The Illinois Midterm Races You Might Not Be Watching, But Should

While there's plenty of talk about a potential "blue wave" hitting Congress, not nearly as much focus has been on the Illinois statehouse - though the results of a few key races could have huge implications.

Without a friendly legislature, whoever wins the race for governor will have a tough time turning his proposals into reality.

As incumbent GOP Gov. Bruce Rauner learned the hard way, battling a statehouse controlled by the other party doesn’t often end well. His clash with Democrats – House Speaker Michael Madigan in particular – that began in 2015 turned into an historic budget impasse that lasted more than two years, decimating social services, slashing higher education funding and ballooning the state’s backlog of unpaid bills.

Part of Rauner’s problem was that at the same time he was elected, Democrats were able to maintain a supermajority in both chambers, holding onto 71 of 118 seats in the House and keeping 39 of 59 Senate seats. While all the members of each caucus may not always vote as a bloc, if they do, those numbers (greater than a three-fifths majority) could override any potential veto.

House Democrats lost some ground in 2016, falling short in four races to keep only 67 seats. That shift can be attributed in part to a massive cash infusion from Rauner, who poured more than $40 million into various races across the state while he himself was not on the ballot.

This time around, Rauner’s engaged in his own battle and isn’t spending as heavily on smaller campaigns, giving roughly $14 million to organizations like the Illinois Republican Party and House Republican Organization. That figure is also offset by the millions his opponent, self-funding billionaire Hyatt heir J.B. Pritzker, has given to other Democrats.

That combined with a more motivated base could swing some critical House races in Democrats’ favor, which could have a huge impact on policies directly impacting Illinois residents.

Should Pritzker maintain his double-digit polling lead to win the race, the focus then shifts to which of his policy proposals could be signed into law. Pritzker has an ambitious and largely progressive agenda, including a graduated state income tax, a public health insurance option, legalizing recreational marijuana use and more.

If voters decide to give Rauner another term, his agenda – lowering the state income tax and term limits on elected officials, among others – would be a heavy lift, if not impossible, with a Democratic legislature.

While the governor may be the one signing bills into law, which bills reach his desk is up to the statehouse – where the slimmest margin of votes in certain races can make a huge difference.

Some of those races include, in numerical order –

House District 42: State Rep. Jeanne Ives left her seat to challenge Rauner in the GOP primary, leaving the west suburban district wide open. While Ives was re-elected by more than 21 points in 2016, Hillary Clinton won the district’s presidential vote by nearly 10 points, giving Democrat Kathleen Carrier a chance against Republican Amy Grant.

House District 45: For the past few election cycles, Democrats have unsuccessfully tried to take this district, which includes portions of Bloomingdale, Itasca and Bartlett. Incumbent GOP Rep. Christine Winger, elected in 2014, won by 7 points last time, despite Clinton winning by a slim 2 percent margin. If DuPage County turns blue like some – particularly those targeting Congressman Peter Roskam at the federal level – predict, challenger Diane Pappas may have a shot.

House District 48: Another DuPage County seat at play is this one held by a member of Republican leadership in the House, Rep. Peter Breen. After winning by 13 points in 2016, the GOP floor leader now faces Terra Costa Howard in the district – comprised mostly of Lombard and Glen Ellyn – that Clinton carried by 17 percent. This has become a fairly expensive race, with both state parties sinking thousands into their candidates.

House District 49: GOP Rep. Mike Fortner is calling it quits, deciding not to seek reelection after 12 years in the General Assembly. Clinton won the district, which contains portions of St. Charles, West Chicago, Batavia and more, by 11 points. Now, Republican Tonia Jane Khouri and Democrat Karina Villa are battling for the open seat.

House District 51: Another district that voted for Clinton over President Trump, but sent a Republican to the Illinois House, is HD 51 in Lake County. The seat is in play after former Rep. Nick Sauer, a Republican, resigned over allegations that he posted explicit photos of his ex-girlfriend online to lure other men into sexual conversations. Local party officials appointed Helene Miller Walsh – wife of conservative firebrand and former congressman Joe Walsh – to fill the vacancy. While the district has trended Republican for years, Clinton won it by nearly 7 points, providing an opening for Democrat Mary Edly-Allen.

