but two years since 1983, but it hasn’t paid off in a big way at the ballot box. This year, however, the GOP hopes its anti-Madigan message will resonate in a new way after federal prosecutors in July alleged that Commonwealth Edison engaged in a “yearslong bribery scheme” designed to curry favor with the speaker.

But Madigan, who has not been charged and has denied wrongdoing, is only on the ballot in his Southwest Side district, and Democrats are hoping to capitalize on a changing suburban electorate’s dissatisfaction with the name at the top of the Republican ticket: President Donald Trump.

All 118 Illinois House seats and 22 of 59 state Senate seats are on the ballot this fall. But because 52 House and 11 Senate races are uncontested, a handful of competitive districts — largely in the suburbs — will determine whether Democrats lose or add to their veto-proof majorities in both chambers. Democrats hold supermajorities of 74-44 in the House and 40-19 in the Senate, meaning Republicans would need a historic number of victories to take control of either chamber.

Michael Madigan et al. standing next to a man in a suit and tie: Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan walks out after a House Democratic caucus meeting on Nov. 12, 2019, at the Illinois State Capitol in Springfield.

© Zbigniew Bzdak / Chicago Tribune/Chicago Tribune/TNS
Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan walks out after a House Democratic caucus meeting on Nov. 12, 2019, at the Illinois State Capitol in Springfield.

The Democrats not only control both chambers of the General Assembly and all statewide offices, but they also enjoy an overwhelming advantage in campaign cash.

With billionaire former Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner’s funding out of the picture and other conservative donors focusing their spending on defeating Democratic Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s proposed graduated-rate income tax amendment, “if it were just about money, it really would be a wipeout,” said Kent Redfield, professor emeritus of political science with the University of Illinois system’s Institute of Government and Public Affairs.

On a larger scale for Republicans nationally, spending big to keep the Democrats from picking up a couple of seats in the Illinois legislature “doesn’t really seem like a good investment if you can flip a chamber” in another state, Redfield said.

“But for the Commonwealth Edison investigation, you’re really looking at a perfect storm in terms of the Democrats building their majority, with the changes in the suburbs and then the overwhelming money advantage,” Redfield said.

“If you want to ask the question, why are they making such a huge push when they already have such big majorities in both chambers, one of the answers might be that it’s an opportunity to so damage the Republican Party in the state of Illinois that it will be very difficult for them to rebuild and to make a comeback.”

Four campaign funds controlled by Madigan together ended the second fundraising quarter on June 30 with more than $22.6 million in the bank, including more than $2.4 million in the state Democratic Party’s fund, state campaign finance records show. On the Senate side, the Democrats’ main fund and others tied to Senate President Don Harmon of Oak Park had nearly $4.7 million on hand, with nearly $4.1 million in Harmon’s Senate campaign fund.

By comparison, the Illinois Republican Party had a little more than $107,000 in its main campaign fund at the end of June. The House GOP had nearly $2.8 million in its main funds, the bulk of it — nearly $2.2 million — held by House Republican leader Jim Durkin of Western Springs. Senate Republicans had nearly $1.6 million, with $1.1 million in the campaign fund of Senate Republican leader Bill Brady of Bloomington.

None of those figures include cash raised by individual candidates, and money has continued pouring in on both sides over the past three months.

While a more complete picture of where the campaign coffers stand will be available when third-quarter contributions and expenditures are reported in mid-October, the Democratic campaign funds together have raised more than $4.8 million in large contributions since July 1, compared with more than $1.7 million raised by the GOP funds.

Democrats are looking to use their riches to claim districts even farther afield from their traditional Chicago power base, seeking to add to the net gain of 10 legislative seats they made two years ago amid a backlash to Trump and Rauner.

In an election year turned upside down by the coronavirus pandemic, the stakes are especially high because whoever holds the balance of power in the General Assembly’s next term also will wield the power to draw new legislative district boundaries for the coming decade based on the 2020 census. Democrats drew the past two maps, consolidating their power in the state legislature over the past two decades.

The goal for House Republicans is to win at least enough seats — a net gain of four — to deny Democrats the ability to override a gubernatorial veto unilaterally, Durkin said. That could be the key to preventing Madigan and his party from redrawing legislative boundaries to their political advantage — if Pritzker makes good on his pledge to veto any “unfair” map that reaches his desk.

And while the president may be a drag on some GOP candidates in the suburbs, Durkin said the net gain of four seats House Republicans made in 2016 shows “we were not taken down by all the theatrics that were going between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton.”

“I trust the voters, that they’re able to separate issues at the national level and that they do concentrate on state House races,” Durkin said.

