The 1998 gubernatorial race in the state of Illinois was a contest unlike any other the state, or the nation, has seen recently. Featuring incumbent Secretary of State George Ryan (REP), and 19th district Rep. Glenn Poshard (DEM), the policies, campaigning styles, and coalitions of the race are quite fascinating, and represent a throwback to a time when personal candidate qualities held much more impact than is true at present.
Here is an old map of mine that details the breakdown of votes by county and congressional district at the time (Illinois had 20 then, and will now only have 17 after the 2020 redistricting cycle).
This map looks alien to any modern observer of Illinois politics – today, Democrats gather their strength from dark-blue Cook County/Chicago and its vote-rich suburban collar. Today, Republicans are outnumbered and outgunned, relying on increasingly insufficient numbers of votes from rural and small-town Illinois. The 1998 race flips this on its head, as one can see Republican George Ryan sweeping suburban Cook County and the collar counties, while Poshard, the Democrat, dominated in his Bible Belt 19th district.
Democrats of the South
At the time, southern Illinois was not uniformly blue or red – many areas were blue, such as Belleville, East St. Louis, Cairo, Carmi, Shawneetown, and countless other small towns – and many areas were red, namely the counties of Wayne and Edwards and most rural areas in between the smaller towns. They were all united in supporting strong candidates of either party though and held highly elastic electorates. Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton alike did very well in these areas, and one can visibly see that Poshard held up similarly during his gubernatorial run. The 19th district which he represented gave him over 70% of the vote. A Democrat winning this district today at all is unthinkable, let alone by 40 points – it is full of Evangelical conservative Christians and rural farmers, precisely the types of voters who Democrats have been bleeding for years. Max TMCC’s map shows that not even the great Midwestern Democrat of our time, Barack Obama himself, could win many of these counties against someone widely seen as a lunatic, Mr. Alan Keyes. The right graphic of the map shows Jesse White, Illinois’s famed secretary of state, also failing to win most counties in the 19th district’s area. These trends go to show that the Democrats of southeastern Illinois in the 1990s had quite a different political outlook than they do today.
The Democratic brand was strong enough that even with Poshard vacating the 19th in 1998, State Rep. David D. Phelps (DEM) won the seat and held it easily in 2000. As you can see in another one of my old maps below, his brand of fiscal populism and social conservatism typical of southeastern Illinois Democrats proved highly popular. Only staunchly Republican Wayne and Edwards County voted against him. These maps taken together with the fact that Al Gore still won around 41% of the vote in the 19th, go to show that there was indeed a large minority of rural Illinois voters that identified as Democrats, and an even larger majority of voters that were willing to vote for someone with a Democrat behind their name.
Republicans of the North
While southern Illinois was home to certain specialized classes of Democrats, northern Illinois was bathed in crimson for decades. Many congressional districts here embraced the legacy of Illinois’s most famous export to the nation, President Abraham Lincoln, voting time and again for representatives of the old free-labor conservatism popular among the farms and fields of the rural north. This legacy was best represented by Senate Minority Leader Everett Dirksen, a principled conservative with an occasional moderate and conciliatory streak. Dirksen’s most famous act was shepherding the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 through the Senate, ensuring equality before the law for all races.
The Republican coalition of the 1990s built on the legacy of Dirksen, while also building a fortress in the suburbs of Chicago. In the 1960s and 1970s, desegregation in the city of Chicago led to a large racially motivated exodus of white voters from the city into newly-built exclusionary suburbs. Republicans combined their old fiscal conservatism with a dollop of racial reaction to create the first versions of what we know today as modern conservatism (see Princeton historian Kevin Kruse’s book, White Flight, about similar developments in Atlanta). As more people moved to the Chicago area for economic or quality-of-life reasons, Republicans developed a stronger suburban machine. Names such as Dennis Hastert, Phil Crane, Henry Hyde, and others became stalwarts of the Illinois Republican Party. Precinct data does not exist that far back, but my good friend Harrison Lavelle mapped the 2016 race in Illinois’s 10th district, which traded hands between Democrat Brad Schneider and Republican Bob Dold for three cycles.
Schneider underperformed the top of the ticket by over 20 points, and barely flipped the seat which he has held easily. And this was in 2016. So nearly two decades ago, this seat was blood red. Anchored in northern Cook County and part of Lake County, this seat mirrors the trajectory of Chicago’s collar counties writ large. It is these voters that were George Ryan’s primary base. Today, we know them as Democrats but the partisan realignment that turned them blue had not yet begun in earnest. There was no Barack Obama or Donald Trump to force voters to pick a side of the culture war to fight on. And so, we now know that the Chicago collar was what I like to call rock-ribbed Republican.
It was to this clientele then, that Ryan pitched his campaign. Appearing at gay pride parades and backing some modest proposals for gun control, he connected with the culturally liberal voters of Chicagoland much more than Poshard did. On the flip side, Ryan basically ceded all of southern Illinois to Poshard. So with the party bases nicely mixed up, let’s see how things shook out.
Broadly Carol Moseley Braun only outperformed Poshard in Chicagoland. Poshard did better almost uniformly in outstate Illinois. However, inside Chicago proper, looking at the ward data, there were thousands of voters who voted for Moseley Braun for Senate and Ryan for Governor, precisely in the same stretch of lakefront where there were Clinton/Kirk voters in 2016. Those areas have the darkest blue overperformance for Moseley Braun. The only areas where Poshard outperformed Moseley Braun in Chicago are neighborhoods and wards known for hosting large populations of culturally conservative whites. In particular, the neighborhoods of Mount Greenwood, Garfield Ridge, Clearing, West Lawn, and Bridgeport all stand out. These are areas that punch above their weight in Chicago politics and have historically been stomping grounds of the old Daley and Madigan machines that historically dominated the state. The voters here are demographically similar to many of the voters who fled the suburbs amid segregation and the blackening of the southern wards – and thus it would make sense that they would not connect with Moseley Braun, an African-American Senate candidate.
These precinct maps, I hope, show that there is one truism of politics in Illinois that has been true for a while: you cannot win a statewide election in Illinois on a platform of social conservatism anymore. Even the Republicans who have won statewide recently (see Mark Kirk and Bruce Rauner) are more similar to moderate northeastern Republicans in temperament than the fire-breathing Hitler-quoting Republicans of downstate like current 15th district Rep. Mary Miller. Some final thoughts are below.
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