On election night 2002, hundreds of Illinois Democrats–politicians, supporters and activists–crowded into the Finkl Steel plant on Chicago’s near North Side. They munched Chicago-style dogs, pounded cans of Old Style beer and waited expectantly for confirmation of what everyone already suspected: Illinois Democrats had kicked ass. Rod Blagojevich (whose father had worked at Finkl Steel) had beaten Attorney General Jim Ryan to become the first Democratic governor in twenty-five years. Democrats swept the rest of the state’s races, ending the night in control of both houses of the legislature and every statewide office but treasurer. At 11 pm Blagojevich took the stage to the sounds of his favorite musician, Elvis, and told the crowd he was “all shook up” and filled with “a whole bunch of hunka-hunka burnin’ love for each one of you!” It was a corny line, but the crowd was too euphoric to notice.
I went home buzzing with excitement, having almost forgotten I’d neglected to check the returns from outside the state. It wasn’t until I listened to a series of increasingly dejected messages from my brother that I realized what a disaster the night had been.
Such is the state of politics in Illinois: a bizarro-world inverse of the rest of the country, where Democrats dominate all branches of government, set the debate and drive policy, while Republicans are beset by nasty, public intramural squabbles between moderates and extremists and grasp for a coherent message. Election night 2004 looked a lot like the one we rang in at Finkl Steel: Barack Obama won his Senate seat by a forty-three-point margin over Alan Keyes, and newcomer Melissa Bean, a businesswoman from the suburbs of Chicago, defeated Phil Crane, the longest-serving Republican incumbent in the House. In the wake of the almost-too-awful-to-watch spectacle of Keyes’s candidacy (whose intent, one Republican quipped to me, seemed to be to get the lowest percentage of the vote possible), the state GOP is practically on life support.
It wasn’t always like this. For much of the twentieth century, Illinois was the quintessential swing state, the Ohio of its day. Its state government tilted toward moderate Republicans. It voted for the winner in the presidential election twenty-one of twenty-four times in the twentieth century through 1996, going for Reagan in 1980 and 1984, George Bush I in 1988 and Clinton in 1992 and 1996. The rock-ribbed Republican suburban “collar” counties around Chicago canceled out the heavily Democratic city, leaving the fate of statewide elections to the fiercely independent voters downstate. Now the state looks like a Democratic lock–Gore and Kerry both won it by double-digit margins–and in these dark days you’ve got to wonder, How did this happen? And are there any lessons to be gleaned for Democrats elsewhere?
Local observers use the term “perfect storm” to describe the confluence of disparate factors that has produced such a true-blue state, but it’s clear that demographic changes account for much of the transformation. Over the past decade, both Chicago and its surrounding suburbs have been getting progressively more Democratic as a result of the widespread migration of black and Latino families into the collar counties, an influx of immigrants and the rightward tilt of the national GOP on social issues, which has alienated many suburban moderates. Also, as John Judis and Ruy Teixeira argue in their book The Emerging Democratic Majority, the transition of the regional economy from manufacturing to service and technology has brought with it a substantial number of professionals with graduate degrees, a group that increasingly forms a bedrock Democratic constituency.
Regrettably, Illinois’s freshly minted suburban Democrats can’t be exported to red states to help pad the party’s margins. But demographic changes are far from the whole story behind Illinois’s political makeover; the indicted former Republican Governor George Ryan has a lot to do with it as well. “What has caused the collapse really goes back to corruption,” says Dan Proft, president of the conservative journal Illinois Leader. “It goes back to a former governor who’s awaiting federal trial; it goes back to more than seventy convictions of people from Ryan’s administration in the last three years. It really goes back to a systematic undercurrent of corruption that’s been part of Illinois politics for a long time.”