Democrats Turn Out For Chance To Flip GOP Districts

Feb 23, 2018

WNIJ continues to review important races in the upcoming Illinois Primary Election on March 20.  In this Friday Forum, we take a look at three Illinois Congressional Districts where only one of the Republican incumbents faces a primary challenge. Democrats have several hopefuls in the primary balloting in those districts.

Northern Illinois University Political Science Professor Scot Schraufnagel has noted before that incumbency has its advantages.

That may -- or may not -- be the case in the three Illinois Congressional districts we review today.

He also notes that Illinois has a plurality rule in its primaries, as do most states: Whoever gets the most votes wins.

In a race with three or four quality candidates, Schraufnagel explains, the winner may come away with as little as 26 or 27 percent of the vote, which means that more than 70 percent of the voters preferred someone else.

It also means that certain people could create a split that winds up benefiting a different candidate. Two candidates may split the establishment vote, allowing an alternative candidate to come out ahead. Multiple women candidates may split the women's vote, which could open the door for a male candidate.

That means the winner may be the most popular of the field, Schraufnagel says, "but that doesn’t mean anything like he’s supported by a majority of the Democrats in the district.”

The 6th Congressional District covers parts of Cook, DuPage, Lake, Kane and McHenry counties. Five-term incumbent Republican Peter Roskam has no primary challenger, but seven Democrats are seeking the opportunity to take him on in November. They are: Naperville businesswoman Becky Anderson Wilkins, clean-energy entrepreneur Sean Casten, Naperville attorney Carole Cheney, Palatine data analyst Ryan Huffman, Barrington Hills Plan Commissioner Kelly Mazeski, Clarendon Hills attorney Jennifer Zordani, and Lake Zurich attorney Amanda Howland. Howland ran last time, getting 41 percent.

Schraufnagel suggests that Roskam's stance on a major issue may have had an effect on attracting so many Democrats.

“Roskam is one of the architects of the tax-reform legislation that recently passed, and that particular legislation hasn’t been considered very popular," Schraufnagel said.

As far as which way the district leans, he pointed to the Partisan Voting Index, which takes the average vote for president in the previous two election cycles. The 6th District comes out as R+2, meaning it’s a Republican district -- but only by two percentage points.

"So that’s why I think the Democrats are crowding this field," Schraufnagel said. "They see this as a real chance to pick up a seat. Indeed, the Cook Political Report and some others rate this as a toss-up and a very potential Republican loss.”

Candidates for the 6th District Congressional seat are, clockwise from top left, Republican incumbent Peter Roskam and Democrats Carole Cheney, Amanda Howland, Ryan Huffman, Jennifer Zordani, Becky Anderson Wilkins, Kelly Mazeski and Sean Casten.

Schraufnagel sees Sean Casten, Carol Cheney and Kelly Mazeski as frontrunners, based on endorsements and the amount of money they’ve received.

He notes that Mazeski, who’s a chemist and a financial advisor, has been endorsed by four different Democratic U.S. House members.

"Not surprisingly, she has the most contributions on hand," Schraufnagel said, "probably using some of those same contribution networks as some of these people who are endorsing her."

He notes that Sean Casten has gotten the endorsement of people in the clean-energy field. Carole Cheney has been a district office manager for U.S. Rep. Bill Foster, which gives her strong connections.

Schraufnagel points out that Amanda Howland, who has a master’s degree from NIU, won this primary in 2016. "But, of course," he said, "it wasn’t as hotly contested as it is this year."

Ryan Huffman, who is comparatively young at 31, worked briefly in the Obama White House; and Jennifer Zordani was a late entry -- which Schraufnagel sees as a disadvantage.

18th District Republican candidates Darin LaHood, left, and Donald Rients.

The 18th Illinois Congressional District covers central and western Illinois, including all of Jacksonville and Quincy and parts of Bloomington, Peoria, and Springfield. It is represented by Republican Darin LaHood, who took 72 percent of the vote last time. Nevertheless, he has a primary challenger, technology worker Donald Rients who's a pro-life conservative.

"LaHood is not a dyed-in-the-wool conservative Republican," Schraufnagel noted. "He’s more moderate. His father, Ray LaHood, was Secretary of Transportation in the Obama Administration as a Republican."

LaHood first won the seat in the special election to replace Aaron Schock, who used public money to pay for lavish trips and decorating his congressional office.

"I think Rients won’t have the kind of money to spend that LaHood will," Schraufnagel said, "and this should be an easy LaHood victory in the Republican primary.”

Three Democrats have entered the field: high school teacher and coach Brian Deters, farmer Darrel Miller and college history professor Junius Rodriguez. Rodriguez carried the standard last time and got trounced.

18th Congressional District Democratic candidates, from left, Junius Rodriguez, Brian Deters and Darrel Miller

“None of them have been able to muster a lot of traction," Schraufnagel said. "The fact that Rodriguez has run before means he’s got some networking; it means he’s got some volunteer base. He knows all the ins and outs of election laws and so forth. However, there’s also the possibility that, when you run and you lose, you get labeled a loser; so that can work against you."

Darrel Miller is a farmer who ran for Congress in 2014 against Aaron Schock but only got 25 percent of the vote.

Deters is a high school teacher and soccer coach, whose wife works for Caterpillar.

"But this race is really shaping up to be safe for the Republicans," Schraufnagel said. "I really don’t imagine that any of these Democratic challengers is going to have the kind of financial support that LaHood will have.”

U.S. Rep. Rodney Davis

In the 13th District, many experts are saying it -- like the 6th District -- could flip. Incumbent Rodney Davis, a Republican, has no primary challenger.

Five Democrats are running: former Dick Durbin aide Betsy Dirksen Londrigan, former Assistant Attorney General Erik Jones, Navy veteran and university professor Jon Ebel, physician David Gill, and teacher and activist Angel Sides.

Based on political contributions, Schraufnagel believes there is a frontrunner to face Davis.

“That’s Erik Jones," he said. "He’s a former Illinois Assistant Attorney General. He’s got the most cash on hand. He’s been traveling widely throughout the district, doing it the way the textbooks suggest you need to do it – attending community events throughout the district on a regular basis for a considerable amount of time. He seems to have the best handle on the sort of campaign strategies that can produce a winner for the Dems in this race."

13th Congressional District Democratic candidates, from left, Erik Jones, Betsy Dirksen Londrigan, Jon Ebel, Angel Sides, and David Gill.

“Betsy Londrigan is a former Dick Durbin staffer; she’s been endorsed by Durbin and Emily’s List, the group that supports women for public office," Schraufnagel said. "She’s a businesswoman, a community  activist, leader. She’s got the second most amount of cash on hand. I think she’s got the best shot next to Jones."

Also in the race are Jon Ebel, a college professor at UIUC and the only military veteran running; physician David Gill,  almost a non-partisan who has run before; and Angel Sides, a teacher who has been a very strong critic of U.S. election laws.

The question remains: what would be most helpful for Democrats looking to flip the 13th District?

“We know that incumbents have an advantage, and so Rodney Davis starts off with an advantage," Schraufnagel said. "But, depending on the popularity of the president, his missteps, his ability to turn it around and become more popular, and so anything can happen."