Democrat's Election Wins Make Illinois History

Nov 1, 2012

Charles N. Wheeler III
Credit WUIS/Illinois Issues
Unprecedented.

An often overused term, prone  to hyperbole, but a spot-on summary of last month's votes  for the 98th General Assembly, for never before in Illinois history has one political party captured veto-proof majorities in both legislative chambers in the same general election.

Democrats did so, winning 40 Senate seats — the party's most ever — and 71 House seats, leaving shell-shocked Republicans to wonder if anyone caught the number of the bus that hit them.

So much for the GOP's ambitious “Fire Madigan” campaign, which has to rank right up there with the Edsel and New Coke among all-time marketing fiascoes.

Granted, Republican candidates had to run in districts drawn by partisan mapmakers to elect Democrats and in a presidential election in which an Illinoisan — President Barack Obama — headed the Democratic ticket.

But as he did in 1981 and again in 2001, House Speaker Michael Madigan guided his party's cartography last year, but with more spectacular results. True, Democrats retained their legislative majorities in the five elections held under each of the earlier maps, 1982-1990 and 2002-2010, including 1984, when native son Ronald Reagan won a second presidential term atop the GOP ticket. Yet under those maps, the party claimed a three-fifths majority just twice in the Senate — in the elections of 2006 and 2008 — and only once in the House — following the 1990 election. But the party never had those numbers in both chambers simultaneously.

In fact, before the party's successes under the 1981 and 2001 redistrictings, Democrats enjoyed veto-proof majorities in the Senate only twice, following the Great Depression elections of 1934 and 1936, and in the House just once, a lopsided 118-59 margin won in 1964, when candidates for all 177 House seats were forced to run statewide after lawmakers failed to draw court-ordered new districts. Each party nominated 118 candidates, and unfortunately for Republicans, all 118 Democrats were elected in the wake of President Lyndon B. Johnson's landslide victory over Arizona Sen. Barry Goldwater, leaving just 59 spots for the GOP. 

In contrast, Republicans ruled handily from the early 1900s up to the Great Depression, electing veto-proof Senate majorities in 11 out of 14 elections, including a 44-7 edge in 1906, the most one-sided result in state history. The GOP also controlled the House all but two years during that span, although never with the two-thirds majority needed to override a governor's veto under the 1870 Constitution.

In fact, House Republicans never have enjoyed veto-proof numbers.

Taken in the context of a historical record dating back more than a century, the Democratic performance in legislative races is that much more impressive. Its magnitude, however, should not overshadow another noteworthy aspect of last month's voting.

While Madigan was the GOP brain trust's designated bogeyman across the state, party leaders and individual candidates also hoped that the 67 percent increase in income tax rates that Democrats pushed through in the closing hours of a lame-duck session in early January 2011 would be a potent campaign issue that could be used to persuade voters to reject Democrats in general and those who voted to raise taxes in particular.

GOP partisans and their allies in the pundit ranks railed about the underhanded, last-minute, lame-duck fueled vote that snuck through the tax increase with no Republican votes. In particular, they focused on the 59 Democrats who had supported the tax increase last year and now were seeking new terms. Surely, someone who votes to raise constituents' income taxes has to be vulnerable, right?

So, how well did that plan work? Actually, about as well as "Fire Madigan."

Every one of the 59 "yes" votes — 23 senators and 36 representatives — won, most of them without drawing a Republican opponent. Even the 21 contested races weren't close when the votes were counted, with most of the nine senators and 12 House members winning by 10 percentage points or more. The narrowest call in the Senate was Sen. Dave Koehler of Peoria, who won by about 7,000 votes, a 54-46 margin. The tightest House race found Rep. Elaine Nekritz of Northbrook prevailing by almost 4,000 votes, roughly 56 percent of the ballots cast.

While conventional wisdom suggests that voting for higher taxes is political suicide, the record has shown that's simply not true in Illinois. In fact, from the 1969 vote to impose an income tax through five subsequent roll calls to raise or keep higher income tax rates over the next three decades, lawmakers who supported the tax were more likely to be re-elected the next time they appeared before voters than were those voting "no." In all prior cases, though, the roll calls were bipartisan, with support from Democrats and Republicans alike, and came at the request of a Republican governor, undercutting their use as a partisan issue.

Not so in the 2012 campaign, as the tax hike of 2011 was a wholly owned Democratic initiative. Yet not a single one of the "yes" votes lost to a Republican. In fact, the only tax hike supporter defeated at the polls was Sen. Annazette Collins, a Chicago Democrat bested in the March primary by Sen.-elect Patricia Van Pelt Watkins in a battle that had nothing to do with higher taxes and everything to do with Democratic infighting on the city's west side.

Among the victorious Democrats was Rep.-elect Jay Hoffman of Collinsville, a lame duck last January after losing his former seat in 2010 but a 2-to-1 victor on Election Day, coincidentally his 51st birthday.

And how did the opponents fare? Not as well, at least not the Republicans. While all 17 Democrats who voted "no" and sought re-election were successful, six of the 52 Republicans seeking another term were defeated, two by primary challengers and four by Democratic opponents.

Among the losing Republicans was Sen. Carole Pankau of Itasca, a 20-year legislative veteran who fell roughly 2,000 votes short of Sen.-elect Thomas Cullerton of Villa Park in a newly crafted district anchored in northern DuPage County.

And when was the last time DuPage County sent a Democrat to the Illinois Senate?

As the man said:

Unprecedented.

Charles N. Wheeler III is director of the Public Affairs Reporting program at the University of Illinois Springfield.

Illinois Issues, December 2012