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Illinois Democrats expect bumpy ride in midterms next year after Biden’s roller coaster week: ‘You better be prepared’

While last Tuesday’s election results in Virginia and New Jersey definitely offered warning signs for Democrats, the weekend passage of the long delayed infrastructure bill provided some optimism as Illinois Democrats prepare for the midterm cycle.

President Joe Biden joins Gov. J.B. Pritzker and workers on a tour of a data center under construction by Clayco in Elk Grove Village last month.
President Joe Biden joins Gov. J.B. Pritzker and workers on a tour of a data center under construction by Clayco in Elk Grove Village last month.
Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times file

A Republican political newcomer beat a well-known former Democratic governor in Virginia, and another Democratic governor narrowly won a second term in New Jersey last week, results some Republicans see as promising news for their party in Illinois.

While those developments are definitely warning signs for Democrats, the weekend passage of the long-delayed infrastructure bill provided some optimism as Illinois Democrats prepare for the midterm election cycle.

Joanna Klonsky, a longtime Democratic consultant, said last week’s election results showed Americans are feeling “pretty pessimistic right now about the direction of their country and their communities.”

But the passage of the infrastructure bill “absolutely” offsets the losses Democrats saw last week by showing President Joe Biden and the party “can deliver by passing infrastructure” — but she said they now must pass the rest of Biden’s “Build Back Better” agenda as well.

Whether Republican Glenn Youngkin’s victory in Virginia and Democrat Phil Murphy’s narrow win in New Jersey last week telegraph anything for Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s reelection, or other races in Illinois, remains to be seen.

Republicans who spoke to the Chicago Sun-Times said their party got a “boost” last Tuesday, one that could translate to quality candidates running for, and winning, office next year.

For Democrats in Illinois, “the midterm clock just started” and while the election is still a year off, the message from last week was clear: “you better be prepared,” said Tom Bowen, a Democratic strategist.

For Klonsky, what’s important is what happens next.

“Voters’ top concern in this moment is the rising cost of living,” she said in a statement. “By fulfilling their promise and passing Build Back Better, they can lower the costs of health care, prescription drugs, childcare and utility bills. … That will benefit Illinois Democrats up and down the ballot in big ways.”

The passage of those pieces of legislation, which are key to Biden’s agenda, “are critical for Democratic victories in the midterm, in Illinois and across the country,” Klonsky said.

Gov. J.B. Pritzker, left, and Rep. Mike Quigley, D-Ill., center, greet President Joe Biden at O’Hare International Airport last month.
Gov. J.B. Pritzker, left, and Rep. Mike Quigley, D-Ill., center, greet President Joe Biden at O’Hare International Airport last month.
Susan Walsh/AP file

The passage of the infrastructure bill “matters to messaging, but it doesn’t change the environment” Democrats will find themselves in — one where Republicans are excited and independents have soured, Bowen said.

That “environment” is improving for Democrats, but the only thing that will really change it “is the economy getting back to normal and COVID receding,” Bowen said.

Last week, Democrats saw some gains at the municipal level — namely in the mayoral races in Boston, Cleveland and New York City — but the results in the Virginia and New Jersey gubernatorial races were the biggest takeaways from Tuesday’s election.

Asked if he sees a red wave coming through Illinois, Bowen said the state is more Democratic than many others, which provides “comfort” to his party, but “Tuesday’s election results send a clear signal that Democrats should be prepared for a rough environment.”

Virginia Gov.-elect Glenn Youngkin tosses a signed basketball to supporters at an election night party in Chantilly, Va., last week.
Virginia Gov.-elect Glenn Youngkin tosses a signed basketball to supporters at an election night party in Chantilly, Va., last week.
Andrew Harnik/AP file

Illinois voters will get to weigh in on a number of hotly contested races next year.

Two potential swing seats must be filled on the Illinois Supreme Court, which will have new boundaries for the first time since the 1960s. The race to succeed retiring Illinois Secretary of State Jesse White has so far been an intramural Democratic battle, but that could soon change as Republicans make their final campaign plans.

Then, of course, there’s the governor’s mansion.

Pritzker’s deep pockets and name recognition will likely help him overcome the two little known Democratic challengers vying to become the party’s nominee. And those advantages will also help in his general election fight against whomever emerges as his Republican challenger among the four vying for the GOP nomination.

How voters feel about the Democratic governor’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic will likely be a factor. Whether Biden’s performance in the first half of his term will affect Illinois voters’ decisions in state races next year is an open question.

President Joe Biden joins Gov. J.B. Pritzker and workers at Clayco in Elk Grove Village last month.
President Joe Biden joins Gov. J.B. Pritzker and workers at Clayco in Elk Grove Village last month.
Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times file

Biden won Illinois easily last year, beating former President Donald Trump, 57.54% to 40.55%. That 17-percentage point victory was driven by the Democratic challenger’s wins in most of counties in the populous Chicago area as well as a handful of downstate counties. Trump carried the state’s other 88 counties.

Three of Pritzker’s GOP rivals — state Sen. Darren Bailey, former state Sen. Paul Schimpf and venture capitalist Jesse Sullivan — are from downstate. Businessman Gary Rabine lives in suburban Bull Valley.

Suburban businessman Gary Rabine, left, in March; State Sen. Darren Bailey, R-Xenia, center; former state Sen. Paul Schimpf, right.
Suburban businessman Gary Rabine, left, in March; State Sen. Darren Bailey, R-Xenia, center; former state Sen. Paul Schimpf, right.
Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times file; Facebook

Unforeseen challenges could also complicate the governor’s race.

“We haven’t had a governor up with a redrawn Legislature in a long time,” Bowen said, adding that a “robust amount of change” in the governor’s first term, plus a “tough environment,” could lead to challenges in in his bid for reelection.

Republican gubernatorial candidate Jesse Sullivan speaks to a supporter outside the Cook County Criminal Court building last month.
Republican gubernatorial candidate Jesse Sullivan speaks to a supporter outside the Cook County Criminal Court building last month.
Mitchell Armentrout/Sun-Times file

Republicans in Illinois are hopeful last week’s election results could signify a change in their prospects.

Former Republican Gov. Jim Edgar said his party “got kind of a boost — Democrats got a warning.”

The popular two-term governor theorized that some suburban voters could swing back to the Republican Party, a move that could “rejuvenate” the GOP a little more.

But the passage of the infrastructure bill could help Democrats.

“It definitely stopped the image that the president and his party were completely inept, ... they couldn’t get anything done,” Edgar said. “That kind of stopped the bleeding. Whether or not it’s going to be a big plus, I think only time will tell.”

Former Illinois Gov. Jim Edgar speaks during a luncheon hosted by the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform in 2016.
Former Illinois Gov. Jim Edgar speaks during a luncheon hosted by the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform in 2016.
Lou Foglia/Sun-Times file

One Republican strategist said the recent election results give the party momentum and “enthusiasm.”

“Part of the challenge is convincing candidates that it’s worth doing, and they can win in the state as it stands now, and has been for a while, as a blue state,” the strategist said.

Passage of the infrastructure bill only offers the Democrats limited help in the strategist’s view.

“Unless it fixes some of these things that people seem to do have angst about — crime, inflation, supply chain issues — I still [think it’s] bound to be a Republican wave nationally, and I think that’s only likely to also take place in Illinois,” the GOP strategist said.