Not long ago, it was fairly common for the vote in Cook County to break down largely along racial and geographic boundary lines, so much so that you couldn’t see the result until you had the full picture.
We moved away from that for a while, but the race for Cook County state’s attorney between Democratic incumbent Kim Foxx and former Judge Pat O’Brien threatened to take us back to those days.
O’Brien jumped out to a surprise early lead Tuesday based on incomplete suburban returns before Foxx wrested it back when the city vote rolled in more quickly.
When the picture finally cleared, Foxx was so far on top that O’Brien was forced to concede, which he did shortly after 10:30 p.m.
A summer of social turmoil created a difficult re-election climate for Foxx, who came into the campaign already facing accusations of being soft on crime because of the reform agenda on which she was elected.
Barely two months after Foxx survived a tough Democratic primary in which she’d been hammered about her office’s mishandling of the Jussie Smollett case, protests over the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis led to disturbances and looting here that heightened public anxieties about crime and safety.
By the time another wave of looting hit in August, many white voters in particular were looking for somebody to hold responsible, and it didn’t help Foxx when Mayor Lori Lightfoot and Police Supt. David Brown cast some of the blame in the state’s attorney’s direction over her handling of the earlier incidents.
With that dynamic, some Democratic officials told me going into Tuesday they were expecting a close race, despite the fact Foxx was elected with 72 percent of the vote just four years ago.
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Others didn’t see how it could be very close considering the voting demographics in a presidential election year with Democrats turning out in large numbers in hopes of burying Donald Trump.
If Joe Biden outperforms Trump by at least 1.2 million votes in Cook County, only slightly better than Hillary Clinton did in 2016, O’Brien would need some 500,000 of those Biden voters to split their ticket and vote for him to have a chance. That’s a big ask.
Making it only slightly less out of the question was the fact that more than 444,000 Democrats voted for someone other than Foxx in this year’s four-candidate primary that she ended up winning with just over 50 percent of the vote.
Some of those voters were bound to come back to her as the party nominee in a general election, but the rest were more likely to stand by their dissatisfied judgment of her first four years in office.
Notably, most of the Democrats voting against Foxx in the primary came from predominately white city wards and suburban townships, while her strongest support came from African American and white progressive communities who weren’t ready to give up on her reform agenda.
That racial voting pattern was expected to be repeated in the Nov. 3 results.
White Democratic voters in Cook County have a proven history of supporting African American candidates, they also have a tendency to drop that support in a heartbeat.
O’Brien was trying to become the rare Republican nominee to win election by openly campaigning as a “lifelong Democrat.”
Normally, it would be a little risky to openly signal to Republicans that he wasn’t really one of them, but in this contest, it was clear Trump voters were not going to vote for Foxx no matter what.
The last Republican elected as state’s attorney, Jack O’Malley, caught lightning in a bottle in 1990 in no small part because he was paired against the only other African American to hold the office, Democrat Cecil Partee.
O’Malley also portrayed Partee as soft on crime. O’Brien later became one of O’Malley’s top deputies.