But the Republicans’ aim is to make sure that voters don’t separate state-level Democratic candidates from the controversy surrounding Madigan.

“I don’t know what else we can be talking about,” Durkin said of the ComEd case, which is part of a larger federal probe that has yielded charges against a former House Democrat and three current and former Senate Democrats. “This defies any sense of sensibility or fair play in the General Assembly, and the public needs to be educated on that.”

But Harmon, the Democratic Senate president, said voters are more concerned about the physical and financial health of their families amid the coronavirus pandemic.

“The issues that voters are raising in conversations are not about Springfield,” Harmon said.

“Voters across the state, and suburban voters in particular, are responding to the intersection of the pandemic, the economy and access to affordable health care,” he said. “That’s been our message across the state. It’s resonating, especially in the suburbs.”

Concerns about affordable health care could become even more acute between now and Election Day as Trump pushes forward with a Supreme Court nominee who could prove to be a deciding vote in striking down the Affordable Care Act, Harmon said.

One race that exemplifies the complicated dynamics at play in campaigns across the collar counties is a rematch in the 48th House District between Democratic state Rep. Terra Costa Howard of Glen Ellyn and former Republican state Rep. Peter Breen of Lombard, whom she defeated in 2018 by a 7-point margin. It was the first time a Democrat won the district, which includes parts of Lombard, Glen Ellyn, Wheaton and Lisle.

Costa Howard, an attorney and former Glen Ellyn school board member, is among a handful of House Democrats who have called on Madigan to resign as speaker and chairman of the state party since the U.S. attorney’s office unveiled its deferred prosecution agreement with ComEd. She’s also a proponent of taking the power to draw legislative district boundaries away from lawmakers, a position that puts her at odds with some in party leadership.

“What I find about suburban Democrats: We are different than my colleagues from the city of Chicago,” Costa Howard said, “because the suburbs are different, the needs in the suburbs are different.”

Still, she aligns with her party on many key issues such as abortion and the environment, and she supports the proposed amendment to the Illinois Constitution that would shift the state to a graduated-rate income tax from the current flat-rate tax.

Despite her recent public opposition to Madigan, Costa Howard voted for him as speaker in 2019, a fact her opponent is quick to note. Costa Howard, however, has vowed not to vote for him when the new General Assembly convenes next year, though she is still receiving backing from the state party and from campaign funds Madigan controls.

Costa Howard ended the last fundraising quarter on June 30 with a little more than $54,000 in her campaign fund but has since raised nearly $178,000 in large contributions, including nearly $60,000 from the Democratic Party of Illinois and nearly $6,900 from Democratic Majority, both controlled by Madigan.

Her opponent, Breen, meanwhile, ended the second quarter with more than $98,000 in cash on hand and has raised more than $41,000 in large contributions since the beginning of July, with nearly $30,000 coming from the Illinois GOP and the House Republican Organization.

Breen, an attorney for the conservative Thomas More Society and onetime House GOP floor leader, is looking to win back the seat he held for two terms by focusing on corruption and the need to “clean house” in Springfield. He’s also campaigning on traditional Republican issues such as freezing property taxes and opposing abortion.

Breen said he sees the race in the “heart of DuPage County” as “something of a bellwether.”

“How this district decides to go forward, it’s going to determine the future, I think, of the state and really how we’re going to move forward together as a state for a decade to come,” he said.

Costa Howard also sees the district as indicative of the changing attitudes of voters in the west suburbs. But the shift toward Democrats is already well underway, she said.

“Change, it’s not coming; it’s here,” Costa Howard said.

Democrats aren’t satisfied with maintaining the gains they made two years ago.

They’re using their formidable campaign war chests to go after more suburban seats in longtime Republican strongholds such as Naperville and Elmhurst.

One top target is third-term Rep. Grant Wehrli of Naperville, an assistant GOP leader in the House, who has held the seat since 2015. Wehrli’s challenger, Janet Yang Rohr, is a school board member in Naperville and is director of global data at the investment research firm Morningstar.

Yang Rohr’s campaign ended the second quarter with nearly $25,000 and has raised more than $903,000 in contributions of at least $1,000 since then. A significant share of that money, nearly $273,000 combined, came from the Democratic Party of Illinois and the Democratic Majority funds, and Pritzker has given a total of $57,800, during the quarter that began July 1.

Wehrli’s campaign ended the last quarter with nearly $34,000, but Yang Rohr’s campaign has since far outpaced the incumbent in large contributions. Wehrli’s campaign has drawn in almost $185,000 in contributions of at least $1,000 since July 1.