House District 53: Another open seat, vacated by Republican Rep. David Harris, continues the trend of suburban GOP strongholds that broke for Clinton in 2016. Harris ran unopposed in 2016 but the nearly 18-year veteran of the House declined to run for re-election. That opened the door this time around to a full-court press from Democrats, looking to capture what Clinton did when she carried the district by almost 17 points. And it’s a familiar Democrat seeking the office: ex-Rep. Mark Walker, who rode the 2008 blue wave into the legislature, but was swept away by the Republican tide in 2010. He faces Republican Eddie Corrigan in the race to represent the area including Arlington Heights and Mount Prospect.

House District 54: Next door in Palatine, Republican incumbent Rep. Tom Morrison faces Maggie Trevor, one of many female candidates nationwide who are seeking office for the first time. Democrats are betting big on this district that Clinton won by 13 percent. If early signs show Democrats performing well here, and in other suburban areas, it could spell potential doom for Rauner, who relied on big margins in the suburbs in 2014. He carried HD 53 and HD 54 by 26 and 30 points, respectively.

House District 76: The state GOP dropped support for Rep. Jerry Lee Long after it was “made aware of” unspecified “allegations” about his behavior. Long won a longtime Democrat-held district by less than 2 points in 2016, likely making the district – which includes portions of LaSalle, Putnam and Livingston counties – an easier pick-up for his opponent, Democrat Lance Yednock, than most.

House District 111: While many of the districts in play are in suburban areas, there are some downstate that deserve mention. One is HD 111, a typically Democratic stronghold in the Metro East that Trump won handily in 2016. The district’s longtime Democratic representative resigned in 2017, and his appointed replacement, Rep. Monica Bristow, is facing her first electoral test in an area Trump carried by more than 16 points. Will voters flip back to support the Democrat or will they back her opponent, Mike Babcock, solidifying it as a newly Republican area?

House District 118: This district is another case of an appointed Democrat looking to hold on in Trump country. Trump won this district by 39 points, while ex-Rep. Brandon Phelps, a Democrat, claimed a 17-point margin of victory. Phelps resigned in 2017 and his niece Natalie Phelps Finnie, the daughter of former Congressman David Phelps, was appointed to fill the seat. She too faces her first electoral test against Republican Patrick Windhorst. The race is one to watch to see just how many split-ticket voters there are downstate – and if the Phelps name can hold on.

While there are some contested races in the Illinois Senate, it’s traditionally less of a battleground – with Democrats winning and maintaining a supermajority for the last three cycles. But it’s a similar story in the Senate races at play, with Democrats making moves in suburban districts. Senate District 27, which encompasses HD 53 and HD 54, is one such race.

Results in all three districts can serve as a bellwether for the effectiveness of GOP messaging tying candidates to Madigan: If Democrat Ann Gillespie defeats incumbent GOP Sen. Tom Rooney, but the Republican candidates for those House seats win, that could indicate Rauner’s yearslong crusade against Madigan works in some capacity and that association with the powerful Democrat does, in fact, drag candidates down.

Gillespie was one of three women, all running in Republican-held districts that voted for Clinton, who briefly ran ads in September calling for term limits on Madigan. Within days, the ads - unusual in that they criticized a member of their own party ahead of a general election - were pulled from the airwaves. 

One more little-discussed element to think about in all of this – the Illinois legislature is tasked with redistricting every 10 years after the U.S. Census is conducted. The last maps were approved in June 2011, and if this cycle is the same, that means the legislature elected in 2020 will be the ones to vote on the new map. But whichever candidate for governor is elected this November will be the one to sign off on it.

Rauner has long pushed for an independent commission to draw the map, to eliminate politically-motivated gerrymandering. Pritzker has voiced support for the same, but Madigan is driven to protect his majority – and ultimately his speakership – at all costs. While a lot can change between now and the re-map, it will definitely be high stakes and almost certainly high drama.

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