In the 1990s, DuPage County was an epicenter of Republican politics, the home of GOP powerhouses including conservative icon Henry Hyde, former Illinois Senate President James “Pate” Philip and former Illinois House Speaker Lee Daniels.
The once-impenetrable GOP stronghold was considered purple territory in recent election cycles. But in a watershed moment, Democrats captured the county board chair seat and appeared to hold onto their board majority Nov. 8.
The shift in DuPage is part of a political evolution in suburban areas. Four years after Democrats made significant gains in the region, several of the collar counties turned a darker shade of blue Nov. 8.
Democrats flipped key state House districts in the northwest suburbs. They solidified control of the Lake County Board. The GOP has no representation in Congress from northeastern Illinois. And in DuPage, Democratic state Rep. Deb Conroy became the first woman elected county board chair.
“This is not your grandmother’s DuPage County. It’s not even your mother’s DuPage County,” said Melissa Mouritsen, a political science professor at the College of DuPage.
The Democratic inroads are attributable in part to changing demographics over the past 30 years, political analysts said. Democratic voters have moved from the inner-rung suburbs and Cook County into DuPage, Mouritsen said. But Democrats also have made investments in local political organizations.
“The townships have been super active in generating candidates and getting out the vote and really hustling for the candidates, so I think that that’s had a lot to do with their success,” Mouritsen said.
In the county’s marquee matchup, Conroy received 51% of the vote, besting Hinsdale Republican Greg Hart, a well-financed opponent aided by the GOP establishment.
“With this win, and becoming chair, the first Democratic chair in over 100 years, we can safely say that DuPage County is 100% blue,” said Conroy, who will replace outgoing Chairman Dan Cronin, an Elmhurst Republican.
Conroy’s victory would have seemed next to impossible in another political era.
“I honestly never thought I’d see this day,” said Liz Chaplin, the longest-serving Democrat on the county board. “It came a lot faster than anyone could ever hope for.”
Heading into the 2018 elections, Chaplin was the only member of her party on the board. She initially planned to run for chair but withdrew from the race to support Conroy. Chaplin instead ran for reelection and made history herself Nov. 8 as the county’s only Democrat to win a fourth term.
“Who would’ve thought that in four years we’d have such significant and historic change in DuPage County?” Chaplin said Nov. 9.
In the run-up to election night, Mouritsen said, she would have called the Conroy-Hart race a “tossup.”
“Although Hart had a good ground game, her edge, again, I want to say is, the township organizations,” Mouritsen said. “What Democrats did a good job of – perhaps national-level Democrats could take a page out of their book – is that they all came together behind Deb Conroy.”
Races at the top of the ballot also may have energized voters.
“What helped Deb Conroy very much was turning out the vote for the workers’ rights amendment,” said Mouritsen, referring to a ballot measure intended to codify Illinois workers’ right to unionize. “That turned out a lot of Democrats. And then [Gov. JB] Pritzker. Pritzker, I think helped because there was a lot of enthusiasm for Pritzker. ... Those two things seem to have driven enthusiasm.”
Mouritsen went to Glenbard West High School in Glen Ellyn in the early 1990s, when DuPage “was the land of ‘Pate’ Philip.”
Its tilt now?
“Perhaps we can see that purple shifting into blue,” Mouritsen said.
‘It’s getting bluer’
Democrats picked up two Republican-held seats on the Kane County Board, and they’re confident that mail-in ballots will seal Democratic victories in two other districts.
“Overall, we had a good night in Kane County,” said Mark Guethle, chairman of the Kane County Democrats. “Kane County is blue, and this election cycle proved it’s getting bluer.”
If they hold onto slim leads in Districts 13 and 23, Democrats would have a 16-8 majority on the county board. Democrat Michael Linder has a 32-vote lead over Republican Todd Wallace, but mail-in ballots could trickle in over the next two weeks. In District 23, incumbent Democrat Chris Kious has an 11-vote lead over Republican Gregory Buck, with possibly more mail-in ballots still to count.
Among legislative races, state Rep. Keith Wheeler of Oswego is one of the Republicans who fell Nov. 8. He was redrawn into the 83rd District, losing a large swath of south-central Kane territory that included parts of Sugar Grove, Elburn, Campton Hills and the western portions of Batavia and Geneva townships.
Wheeler, who served four terms in Springfield, was defeated by Democrat Matt Hanson, a former Kane County Board member.
In Lake County, Democrats won every competitive countywide race and secured 14 of the 19 county board seats up for election.
Lauren Beth Gash, a former state lawmaker who now leads the county’s Democratic organization, credited the strong showing to candidate quality and the party’s coordinated turn-out-the-vote efforts. She said the party spent $20,000 on mailings to the households of people identified as sporadic voters to encourage them to support Democrats. The party also maintained a hotline staffed with people who could answer prospective voters’ questions, Gash said.
The GOP response
Some Republicans said Democratic messaging on abortion appeared to resonate with voters after the toppling of Roe v. Wade.
“As much as you think people would want to talk about crime or taxes, one of the biggest issues that kept coming up was abortion,” said Andro Lerario, chairman of the Kane County Republican Central Committee.
He said Republicans will have to work on connecting with voters and getting their message out for the next election.
“We can make it better, but we have to work together,” he said.
DuPage County Board member James Zay agreed.
“We’re not going to give up,” said Zay, a Carol Stream Republican who also heads the DuPage County Republican Central Committee. “We’re going to continue to work hard.”
There were some red anomalies.
Will County Democrats are behind in tight races for sheriff and treasurer. Unofficial vote totals also show the county board shifting to an 11-11 split between Democrats and Republicans. Currently, Democrats have a 14-12 majority on the board. Two seats were eliminated through redistricting.
Daily Herald staff writer Doug T. Graham contributed to this report.