President Donald Trump’s commutation of disgraced former Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich has been long-rumored, but many doubted the day would ever arrive. However, lost in the discussion of Blagojevich’s sins is another fact: the end of Blago marked the end of the Illinois Democratic Party’s effective competition downstate. Looking at the trends from 1998 to 2006 shows a clear shift that was completed in 2010 and 2014, and it’s a fascinating look at the rapid decline in the state’s ancestrally Democratic strongholds.
Ryan v. Poshard (1998)
Just four years earlier in 1994, incumbent Republican governor Jim Edgar had won every county but one (the then-Democratic stronghold of Gallatin) in a resounding 64%-34% landslide. Edgar ran strong everywhere in the state but performed the best in the northeastern Chicago suburbs, where he managed to even win Cook County. 1998 would prove to be much closer and it pitted two very different candidates.
The Republicans nominated George Ryan, a Chicagoland resident and the incumbent Illinois Secretary of State. Widely regarded as a moderate, Ryan held liberal views on social issues and more moderate to conservative ones on economic issues. On the Democratic side was Rep. Glenn Poshard, who held the rural 19th congressional district and sought to become the first Democratic governor from downstate since the 1800s. Poshard was fiscally liberal but socially conservative, not an uncommon tendency among midwesterners, but he became the rare Democrat to draw the ire of Chicagoland voters. Why was this? According to polls, Illinois voters didn’t want religion to play a role in government, and Poshard’s devout and public faith turned many of them off. Poshard also faced a major hurdle when he refused to take most campaign money, allowing Ryan to basically spend as he desired, and spend he did – mainly on the issue of gun rights, which Ryan opposed and Poshard supported.
The waning days of the election saw a major scandal involving Ryan’s oversight of driver’s licensing. Poshard pushed hard on this issue, so hard that even some fellow Democrats expressed concern, but it was too little too late – Ryan won the race 51%-48%, a margin of over 120,000 votes. Poshard was able to rout Ryan in the southern end of Illinois, pulling over 80% of the vote in some rural counties, but his performance in Chicagoland was extremely poor – he only beat Ryan 54%-44% in liberal Cook County and lost the highly-populated collar counties by massive margins. With such a mediocre Chicagoland performance, it’s kind of a miracle he even got this close, but his unique appeal downstate helped make the loss at least look somewhat respectable.
Ryan v. Blago (2002)
To say the George Ryan administration is viewed poorly is an understatement. Facing major ethical issues for almost his entire term, Ryan declined to run for re-election and would later earn an extended stay in federal prison on corruption charges. Stepping up to the plate for the Republicans was the unfortunately-named Jim Ryan, a politician from DuPage County and the state’s Attorney General. Jim Ryan had been widely popular, running a landslide 62%-38% victory in 1998, but the scandals of the unrelated George Ryan were an ever-present issue. Even after Jim Ryan went out of his way to trash his predecessor as the worst governor in state history, it was a tall task to ask for another term of Republican rule.
On the Democratic side was a close three-way race. Chicago’s Roland Burris was a big name, having won two different statewide offices (Comptroller and Attorney General). However, he experienced electoral misfortune in recent races, having lost a mayoral campaign in 1995 as well as two Democratic gubernatorial primaries in 1994 and 1998. Paul Vallas, the CEO of Chicago Public Schools, seemed primed to compete with Burris for Chicago-area votes, while Rod Blagojevich was the third candidate, the incumbent representative for the 5th congressional district, based in Cook County.
Facing a major bottleneck in Chicagoland, Blagojevich wisely decided to run up the score downstate. As a result, Blago won nearly every county outside Chicagoland in the primary. Although Vallas would narrowly beat Burris in Cook and nearly sweept the collar counties, he only secured 34.5% of the vote; Blagojevich would emerge victorious with 36.5% of the vote, with Burris finishing a somewhat distant third with 29%.
In another stroke of electoral genius, Blagojevich played off his name In the general election, using the common last name of Ryan to tie the two unrelated Republican politicians together. Blagojevich insisted he would deliver the change Illinois needed after 30 years of Republican rule, shifting away from corruption and towards clean, efficient government – and it worked. While Ryan wasn’t quite blown out like the polls expected, Blago won a decisive majority of 250,000 votes, a 52%-45% statewide margin. As a Chicago resident himself, Blagojevich gained strongly in Cook and the collars, but he also held well in many of the downstate areas that had backed Poshard. In the end, Jim Ryan never stood a chance.
Blago v. Topinka (2006)
Despite his promises of reform, Blagojevich quickly proved to be a divisive figure statewide due to his abrasive and finger-pointy style of governance as well as lingering corruption accusations. Blago was already on shaky ground by only his second year in office and seemed primed to possibly be upset.
The late Judy Baar Topinka, the State Treasurer, was the clear frontrunner on the Republican side. A fiscal conservative and charismatic, colorful figure, Topinka was well-known as the first woman to hold the office, but some elements of the Republican base were hostile to her over her support for abortion rights and, more controversially, LGBT rights, an issue she became especially active and vocal on in her later life. She won her primary with a disappointing 38%, with perennial candidate Jim Oberweis drawing 32% following a series of nasty and false campaign ads against Topinka that led to widespread media rebukes. This was not the performance Republicans were looking for.
In her general election campaign, Topinka ran the alarm bells over Blagojevich, calling him a “ticking time bomb” that would bankrupt Illinois. Despite the prescience of her claims, she failed to gain momentum and Blagojevich proved to be a shrewd campaigner. With a massive war chest, Blago went completely negative on Topinka, depicting her as an unstable and dishonest nutcase as well as a loyalist of the disgraced George Ryan. While it might have been unfair, the ghost of Ryan lived on even four years later and voters couldn’t shake it. All of these ads quickly took a toll, turning a competitive race into an apparent landslide.
Blagojevich would ultimate rout Topinka in November, drawing 49.8% of the vote to Topinka’s 39%. Interestingly, Green Party candidate Rich Whitney pulled 10%, more likely due to voters disliking the major parties than due to his own merit. While Blagojevich bled downstate compared to 2002, his margins somewhat improved in Chicagoland and the northwestern parts of the state.
The end of Blago, 2010, and beyond
Rod Blagojevich would ultimately meet his political end following a series of corruption scandals, the most notable of which was an attempt to sell the Senate seat vacated by President-elect Barack Obama following his 2008 win. The scandal would prove disastrous for the state Democratic party: they narrowly lost the Senate seat to moderate Chicagoland Republican Mark Kirk, ceded the majority of House of Representatives seats, and nearly lost the gubernatorial election to arch-conservative Bill Brady, something that would have been unthinkable even a few years earlier.
Illinois Democrats haven’t been able to recover downstate since Blago’s demise. In 2010, they won the governor’s mansion by just under one percentage point, but lost all of the collar counties and won only three downstate counties by razor-thin margins. In 2014, they lost the governor’s race by four percentage points and won only Cook; even a 16-point landslide (55%-39%) landslide win in 2018 yielded only Cook, the collars, and a handful of downstate counties. Gone are the days where, in a tight election, Democrats can be competitive downstate; it takes a truly major landslide to even make a dent. Democratic strength in Illinois now rests almost entirely in Chicagoland and the northeast while Republican strength is now spread across the vast rural expanse of downstate
Whether or not Democrats can regain their former glory downstate or Republicans can win back Chicagoland has yet to be seen, but for now, the Blago years are a time capsule into an Illinois that used to be – one of unique coalitions and one where both parties ran all across the state.