10 Races to Watch in Illinois' Midterm Elections

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The biggest statewide race is for governor of Illinois. There are four candidates on the ballot: incumbent Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner, Democrat J.B. Pritzker, Libertarian Kash Jackson and Conservative Sam McCann. The two major-party candidates are largely self-funding billionaires who have each dumped millions of dollars of their own money into their campaign coffers. Rauner is running for a second term using many of the same rallying cries that sent him to Springfield in 2014 - calling for lower property taxes and term limits, among other issues. But he faces an uphill battle after angering right-wing voters by signing bills on immigration and abortion. Consistently ranked among the most unpopular and most vulnerable Republican governors in the country, thanks in part to the state's historic budget impasse that lasted more than two years, Rauner won the GOP primary over challenger Jeanne Ives by just 3 points and will have to fight to keep his base from shifting to support Conservative candidate McCann in the general. Several polls have shown Pritzker leads Rauner by double digits in a race that has drawn national attention largely for its potentially record-breaking price tag. Rauner, who previously worked in private equity, has donated more than $95 million to his efforts, while Pritzker - heir to the Hyatt hotel fortune with a net worth of $3.2 billion - has funneled $161.5 million of his own money into his campaign. Having never held elective office, Pritzker doesn't have a legislative record but has said he supports raising the minimum wage as well as shifting Illinois to a progressive income tax, though he has not released further details or proposed rates. While Pritzker may have a sizable lead in the polls, that doesn't mean it's wrapped up just yet. Rauner has repeatedly attacked Pritzker - a longtime political donor - on his ties to the so-called "machine," particularly incarcerated former Gov. Rod Blagojevich and House Speaker Michael Madigan. And with just weeks to go before Election Day, 10 current and former Pritzker campaign staffers filed a lawsuit alleging repeated racial discrimination and harassment by the organization - claims Pritzker vehemently denied - in this cycle's own version of an "October surprise." Read more on the candidates here, as well as their answers to 11 policy questions here.
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Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan's 2017 announcement that she would not seek a fifth term in office sent shockwaves through the state’s political circles, and left her high-profile job wide open come November. Emerging from their respective primaries were Democrat Kwame Raoul, Republican Erika Harold, and Libertarian Bubba Harsy. A former prosecutor, Raoul is currently an Illinois state senator who has represented portions of Chicago's South Side since 2004. He has long eyed the attorney general job and beat out seven other candidates, including former Gov. Pat Quinn, to earn the Democratic nomination. Raoul has painted himself as a foil to President Donald Trump's administration and earned the endorsement of former President Barack Obama - whose seat Raoul was appointed to after Obama was elected to the U.S. Senate. He faces GOP nominee Erika Harold, a Harvard-educated former Miss America who unsuccessfully ran for Congress downstate in 2014. Harold announced her candidacy before Madigan revealed she wouldn't run again, currently works as an attorney in Urbana and has emphasized in particular her experience advocating against violence and bullying. The battle between the two has been contentious, with attack ads from both camps up early and often. Raoul has portrayed Harold as a right-wing conservative, highlighting her views, both past and present, opposing the Affordable Care Act, Roe v. Wade and same-sex marriage, among others. For her part, Harold has attacked Raoul for voting to raise the state income tax and by depicting him as entrenched in the so-called "machine," tying him to House Speaker Michael Madigan. Both candidates have vehemently denied the other's allegations. While several polls have placed Raoul ahead of Harold by an average of roughly 10 points, those same polls have shown relatively high numbers of undecided voters in a contest that looks to be closer than the race for governor.
While Rep. Dan Lipinski is all but guaranteed to win re-election to Illinois' 3rd Congressional District, the race remains one to watch for a unique reason: his Holocaust denier and white supremacist opponent. Art Jones, a former leader of the American Nazi Party, ran unopposed in the March Republican primary, racking up more than 20,000 votes to win the GOP nomination. While Jones has unsuccessfully run for elected office several times since the 1970s, appearing on a general election ballot is a significant victory for a candidate who refers to the Holocaust as "the biggest, blackest lie in history" on his campaign website and has praised the leadership of Adolf Hitler. Jones ran for the same district five times before, including in 2016, when he failed to make the ballot after the Illinois Republican Party challenged his petition signatures. In 2017 however, the state GOP declined to challenge Jones' candidacy or run another candidate, clearing his path to the Republican nomination. Just before the March primary, the party denounced Jones, with the chairman saying in a statement that the country has "no place for Nazis like Arthur Jones." There are two write-in candidates, Justin Hanson and Kenneth Yerkes, though Lipinski will almost certainly return to Congress for an eighth term in the seat previously held by his father. Lipinski - a conservative, anti-abortion member of the party - won a narrow 2-point victory over a strong progressive challenger in the Democratic primary for the district, where Hillary Clinton took 55 percent of the vote in 2016. Though the district may be blue, it will be eye-opening to see just how many voters will cast their ballots for a man who has marched with a swastika armband.
