President Donald Trump visited an Illinois county last week that was once considered a Democratic Party bastion but has been slipping away to the Republicans throughout this decade.
Madison County, just across the Mississippi River from St. Louis, has been known for two things for as long as most can remember: Union workers and trial lawyers.
The area is heavily industrialized, with the Wood River Refinery towering over everything. And the gorgeous and gleaming white county courthouse in Edwardsville reflects the wealth that trial lawyers, particularly in the asbestos field, have brought to (and extracted from) the area.
The combination of working-class voters and trial lawyer money made the Democrats almost unbeatable until the national Tea Party victories of 2010 when the Republicans started making serious inroads. The county has also become more suburbanized, as St. Louis-area folks realized there was a better option across the river.
Democratic state Rep. Jay Hoffman lost his re-election to Republican Dwight Kay in 2010, and the Republicans picked up two additional countywide offices that year. Madison County voters also chose the Republican candidates for both governor and U.S. Senate for the first time in memory. All three of the county’s congressmen are now Republicans: Mike Bost, Rodney Davis and John Shimkus. The Bost and Davis districts were originally drawn to be Democratic.
Since 2010, just two statewide Democrats have won Madison County: Jesse White in 2014 and Tammy Duckworth in 2016. The Republicans now have a majority on the county board. And while Dwight Kay lost his seat two years ago in a stunning upset, the word is the House Republicans have polling showing him tied 45-45 with freshman Democratic Rep. Katie Stuart of Edwardsville.
Congressman Bost won his district after longtime Democratic Congressman Jerry Costello retired and the local party bosses handed his seat to a National Guard general who could only hold on for one term. The Democrats were unable to nominate someone who could do well enough in the rural, “southern” part of the district to build on their margins in the urban/suburban Metro East portion. But even that was upended in 2016, when Bost lost Madison County by only about 200 votes. Bost lost the county in 2014 by almost 10 percentage points.
Bost’s Democratic opponent this year is St. Clair County State’s Attorney Brendan Kelly, who seems to have a knack for connecting with the district’s rural areas that the last two Democratic candidates did not. But the president’s visit to celebrate the ultra-hyped news that the Granite City Steel plant is reopening (only partially because of the president’s tariffs, but you wouldn’t know that by reading most news coverage) should probably worry Democrats that their grip in the Metro East could be eroded even further.
Elsewhere, the 111th Illinois House District race between appointed Rep. Monica Bristow (D-Godfrey) and Wood River Township Supervisor Mike Babcock should be one to watch. This district is mostly in Madison County, with a smallish 1000-vote or so sliver in Jersey County. Babcock is a very aggressive campaigner who has embraced President Trump.
Trump won this district by 16 points in 2016. However, statewide Democrats Tammy Duckworth and Susana Mendoza also won it (by 11 points and 1 point, respectively).
Until Bristow’s appointment late last year, the 111th had been represented since 2004 by Rep. Daniel Beiser (D-Alton). Beiser was unopposed in 2010 and 2014, but he soundly won his 2012 race by 17 points, and then only managed to win it in 2016 by five points. The writing was on the wall and he left.
The Senate Democrats are not as worried as they could’ve been about the county’s 56th Senate District seat, currently held by retiring Sen. Bill Haine (D-Alton). The main reason for their lack of anxiety is that they kicked the Republican candidate, Edwardsville Mayor Hal Patton, off the primary ballot and he is now running as a third-party candidate.
Historically, it’s tough for a third-party candidate to win even though there is no GOP candidate in that race. Patton also endured a scandal last month when photos surfaced of him wearing blackface at a party.
Patton is up against Rachelle Aud Crowe, a criminal prosecutor in the Madison County State’s Attorney’s office. President Trump won the district by 10 points in 2016, but so did Sen. Duckworth. Comptroller Mendoza essentially tied her Republican opponent.
The 56th is swingy, going back and forth among both parties at the top and bottom of the ticket. Sen. Haine’s personal popularity made him a lock, so we’ll see what happens this time around.
Rich Miller also publishes Capitol Fax, a daily political newsletter, and CapitolFax.com.
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