Election 2022: How did the abortion issue play out in northern Illinois races?

Gov. JB Pritzker speaks at a campaign-sponsored news conference Tuesday, saying abortion rights will be a central issue in the 2022 elections.

In races up and down the Nov. 8 ballot, Illinois Democrats seized and campaigned on the U.S. Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision in June, overturning the 49-year-old Roe v. Wade ruling, saying only they could protect women’s rights.

In contrast, Republican candidates hammered their opponents on the economy, inflation and crime, including the SAFE-T Act.

Which campaign approach actually motivated voters to the polls, however, seems to indicate that abortion access was a bigger issue than anticipated on the county, state and national stage.

Illinois Gov. JB Pritzker, left, speaks as his Republican challenger state Sen. Darren Bailey, right, listens during the Illinois Governor's Debate on the stage in Braden Auditorium at the campus of Illinois State University in Normal, Ill., Thursday, Oct.6, 2022 (Ron Johnson/Illinois State University via AP, Pool)

John T. Shaw, director of the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University Carbondale, said pollsters and Republicans across the county believed crime and inflation were “the twin issues that would shape the election.”

Abortion, Shaw said, was likely a larger issue propelling voters than pollsters accounted for.

“It is unclear if this is the fault of polling or if people were propelled by that issue but didn’t want to disclose that to pollsters,” Shaw said.

Attendees rally for reproductive rights during a protest on Monday, July 4, 2022 at the corner of First Street and Lincoln Highway in downtown DeKalb. The Independence Day gathering was organized to protest a recent ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn Roe v. Wade, which protected access to abortion under federal law.

Nationally, according to The Associated Press Votecast survey, nearly half of voters named the economy as their top issue and those voters backed Republicans over Democrats.

No other issue came close, the AP report said, but many other issues were named most important by about 1 in 10 voters, including abortion, health care, climate change and gun policy.

On those issues, Democrats outpaced Republicans by at least 3 to 1.

Abortion then became the issue candidates either ran with, or downplayed, before Tuesday.

Pulling back on abortion issues may have hurt some Republican candidates, said Amy Gehrke, executive director of Illinois Right to Life.

“It is clear that [Illinois] extremist abortion laws could be an issue for pro-life candidates and Republicans ran from this issue, a gargantuan mistake,” Gehrke. It was “timidness from Republican candidates on the issue that was their undoing.”

Democrats did not pull back.

Gov. JB Pritzker attacked Republican state Sen. Darren Bailey on his anti-abortion record. U.S. Sen. Tammy Duckworth did the same in her race against Mundelein attorney Kathy Salvi.

“Sen. Bailey was the wrong candidate or matchup for suburban and city women,” former Republican gubernatorial candidate and state Sen. Kirk Dillard of Hinsdale told the Daily Herald.

“In a year where Democrats made abortion its major issue, Darren was too pro-life for many as he was not for exceptions for rape or incest. ... Sen. Bailey was a bad match up for this year’s issues for suburban women and he was up against a billionaire willing to spend whatever it took to win,” Dillard said.

When asked what brought them out to the polls Tuesday, some voters cited reproductive policy.

Delfina Lopez of Joliet, who brought her three children to the polls, voted Tuesday to set a good example to her children and to support women’s rights.

“I felt women’s right were taking steps backwards instead of taking steps forward,” Lopez said.

Lopez said she was born in the U.S., but her parents were immigrants. So she wanted her children, ages 13, 11 and 8, to understand the importance of voting and that they had the right to vote.

“I think that’s not always taught in the immigrant community,” Lopez said.

DeKalb resident Tracy Diehl voted at Real Connection Church on South Malta Road. “Women’s reproductive rights is very important,” Diehl said. “I really scrutinized the candidates’ platforms to make sure that I understood what their standpoints were on that particular issue.”

Overall, voters said they were most concerned about woman’s rights in the wake of the U.S Supreme Court overturning Roe v. Wade, decades-high inflation that’s driven up the cost of essential items and education.

Judy Zink said she had many issues on her mind when she went to the polls, including climate change, abortion and the economy, but didn’t know what she would consider the most important.

Anastacio Salazar of Joliet also didn’t specify a single issue. “I came to vote to make sure my voice is heard,” Salazar said.

Some candidates took a harder line on abortion than others.

Dan McConchie, Illinois Senate minority leader from Senate District 26, spent over a decade working in various communication roles with the anti-abortion organization Americans United for Life. McConchie criticized Pritzker in the summer when the governor advocated for expanding abortion rights, saying it would “push Illinois to the utter extreme on abortion policy.”

In interviews with the Northwest Herald before Tuesday, McConchie, however, denied having any current relationship with Americans United for Life.

As of Wednesday, he was leading his opponent, Maria Peterson, but the race still was not decided. Unofficial results so far are showing McConchie has 43,353 votes to Peterson’s 41,415 votes

During the campaign lead up to the DeKalb County Board race abortion access was a topic debated by several candidates.

In an October League of Women Voters candidate forum, Republican county board candidate Keegan C. Reynolds railed against the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in the Dobbs case.

“It is an overstep of the judicial branch on millions of Americans, and I believe it is also an attack on the United States of America because of the polarization that it is causing amongst the people,” Reynolds said at the time. He also said he believes those who use threatening rhetoric against elected officials should be labeled an enemy of the country.

As of Wednesday, Reynolds appears to have fallen short on the ballot, garnering 1,467 votes, or 20% of the vote, behind incumbent Timothy Bagby, the chairman of the DeKalb County Republican Party, and Democrat newcomer Amber Quitno.

Democrats may be set to take the majority of that 24-seat body, as three Republican incumbents appear to have lost their reelection bids.

Protestors line up outside of the Old Lee County Courthouse in Dixon on Saturday, June 25, 2022 to show their disapproval of the Supreme Court’s reversal of abortion rights. The court announced Friday the reversal of Roe vs. Wade. Protesting have popped up across the country and included the rally at the courthouse in Dixon on Saturday and Sunday.

In the Sauk Valley, candidates with strong stances advocating for abortion rights fared poorly according to unofficial vote tallies.

But it might have been indicative of Republican dominance in the region, even in county board elections where abortion is not a candidate issue. Voters chose to have the Whiteside County board lean more Republican and favored Republican incumbents in Lee County.

Eric Sorensen, the victor in the race for the 17th District U.S. House seat, was unequivocal in his support of women’s choice on the campaign trail. In an interview in August with Shaw Media, Sorensen said:

“We know that there’s so much at stake in this election, because our rights are at stake. A woman’s rights are being taken away. And this is our opportunity as Americans to stand up for it and say, ‘That’s not right.’ We are going to stand up and we’re going to make our vote count.”

His opponent, Esther Joy King, a Republican, said repeatedly she was “pro-life.”

Sorensen got 34.9% of the Carroll County vote and did slightly better in Whiteside County with 44.0%, according to unofficial vote totals.

It isn’t just abortion access that may have motivated voters, said Kent Redfield, a retired political science professor from the University of Illinois-Springfield. Results on Tuesday night – which are not final – also are a result of new election maps drawn after the 2020 census, Redfield said.

Still, he said, Republicans with a message that reaches voters across the spectrum could still win here, he said.

“It goes to the weakness of the statewide Republican Party,” he said. “They had a great candidate for downstate and a terrible candidate for the suburbs and Chicago.”

Shaw Local News Network reporters Denise M. Baran-Unland, Camden Lazenby, Troy Taylor, the Daily Herald and The Associated Press contributed.