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Illinois is thought to be a blue state. So why is so much of the state so red?

The number of counties voting Democrat has shrunk over the past 20 years.

On any political map, Illinois is a reliable blue state that has elected Democratic governors four of the last five elections and last backed a Republican presidential candidate before Michael Jordan was winning championships in Chicago.

But as that political streak again gets put to the test in the high-stakes 2022 gubernatorial campaign, Democrats are losing a battle for counties across Illinois, surrendering vast sections of the state’s topography to Republicans.

Before Democratic Gov. JB Pritzker’s successful 2018 campaign, the number of Illinois counties voting Democratic got smaller and smaller during a 20-year period. Democrats went from winning 43 counties in the 1998 governor’s race down to a dismal one county in the 2014 race, in which Democratic incumbent Gov. Pat Quinn lost reelection.

That kind of track record can make the state actually look geographically deep red – even though Democrats currently hold every statewide elected office.

For nearly a century, in 25 races for the Executive Mansion, Republicans outpolled Democrats in more counties 22 times during that span, a WBEZ analysis of election data going back to 1924 showed. The GOP won the governorship.

And yet, in the state’s more recent political past, Democrats are the ones with the upper hand as blue Illinois gets bluer, and red Illinois gets redder – and angrier that they don’t have a voice statewide.

That’s owed primarily to Democrat-heavy Cook County with its 5 million residents, including Chicago.

The pattern of Democrats contracting into more densely populated areas while surrendering big swathes of political turf is already shaping the contours of the still-early 2022 gubernatorial campaign. Currently, it looks to be a race between the governor from Chicago and one of possibly four or more GOP contenders, three of whom hail from deep-red downstate.

“It goes hand in hand with the kinds of political polarization and partisanship that we’re seeing,” said journalist Lou Jacobson, senior correspondent for PolitiFact, the nonpartisan fact-checking organization.

Jacobson documented a similar trend of Republicans dominating Democrats on a county-by-county basis across the country during the past five presidential cycles in a report published by the University of Virginia Center for Politics’ “Sabato Crystal Ball.”

Nationally and in Illinois, that’s concerning, Jacobson said.

“If we have people who are in the cities and suburbs never interacting with people with a different demographic profile, and vice versa, you have people in red areas never seeing blue voters, it just further pushes the two sides away from each other,” he said, “and gives them less and less common ground.”

In 2018, Pritzker made easy work out of predecessor Bruce Rauner’s reelection bid, routing the one-term Republican by nearly 16 percentage points. Pritzker did so while losing 86 out of Illinois’ 102 counties, but that showing amounted to an improvement for Democrats over previous elections.

Admittedly, many of those 86 counties are sparsely populated. Regardless of the margins Rauner put up in them, they weren’t enough to overcome Pritzker winning four out of five of the collar counties and taking Cook County by historic margins.

Pritzker defeated Rauner in Cook County by more than 836,000 votes. No gubernatorial candidate since at least the Roaring ’20s posted a winning margin that large in Cook County.

Poshard: Dem infrastructure downstate ‘discouraging’

That’s all to say downstate votes weren’t decisive in Pritzker’s 2018 win. And downstate voters know it.

“The more ground the Democrat Party gains in the suburban areas, the more they’re able to cut loose people from the rural areas,” said former Democratic U.S. Rep. Glenn Poshard, the party’s 1998 nominee for governor. “If you put together the city and the suburbs, that’s a winning combination for any candidate. A lot of people downstate feel that’s what’s happened.”

Poshard, of downstate Marion, won 43 counties during his bid for governor but lost to Republican George Ryan by less than 4 percentage points. No Democratic candidate for governor has won more counties than Poshard since Dan Walker won the governorship in 1972.

Poshard believes a combination of factors is making Democrats less appealing in areas outside Chicago and the suburbs.

He said state patronage jobs are no longer being doled out to high-achieving Democratic political workers.

“I would bet if you look across the Democrat Party and downstate Illinois you’ll find probably 50 to 60% of the precincts not even filled with committeemen, because that expectation that working in the rank-and-file of the party will result in some sort of help in getting a job isn’t there anymore,” he said. “It’s discouraging, and it causes the party apparatus and structure to just fall apart.”

Poshard said gun rights arguments and anti-abortion sentiment are issues that drown out most everything else in the region, including workplace-related gains that Democratic-favoring unions have long championed. Because of that, he said, the labor vote in some areas downstate is trending Republican.

