As Democrats regroup, Republicans eye making southern Illinois a stronghold | St. Louis Public Radio

As Democrats regroup, Republicans eye making southern Illinois a stronghold

Jun 5, 2012

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, June 5, 2012 - Illinois is often viewed as a Democratic stronghold, thanks in large part to the party's strength in the Chicagoland area and parts of downstate Illinois.

While few expect Illinois to be competitive in the 2012 presidential sweepstakes -- Barack Obama is, after all, a native son -- the 2010 election cycle saw a shift in the GOP's fortunes. Not only did Republicans capture Obama's U.S. Senate seat, they also captured several U.S. House seats in and around suburban Chicago.

After this November's election, Illinois Republicans could hold the nearly unprecedented distinction of representing most of central and southern Illinois in Congress. Republicans are optimistic about chances, most especially in the Metro East's 12th congressional district.

That's particularly the case after Brad Harriman – a former St. Clair County regional superintendent – unexpectedly dropped out of the race due to health problems. Some high-profile Democratic candidates have decided against seeking the nomination, creating uncertainty about a seat that's been in the Democratic Party for decades.

In fact, Rothenberg Political Report – a Washington, D.C., group that handicaps congressional races – moved the 12th District race on Friday from a pure “tossup” to a contest that “tilted Republican.”

Republicans are also hopeful about the 13th and 17th districts, seats that like the 12th extend into Metro East. Their optimism was expressed by U.S. Rep. John Shimkus, a Collinsville Republican strongly favored to win re-election in the reconfigured 15th District. Republican optimism is linked to changing politics of southern Illinois, an area that’s become more conservative in recent years.

For one thing, Shimkus said, state and national Republicans, he said, “are all in” for Jason Plummer’s campaign. They’re also enthused about the prospects of GOP candidates in other downstate districts.

“We’re very excited. (Plummer’s) here (in DC) right now. He was in the first round of [the National Republican Congressional Committee's] Young Guns program, which is 12 candidates picked nationally based on the criteria of name ID, work ethic, money raised and the dynamics of the district,” explained Shimkus.

“I think it was a very successful trip and we’re pumped about his candidacy,” he added, noting that Plummer “has worked the district hard and he’s been all over.”

Democrats say they still have time to find a replacement for Harriman. And that candidate could see assistance from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which like the NRCC provides support for  the party's House candidates.

And despite rosy internal poll numbers about U.S. Rep. Bobby Schilling’s chances in the 17th District, the freshman Republican may very well face a tough challenge in a battlefield made more Democratic through redistricting. 

Opportunity knocks

A Republican triumph in the downstate Illinois may have seemed unlikely just a few months ago. One reason is that the 12th, 13th and 17th districts came out to lean Democratic after Illinois’ redistricting process.

Both Harriman and 17th District Democratic nominee Cheri Bustos were placed in the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s “Red to Blue program,” which provides candidates with outside resources and organization. And Democrats had high hopes about the 13th District, especially after Greene County State's Attorney Matt Goetten entered the race for the seat.

Democrats were also helped by political history. The 12th District – which includes portions of Madison and St. Clair counties – has been in Democratic hands for decades, as had the 17th District before 2010. And the reconfigured 13th District placed Republican U.S. Rep. Tim Johnson in profoundly unfamiliar territory.

But several events have heartened Republican expectations.

First was Harriman’s withdrawal in the 12th, which leaves Democrats without a candidate to campaign across the sprawling 12-county district.

Then, in the 13th District, Goetten lost the Democratic nomination to David Gill, a doctor who had run several times unsuccessfully against Johnson. Johnson ultimately decided not to run for re-election, and Republican county officials picked Rodney Davis, an aide to Shimkus, to take his place.

Nathan Gonzales, the deputy editor of the Rothenberg Political Report, said Democrats are in a tough situation since Goetten didn’t win the primary.

“Gill’s nomination in [the 13th District] sucked all the enthusiasm out of the room for Democrats in D.C. in terms of trying to take over that seat,” Gonzales said. “We do have to see how Davis performs as a candidate. I know he’s well respected, well regarded as a campaign aide and as a fundraiser for the party. But we’ll have to see how he performs a candidate."

But, he added, "Republicans can take comfort in knowing how Gill is as a candidate in that he’s lost multiple times.”

Gill is not mentioned on the DCCC's "Red to Blue" list.

David Yepsen, a former columnist for the Des Moines Register who now works at the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, said Republican emergence in traditionally Democratic congressional districts can be attributed to the changing political climate of the area.

“This region becoming more conservative,” Yepsen said. “The Democrats that get elected tend to be conservative, especially on some social issues – abortion, gun rights. In Costello’s case, he was elected in a different era. And that district was drawn for him. So when he gets out, then some other Democrat has got to do it. And then Harriman gets out. It’s not an easy task to put together a winning effort here.”

Another factor that could be pushing against Democratic chances, he said, is the better opportunities for pickups in other parts of the state. In suburban Chicago, Democrats are optimistic that Tammy Duckworth can upend incumbent U.S. Rep. Joe Walsh, R-McHenry, and that Brad Schneider can beat U.S. Rep. Robert Dold, R-Kenilworth.

Schilling -- a northern Illinois Republican who unexpectedly captured the 17th District in 2010 -- may have the most challenging path to re-election. Shimkus noted that Obama could be up by as many as 20 points in the district, a figure that may trickle down to other races.

The Cook Political Report moved the district recently from "leaning Democratic" to a "toss-up."

Shimkus added that Schilling's background may help him in a "tough" re-election fight.

“Obama’s up in that district by maybe 20 points,” said Shimkus. “Bobby [Schilling] is a unique individual who used to be a union steward, left to become a small businessman, had 10 kids. He’s a man of faith. No one dislikes him. I just think he’s one of these unique guys that can sell who he is to the constituency.”

But despite the favorable survey, Gonzales  said Schilling's re-election bid will not be easy.

"Bustos is going to be a good candidate, and that’s going to be an extremely difficult race for Schilling based on the district that Democrats drew for him," said Gonzalez. "So I actually believe that Schilling is an underdog in the race."