Darren Bailey never had much chance of becoming Illinois governor – the race was called for incumbent JB Pritzker minutes after polls closed – but locally he may have helped the GOP to a big night.
Bailey won about 59% of the vote in La Salle, Bureau and Grundy counties and an analysis of the returns and canvass suggests a growing GOP hold on the Illinois Valley. Though past Republicans have fared poorly in the municipalities, Bailey altered that narrative and claimed Mendota, Streator and, to a lesser extent, Oglesby.
Ottawa Democrat Lance Yednock was the exception that proved the rule. Although Yednock defeated Republican challenger Jason Haskell, Yednock’s district includes neither Mendota nor Streator and Haskell held his own in Oglesby, where he narrowly took one precinct from Yednock.
Is the Illinois Valley turning increasingly red?
“I think in more rural territories, for sure it is,” Yednock said. “Democrats have to talk to working class voters on their terms. I think the Democratic Party has become more about social issues and less about economic issues.”
Bailey took advantage of the changing landscape and so did some local Republicans who delivered upsets. Among the surprise results were:
Incumbent Lori Bongartz, an Ottawa Democrat, lost to Republican newcomer Jennifer Ebner, who largely tracked Bailey’s precinct wins. Only in eight precincts did Ebner win and Bailey lose or vice versa.
La Salle County Board
Republican Jason Helland unseated La Salle County Circuit Judge Christina M. Cantlin, an Ottawa Democrat, by winning all three counties despite Cantlin’s widespread name recognition and campaign cash advantage
Did Bailey help the down-ballot Republicans?
“I’m surprised at the local vote in La Salle County for Bailey,” said La Salle County State’s Attorney Joe Navarro, an Ottawa Democrat who pledged to work with Ebner and the reshuffled board. “Be that as it may, I am concerned about Christina (Cantlin). I would have thought she would have won easily.”
Hicks said the county’s political complexion had been changing well before Bailey came along, thanks in no small part to the dwindling number of young, first-time candidates willing to run on the Democratic ballot. The Republicans held a 17-12 majority heading into the election and now will improve their majority to 18-11.
“The County Board has been predominantly Republican for at least 10 years and I did not expect that to change,” Hicks said.
Two Republicans pushed back against the notion Bailey provided any significant down-ballot push. Don Jensen, Republican chairman of the La Salle County Board, said he didn’t believe Tuesday’s results would have changed much if the Republican gubernatorial nomination had gone to someone other than Bailey.
“The GOP success that we had here in La Salle County was due in large part to the energetic, enthusiastic campaigning by the various candidates and the volunteers that helped them,” Jensen said.
Similarly, Helland disavowed getting any down-ballot help.
“I won. As simple as that,” Helland wrote in a Facebook post. “I didn’t ride anyone’s coattails to get elected. I walked door to door to over 7,500 houses since May and the results showed. The hardest-working candidate wins every time. I got outspent $150,000 to $25,000 and won huge.”
Bailey was, however, expected to perform well in the Illinois Valley area. He visited repeatedly and courted law enforcement by denouncing the SAFE-T Act, an overhaul of the criminal justice statutes that has been widely opposed by police.
Former La Salle County Sheriff Tom Templeton, a Peru Republican, had supported a Bailey primary opponent but nonetheless stood with Bailey in opposing the SAFE-T Act.
Templeton said Bailey’s local success is owed to more than just “Back the Blue,” however. Bailey’s positions on the economy, the Second Amendment and abortion resonated with conservative voters in the Illinois Valley, if not to the northeast.
“That was never going to fly in the suburbs, however,” Templeton said.