“Those are things that really get into the fabric and the mindset of people in the rural areas. Those traditional Democrats now go largely to very conservative churches that are opposed to abortion and those sort of things, and they’re spoken about freely in the churches,” said Poshard, whose own record of support for gun rights and opposition to abortion dampened Democratic enthusiasm for his gubernatorial bid.

“All of these things combine to make this rural-urban divide much greater,” he said.

If you’re a Downstate Democrat, you “might get hit”

On the ground, John Spencer sees everything exactly as Poshard lays out.

Spencer is the Democratic County chairman in Clay County, about 240 miles south of Chicago. That’s the political home turf of state Sen. Darren Bailey, one of four declared GOP candidates aiming to unseat Pritzker next year.

Spencer lives next door to Bailey’s legislative office in Louisville, the county seat, and looks out at the county courthouse where Bailey originally litigated against Pritzker, challenging the governor’s authority to issue and then extend his stay-at-home orders early in the pandemic. Bailey’s lawsuit is pending in Sangamon County Circuit Court, where it was consolidated with other legal challenges to Pritzker’s pandemic orders.

Spencer, who has been involved in Democratic politics since the early 1990s, said his party affiliation has not been a helpful calling card for him in his community.

“Sometimes, you might get hit,” Spencer said in a tone where it didn’t sound like he was joking. “I just try not to say too much to anybody anymore. It’s hard living here.”

And, he said, his party affiliation has been hard on his wallet.

“I had a real good construction business going, but I seen a year ago that those days were over because I’m a Democrat. So I went to work at Walmart,” he said. “I couldn’t buy a job now if I wanted one in the line of construction, because nobody wants a Democrat on their property.”

Since 1972, Clay County has drifted back and forth between Democratic and Republican candidates for governor, voting for Walker in 1972, Democratic nominee Neil Hartigan in 1990 and Poshard in 1998. Since then, it’s been a solidly red county.

“Now, if Glenn was to run for dog catcher against a cat, the cat would get 90% of the vote,” said Spencer, who called Poshard a friend.

Last year, Spencer ran for Bailey’s open House seat but lost to Republican state Rep. Adam Niemerg, R-Dieterich. Spencer drew only 18 percent of the vote.

“I was campaigning on jobs, education, broadband internet, infrastructure, all kinds of things that would help this area. But because I wouldn’t say anything about guns and abortion, oh, they was deathly against me,” Spencer said. “That’s all they’re concerned about is guns and abortion.”

Another issue of concern to the electorate in his area are vaccine mandates.

“One of the ladies that I work with up at …Walmart, I talked to her last week and I asked her, ‘Hey, did you ever get your coronavirus shot yet?’ ‘Oh, no. I won’t get that for nothing. They can’t make me take that vaccine,’ ” he said, quoting her. “Well, I found out this morning, she’s on a ventilator.”

When asked if he knows anyone who has succumbed to the illness, Spencer said, “Oh yeah, I know a lot of people that’s died from COVID.”

Three downstate Republicans running for governor

Five of Illinois’ 15 least vaccinated counties are in Bailey’s state Senate district, state public health data show.

Bailey was once escorted out of the Illinois House because he refused for a day to adhere to the chamber’s mandate that members and staff wear masks to reduce the spread of COVID-19. Later, in a survey by WBEZ, he was among only a handful of Illinois legislators who would not publicly state their vaccination status.

Yet, as much as Spencer’s political fortunes as a Democrat have suffered, Bailey is highly popular with his area’s voters. In 2018, during his one and only run for the Illinois House, Bailey won with 76% of the vote. In November 2020, when he ran for the Illinois Senate, he built on that margin, winning 77% of the vote.

Bailey is one of three downstate Republicans to publicly declare their intentions to take on Pritzker next year. The other two are former state Sen. Paul Schimpf, R-Waterloo, and GOP newcomer Jesse Sullivan, of Petersburg. Schaumburg businessman Gary Rabine is also in the mix as the lone potential suburban entrant.

Bailey, whose home county was represented by a Democrat less than 20 years ago, regards himself as a direct byproduct of downstate’s hardening red hue, a trend he attributes to a decline in “moral integrity” and “fiscal integrity” by those in power, particularly Democrats. He also lumped Rauner into that category for abandoning an anti-abortion campaign pledge.

Bailey is quick to invoke a biblical passage, Proverbs 28:2, to explain himself, his candidacy and where Illinois is at right now: “When there is moral rot, a nation’s government topples easily, but wise and knowledgeable leaders bring stability.”

