When campaigning picks back up, we know the Illinois races that will attract the most attention this election cycle will be a few key Congressional races in the suburbs and one downstate. Yet while these races suck up most of our attention, the most important races for the future of our state and any chance at a comeback for the Republican Party in Illinois are found in local counties.
Everyone agrees that the most potent force in today’s politics is control over the mapmaking process. While the most important good government reform we could (and should) implement today is fair maps, no one expects the Democrats to cede this power willingly.
Something Republicans must think about is redistricting at the county level. We’ve never had to think about that in the suburbs because, at least in recent memory, outside Cook County we’ve always drawn the maps. But with all 102 counties doing their own county-level redistricting in 2021, if we don’t invest in these important county races this election, Democrats might draw the maps for the first time in generations in key counties, cementing their dominance of Illinois politics for another decade.
In north suburban Lake County, as things stand currently, Democrats will draw the new county maps for the first time in history. There are 3 competitive seats up for election in November in districts drawn to elect Republicans, and Republicans only need to regain 2 seats on paper if all board members vote along party lines. Lake County has gone from red to light blue over the last decade and letting the Democrats draw the maps will complete the county’s transition to deep blue.
Republicans face similar circumstances in Will County where they have never been left out of the redistricting process but now find themselves in the minority. The good news for Republicans in this southwest suburban county is they have the potential for 7 competitive board races in 2020, plus the county executive race, and with enough support and effort could win control of their board back and regain control of redistricting. Republicans ran into a bit of good luck with popular incumbent Dan Lipinski being defeated in his primary, as Lipinski was popular with unions and an important part of the Will County Democratic get out the vote program with his crossover support.
In far northwest suburban McHenry County, which has been a Republican stronghold literally forever, a Democrat now controls much of the redistricting process in this ruby-red county. A key priority for Republicans should be taking out Democrat Jack Franks as County Board Chair, who is vulnerable for the first time in over a decade after years of controversy and recent allegations of sexual misconduct which earned him a ban from the state capitol building. Franks, who comes directly from the Michael Madigan school of politics, is licking his chops at the prospect of drawing an unfavorable map for Republicans next year.
This isn’t just a suburban problem. Central Illinois’ McLean County, home to Illinois State University, has 7 very serious Democratic challengers lined up in an effort to take over the McLean County Board. After a successful and unprecedented effort completely taking over neighboring Champaign County, blocking Republicans out of that upcoming remap for the first time in generations, Democrats have signaled they intend to deploy that same playbook in McLean County in 2020. This is a must-win situation, as Republicans can ill afford to lose downstate as we’re fighting to regain a foothold in the suburbs.
We understand why much of the excitement so far has focused on the prospects of defeating Sean Casten, Lauren Underwood, Betsy Dirksen Londrigan, and other high-profile congressional Democrats, and ultimately taking the gavel away from Nancy Pelosi. These races are certainly sexier than a local county board race, and as top-of-the-ballot candidates they play an important role in voter turnout efforts. But with our limited resources in the initial stages of rebuilding in the post-Rauner era, what little we can contribute to our Republican candidates in those races is a drop in the bucket compared to the resources it will take to win, and will certainly be dwarfed by the resources flowing to those candidates from national party and PAC sources.
If we want to maximize our impact in 2020, we must look local. There are key races in vulnerable counties this November that will have a significant impact over the next decade, not to mention the next generation in Illinois.
That next generation point is key. We’re certainly not going to rebuild the party all in 2020, especially if the data is right and 2020 is likely to be another rough year for Illinois Republicans at the ballot box. And while we’re high on electing a Republican governor in 2022, if we learned anything during the Rauner years it’s that no one individual can turn this state around, no matter their talents or wealth. We need to build a bench of thousands of Republicans, empowering conservative leaders throughout the state.
Local races are how good public servants are bred. They work hard, serve their constituents well, build up positive name recognition, and learn how to become effective fundraisers. With this base, they can move up the ranks into higher office. By supporting a candidate for local office today, you may just be electing tomorrow’s top tier recruit for state legislature, Congress, or even a statewide office.
Winning in politics is a complicated process, so we’re not trying to oversimplify things. Congressional races, especially holding Rodney Davis’ seat in IL-13, are important. Defeating the progressive tax is vital. Keeping what few state legislative seats we still hold is key. But if our eye is on rebuilding our party and executing a long-term plan to win in Illinois, we contend a ground-up focus is the way to go. These targeted county races in November may just hold the key to our future.