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Illinois’ 4th Congressional District is another race where the result has been all but decided even before the ballots have been cast, but it's still an important one to note in understanding Chicago's political landscape. In November, Rep. Luis Gutierrez revealed he would not seek re-election at the end of his 13th term in office. That surprise announcement stunned the city and set off a flurry of speculation, with candidates scrambling to get enough signatures to appear on the ballot before the petition filing deadline less than one week later. One person who wasn't caught off guard by the announcement was Cook County Commissioner Jesus 'Chuy' Garcia, who appeared with Gutierrez at the news conference announcing the outgoing legislator's retirement. That day, Gutierrez endorsed Garcia, a longtime friend and ally, as his chosen successor - a move that appeared to some as a classic backroom deal emblematic of the "Chicago way." Garcia forced Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel into an historic runoff election in 2015, and although he was unsuccessful in that effort, he was widely seen as a mayoral contender once again in 2019 - leaving some to speculate Emanuel may have in some capacity brokered a deal to get Garcia onto a different ballot. But eight months later, when Emanuel himself announced that he too would not be running for re-election, both Gutierrez and Garcia weighed a mayoral campaign before deciding against it. All that aside, come January, the majority-Hispanic 4th District will have a new representative for the first time since 1993, and Gutierrez will no longer be the longest-serving member of Illinois' Congressional delegation - historic in and of itself. Garcia is all but certain to prevail over Republican Mark Wayne Lorch and will likely model his time in Congress after Gutierrez, who has been among the most outspoken immigration advocates and critics of President Donald Trump.
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The race to represent Illinois' 6th Congressional District has garnered plenty of national attention, as it has implications well beyond its suburban boundaries. In 2016, GOP Rep. Peter Roskam held onto his seat even though presidential nominee Hillary Clinton won the district by 7 points - making Roskam a high-profile target for Democrats looking to take back the House. Roskam's work on the GOP's tax reform bill and his votes to repeal Obamacare, plus criticism over his refusal to hold town hall meetings with constituents in person, have been among the issues that spurred seven candidates to jump into the Democratic primary race to unseat him. Emerging victorious was Sean Casten, a scientist and entrepreneur. Casten has highlighted his experience working in the environmental and energy sectors and has made access to healthcare one of his chief issues - running ads attacking Roskam over his votes to repeal the Affordable Care Act. Roskam has launched an offensive against Casten as well, painting him as "another shady Illinois politician," tying him to House Speaker Michael Madigan and criticizing his record as a registered lobbyist, among other lines of attack. The district, largely in DuPage County, has been red for decades, represented by Rep. Henry Hyde from 1975 to 2007 and by Roskam for six terms since. But recent polling released by Casten's campaign showed he has a slim lead over Roskam - between 3 and 5 points, while several analyses show the race leaning Democratic. Should Casten win the district, once a Republican stronghold, it could be a key indicator of the so-called "blue wave" for Democrats, who need to pick up 23 seats across the country to gain control of the House.
While there's plenty of attention on Chicago's suburban areas, don't overlook the races downstate, like Illinois' 12th Congressional District. Encompassing areas like Belleville, Carbondale, East St. Louis and more, President Donald Trump may have won the district by 15 points in 2016 - but that doesn't mean it will be a slam dunk for incumbent GOP Rep. Mike Bost. First elected in 2014 after 20 years in the Illinois House, Bost is running for a third term. While Madison County and the Metro East were once considered Democratic strongholds, the area has trended Republican in recent years. St. Clair County State's Attorney Brendan Kelly is hoping to change that in a race that's drawing national attention - and some big names – to the district. Kelly earned the endorsement of former President Barack Obama – who won the district in 2008 and 2012 – and campaigned with civil rights icon Rep. John Lewis. For his part, Bost is bringing in Trump himself to rally Republican voters. Green Party candidate Randy Auxier is also on the ballot in a race that Cook Political Report has rated "leans Republican." But the race remains tight, with various polls showing Bost leading Kelly by a one-point margin. Something else to consider headed into Election Day: Kelly earned more than 40,000 votes in his primary, compared to Bost's nearly 32,000. The 12th District is the only contested Congressional race where the Democratic challenger in Illinois received more primary votes than the Republican incumbent. Is that a sign of what's to come? Keep an eye out.