“It doesn’t matter if I’m in the inner city of Chicago. It doesn’t matter if I’m in Clay County, in Louisville, Ill. When I’m talking to people, just about everyone acknowledges the fact life is not what it should be, and it’s certainly not what our founding fathers intended,” he said.

One of his early legislative moves was his co-sponsorship of a resolution that urged Congress to eject Chicago from Illinois and declare the city as the 51st state.

He said the resolution, which sought to put up clear boundaries between red and blue Illinois, attracted the attention of “separation groups.” But it went nowhere and now, as a candidate for statewide office, Bailey said he no longer embraces the concept and that “Illinois is better off together.”

Pritzker bucked the trend in 2018, winning several downstate counties

When Pritzker won the governorship, he reversed the volume of county losses by Democrats. He won in remote downstate counties like Alexander, in more populated places like Peoria and Rock Island counties and in university-dominated counties like Champaign, Knox and DeKalb.

The 16 counties Pritzker won was the most by a Democratic gubernatorial candidate since Rod Blagojevich’s 2006 reelection, when he raked in double that amount. Pritzker’s count greatly exceeded the four counties Democrat Pat Quinn won in his 2010 election and the lone county that lined up with him in his unsuccessful 2014 reelection.

Pritzker’s campaign has made clear it doesn’t aim to cede any of that turf next November to whatever Republican prevails in the June 28, 2022 primary, and that it hopes to build on 2018’s results.

“The governor outperformed previous Democratic turnout in nearly every part of the state in 2018, and over the last four years has spent countless hours traveling to every corner of Illinois to ensure everyone feels represented by his administration,” campaign spokeswoman Natalie Edelstein said. “The governor is proud of the investments his administration has made in rural and downstate communities and will continue to work tirelessly to serve all of Illinois.”

His public schedule has had a distinct downstate flavor since the summer.

Since announcing his reelection plans last July, Pritzker’s public calendar showed him booked with events on 73 days through Dec. 10. Three dozen of those days were devoted to appearances in Chicago, while 22 were downstate with three in the collar counties and five in suburban Cook.

At a Dec. 8 groundbreaking for a new gambling facility in downstate Carterville, Pritzker took issue with the premise on which a reporter’s question was partly based that he was not well regarded in far southern Illinois. (Williamson County, where the city is located, swung in favor of Rauner by 19 percentage points in 2018.)

“Well, let me start with, I think I’m more favored than you think I am,” the governor said before ticking off a series of accomplishments in Springfield that figure to be the spine of his reelection messaging.

“We’ve done an awful lot for the entire state, but, especially I think working together with Republicans, we were able to create jobs. We’re able to build the economy for areas like southern Illinois, where, let’s face it, we want to bring population into.”

“That is how a democracy works”

Counties don’t vote. People do, and that accounts for why Democrats keep winning governor’s races in Illinois during the past quarter century despite not having a message that resonates throughout all 102 counties. The winning formula Pritzker used in 2018 relied primarily on mining votes from heavily populated Chicago and its surrounding suburbs, keeping Illinois’ power Democratic.

As Jacobson, the journalist, found in his reporting for the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics, the trend is similar in presidential elections here. He identified Illinois as among 14 states with the strongest county-by-county Democratic declines during the five presidential cycles after 2000.

The drop-off was even more pronounced if Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential win is a marker. That year, during his first run for the White House, the former Illinois legislator and U.S. senator won 46 counties in his home state. In 2020, Democrat Joe Biden laid claim to just 14 Illinois counties.

Until Republicans figure out how to win again in Chicago’s suburbs, the party and voters who support it in nearly 85% of the state’s counties run the risk of history repeating itself in 2022.

“I definitely feel for the people in the red areas of Illinois because you know if the Chicago area has enough people to determine the course of the state, [red areas] are basically never going to win,” Jacobson said. “That’s the same kind of feeling that the Democrats have in Texas, that Democrats have in Utah, that you have a state that is not responsive to your needs.

“But then again, that is how a democracy works,” he said, “and I’m not sure what there is to be done about it.”

Dave McKinney covers Illinois politics and government for WBEZ. Follow him@davemckinney.

Dave McKinney is an Illinois politics reporter at WBEZ after spending 19 years as the Chicago Sun-Times Springfield bureau chief with additional stops at Reuters and the Daily Herald.