DECATUR — National news media have largely focused the fight for U.S. House control in suburban Congressional districts, where the most competitive races are and President Donald Trump's support is being closely watched. But political observers say that narrative does not fit the 13th Congressional District, where voters on Tuesday will decide a race just as tight as any in the suburbs.
“I think you can argue the electorate in the 13th has changed,” said Kent Redfield, professor emeritus of political science at the University of Illinois Springfield.
Losses of unionized manufacturing jobs and the out-migration of residents “has not been the friend of the Democrats in terms of this area, and more progressive national politics are not as attractive as in the suburban districts," he said.
The race between Taylorville Republican Rodney Davis and Democratic challenger Betsy Dirksen Londrigan, of Springfield, is one of a handful of key contests in play next week as Republicans seek to defend their majority and control of Congress.
It is a tight contest: A New York Times phone poll of 501 people from Oct. 21-25 gave Davis 46 percent of the vote and Londrigan 41 percent, with a 4-6 percent margin of error. In a largely rural district that also includes several large universities, from Southern Illinois University Edwardsville to Illinois State University in Normal, the same poll showed a dead heat between voters who approved of Trump’s performance as president and those who disapproved.
For a moderate district that Trump carried by five points two years ago, it’s unclear how many up-for-grab voters there are that will flock to Londrigan’s message. She has focused heavily on health care and fortifying the Affordable Care Act, the legislation former President Barack Obama and Democrats pushed through in 2009 with no Republican support.
The thousands of left-leaning students and employees in the region’s universities, “these are people who never would've voted for Trump,” said Brian Gaines, professor of political science at the University of Illinois’ Institute of Government and Public Affairs. “They’re appalled he won, but that's not the kind of suburban voter who swings both ways.”
The larger demographic trends in Central Illinois, where more residents are leaving than coming, are changing the political realities of statewide races as well. With rural voters becoming more reliably Republican in recent decades.
“In terms of the focus of the Democratic Party, that has shifted more to the (Chicago) suburbs than was the case 20 or 30 years ago," he said.
National Democrats and Republicans are pouring millions of dollars into the battleground district for candidates. Republicans are trying to protect one of their own in the House, whereas Democrats see an opportunity to flip one of at least 23 seats necessary to regain a majority in the House.
Pivotal races are in Minnesota, Virginia, Ohio and New Jersey. One of the closest is in Kentucky, where third-term Republican Rep. Andy Barr is fighting Democrat Amy McGrath. In Florida, the retirement of longtime Miami-area U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen has touched off national interest.
In Illinois, Davis is one of four GOP congressman fighting for re-election, and all have received attention from party leaders and fundraising. Former Vice President Joe Biden campaigned in the northern suburbs on Wednesday and Obama is scheduled to headline a rally today in Chicago.
Trump also was in southern Illinois last week campaigning for two-term Rep. Mike Bost, of Murphysboro, and Vice President Mike Pence campaigned for Davis at a Springfield event in October. The Republican National Committee has made more than 600,000 voter contacts in Illinois, the party said.
Officials in Macon County know it’ll be vital to get voters to the ballot in case of a close race. In 2016, the 47,015 Macon County votes in the district were the third-highest of any of the district’s 14 counties, behind only Champaign and Madison, according to the Illinois State Board of Elections.
It looks as through the county could weigh heavily on the final results of the race, as 8,888 grace, early, and mail-in ballots have been cast at the Macon County Clerk's office as of Friday afternoon, according to Clerk Steve Bean. That's more than the 6,290 of ballots submitted before the 2014 midterm election, but still below the 13,811 such ballots that were cast before the 2016 presidential election.
Unlike past races where Davis has won comfortably in the Decatur area, Macon County Democratic Party Chairman Jim Underwood sees a massive groundswell of support for Davis’ Democratic opponent. With Londrigan, Underwood said he is seeing an organized ground game that he has never seen from any candidate to go against the incumbent Republican.
“I think it’ll be one of the closest races in the country, and I think it may very well come down to the ground game,” Underwood said. “(The Londrigan campaign is) better organized, they’ve brought in well-experienced staffers, they’re very good at getting volunteers. It’s just a better organization than I’ve seen in the congressional races.”
On the other end of the spectrum, Macon County Republican Party Chairman Bruce Pillsbury said he is bullish that Republicans will be able to mount a “red wave” to push back any Democratic effort to unseat Davis, yet agreed that turnout will be vital to keeping the seat.
In the three-term incumbent, Pillsbury said the party has a candidate who knows Macon County well and will fight for its best interests in Washington.
“He’s here, he’s been here many, many times,” Pillsbury said. “You hear him on the radio and see him on TV and in person at a lot of events. I think that will be a big factor.”
The statewide races
Then there's the other high-profile contest: The race for the Illinois governor's mansion.
Once the base of Illinois’ Republican Party, the Chicago suburbs have increasingly turned to the Democrats, thanks in part to a rise in racial minorities living there. Now downstate counties, once a reliable base for pro-labor Democrats a generation ago, play an important role in statewide races for Republicans.
"Voters small communities — rural voters —they've shifted more conservative and a lot of the traditional working-class Democratic vote has diminished over time," Redfield said.
While polls show Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner trailing Democratic challenger J.B. Pritzker by margins as high as 22 points, observers see Republican Champaign Attorney Erika Harold as having a fighting chance in the attorney general’s race against Chicago Democratic state Sen. Kwame Raoul.
“In Harold's case she can (say), ‘It's me against the Chicago Democrats,” Redfield said, with Rauner’s prospects not looking good. “Most people don't understand what the attorney general does and the limits of their power, but it's an effective message, so I think that explains why she's doing well in relative terms.”
In Central Illinois, party leaders are doing their best to get residents to know the attorney general candidates and understand the stakes of holding the office.
For Pillsbury, electing Harold will allow Republicans to have a watchdog in office that will keep Democratic leaders like House Speaker Michael Madigan in check. With her previous run against Davis in the 2014 Republican primary election, Pillsbury said she has developed some name recognition with local Republicans.
That is not necessarily the case for the Raoul, who has spent his 14-year political career representing the Chicago-area Senate district formerly held by Obama.
“Probably not as much as I would like,” Underwood said when asked whether Raoul had name recognition with local residents. “I think that’s the disadvantage with someone who is not from this area … but I think people are starting to pay more attention to that race and it’s getting more publicity. And I’m hopeful that if anyone doesn’t know Kwame Raoul, they’ll know before they vote in the next couple of days.”
Contact Ryan Voyles at (217) 421-7985. Follow him on Twitter: @RVVoyles