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Another race to watch outside the Chicago area is Illinois' 13th Congressional District, where incumbent GOP Rep. Rodney Davis is looking to fend off a challenge from Democrat Betsy Dirksen Londrigan. Similar to the 12th District, the Cook Political Report rated it as a "lean Republican" race in the district that includes parts of Bloomington, Champaign, Decatur, Taylorville and more. President Donald Trump won the district by 6 percent in 2016, but polling shows it's another dead heat with Davis up by a 1-point margin. Londrigan got former President Barack Obama's endorsement as well, while Davis - who has represented the district since 2013 - brought in Vice President Mike Pence to campaign for him. Like Democratic challengers across Illinois and the nation, Londrigan has made access to affordable healthcare and coverage for pre-existing conditions a central part of her platform. The high-stakes battle even allegedly resulted in a physical brawl, as Davis' field director was arrested in August over a reported altercation with another man at an event for Londrigan. Davis' campaign fired the staffer, while the real contest continues at the ballot box.
Illinois' 14th Congressional District is another suburban battleground to watch. Containing parts of DuPage, Kane and Will counties, the district has long been seen as a Republican stronghold - but this time, a Democrat might have a chance. Newcomer Lauren Underwood is challenging incumbent GOP Rep. Randy Hultgren for the seat he's held since the Tea Party wave of 2010. Underwood is a nurse and health policy expert who worked on the implementation of the Affordable Care Act under former President Barack Obama, who has endorsed her in the race. She has a heart condition and has centered her attacks on Hultgren around health care, often saying that she decided to run against Hultgren after he voted for a bill that she says did not include protections for those with pre-existing conditions. Hultgren, who served in the Illinois House and Senate prior to running for Congress, contends that the bill he voted for - the American Health Care Act, which passed the House but narrowly failed in the Senate - did not remove the requirement that insurance companies cover pre-existing conditions. President Donald Trump won the district in 2016 by 3 points - his slimmest margin of victory in all of Illinois' Congressional districts that he won. Earlier this month, Cook Political Report moved its prediction for the race from "lean Republican" to "toss up" and Underwood has a slight cash advantage in the final stretch - outraising Hultgren for the past three quarters, according to FEC filings. If she were to win, Underwood would be the first woman, and the first African-American, to represent the 14th District.
While there's plenty of talk about a possible "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 agenda into a reality. As Gov. Bruce Rauner learned the hard way in the state's historic budget impasse, battling a statehouse controlled by the other party doesn’t often end well. Both Rauner and Democratic challenger J.B. Pritzker have dumped millions into races down the ballot in an effort to boost turnout but also in hopes of swinging the legislature in their favor. 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 have a huge impact on all Illinois residents. Click here to read about the statehouse races you should be watching.
While it may not be for several months, the Chicago mayoral election is still one to watch on election night, even this early. The race stole a bit of thunder from the midterms when Mayor Rahm Emanuel announced in September that he would not seek a third term, setting off a flurry of speculation and prompting several new candidates to join the already crowded field. At least one of those candidates - Toni Preckwinkle - is on the ballot this time around, seeking her third term as Cook County Board President. But she hopes to soon abandon that post if her run for mayor is successful. Two more potential candidates for Chicago mayor are also up for re-election to different offices this cycle - Illinois Comptroller Susana Mendoza and state Rep. LaShawn Ford. Mendoza has been rumored to be considering a run, particularly after Jesus 'Chuy' Garcia and Rep. Luis Gutierrez turned it down, leaving an opening for a strong Latino candidate. Fueling speculation, Mendoza's latest television ads have prominently featured Chicago, despite the fact that she's running statewide. Ford, who has represented portions of Chicago's West Side and surrounding suburbs since 2007, has all but announced his campaign for mayor, saying on several occasions that a coalition of African-American leaders have encouraged him to run. No matter who wins the race for Chicago mayor, they'll have to work closely with whoever wins the race for governor - a relationship that can be acrimonious at times, as Emanuel and Gov. Bruce Rauner have demonstrated on several occasions. To that end, you should keep an eye on all the candidates for mayor to see who might attend which election night events. While most of the 17 declared candidates are Democrats, former Chicago Police Supt. Garry McCarthy made an appearance alongside Rauner at a September fundraiser for Illinois House GOP Leader Jim Durkin - so they could show up just about anywhere. But many of the Democrats will likely be drawn to their party's nominee J.B. Pritzker, who leads by double digits in several polls, and as a largely self-funding billionaire, might just be willing to spread some of his wealth to his preferred mayoral candidate come February. Read more about the declared candidates for mayor here.
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