Wehrli, a member of the legislative Joint Commission on Ethics and Lobbying Reform, and one of three Republican members of the special investigating committee that’s been charged with a probe into Madigan’s conduct said “there’s no doubt (Democrats) are throwing everything they have at me in an effort to silence me.”

“There’s no doubt that Speaker Madigan wants me gone; I have been a vocal critic, not only of his corruption but the way he runs things” in Springfield, Wehrli said.

Among his top ethics legislation priorities is broadening the powers of the legislative inspector general “to actually give that individual some solid teeth to root out what’s going on. Because we clearly can’t hold each other accountable.”

Wehrli said with the amount of contributions Yang Rohr’s campaign has taken in from the Democratic Party, “she’s not going to be the most independent voice in Springfield.”

Yang Rohr called that assertion “insulting” and “misogynistic.”

Her job at Morningstar requires her to make independent assessments of asset managers, she said, “and it’s not always a very comfortable thing.”

“I’ve been tested many, many times. … It’s something I do every day, to maintain that independence,” Yang Rohr said.

Wehrli failed to show his independence from Rauner by siding with the then-governor during his long-running budget standoff with the Democratic-controlled legislature, which ultimately hurt residents of the district, she said.

Yang Rohr wants to go to Springfield to protect access to affordable health care, and she also favors strong government ethics laws, she said. As for whether she’d support Madigan for speaker, Yang Rohr said she’s “totally focused on November” but would always vote with the district as her top priority.

Democrats also have their sights set once again on the only House district represented by a Republican that includes a portion of Chicago. Democrats spent heavily in 2016 to try to defeat longtime GOP Rep. Michael McAuliffe in the Northwest Side and northwest suburban 20th House District, resulting in the most expensive state legislative race in the country. But after McAullife won reelection, they sat out 2018.

McAuliffe retired in 2019, with local Republican leaders appointing Rosemont Mayor Bradley Stephens to the open seat. Stephens is facing a well-financed challenge from Chicago firefighter and paramedic Michelle Darbro, who has raised nearly $767,000 in large contributions since July 1 — more than double Stephens’ haul during the same period.

In one example of how far into the suburbs Democrats think they can compete, first-term state Rep. Karina Villa of West Chicago is running for the Senate seat held since 2013 by conservative Republican Sen. Jim Oberweis of Sugar Grove. Oberweis, who’s run a series of unsuccessful campaigns for federal office, is giving up the seat to challenge first-term U.S. Rep. Lauren Underwood of Naperville for her seat in Congress.

Villa, a former school social worker and former school board member who won a House seat in 2018 that had previously been occupied by a Republican, closed out the second quarter with more than $220,000 and has raised more than $474,000 in large contributions since July 1, compared with her Republican opponent Jeanette Ward, who closed out the last quarter with nearly $18,000 and has drawn more than $314,000 in contributions of at least $1,000 since then.

Ward is a former school board member who works as a product manager for DSM Functional Materials, and said ethics law changes and instituting legislative term limits are among her top priorities. Ward said the district’s history as a Republican stronghold bodes well for her campaign.

“It went by nine points for the Republican in the last election cycle, so that is positive for my campaign,” Ward said. “Our polling indicates that if we can get our message out about ethics, about taxes, about supporting the police, that the ideas I’m supporting are by far supported by the people of Illinois Senate District 25, as opposed to my opponent.”

Villa, meanwhile, voiced confidence in her ability to win the district despite its Republican roots, noting that she’s been “represented from Congress down at all levels by Republicans my whole life” in DuPage County.

“This isn’t a strange land for me, this is my world,” Villa said. “When I first ran, and I asked people to trust me, it’s difficult, because people might not have known me that well. But now, I have a proven track record in my state office. … And so, to me, just a proven track record that I have with my community, and now it’s just spreading that message over to the part of the district where they don’t know.”

Democrats also are spending big in the race for the House seat Villa currently occupies, which pits Democrat Maura Hirschauer against Republican Laura Curtis.

Outside the Chicago area, Democrats also are trying to defend a trio of seats in the Metro East region near St. Louis, held by Reps. Katie Stuart, Monica Bristow and Nathan Reitz. In some of the Downstate races, particularly in more rural areas, resistance to some of Pritzker’s regulations aimed at curbing the spread of the coronavirus could come into play for Republicans trying to flip a seat.

“You’ve just got a lot more resistance, and it plays into a conservative narrative — economic liberty, individual freedom,” Redfield said.

If Republicans were to win all three of those House seats, it would “really solidify the regional partisan divide” in Illinois, he said.

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