Dems feared they might lose their slim majority on Illinois Supreme Court, but ended up extending their control

Democratic candidates won both vacant seats after a hard fought and expensive campaign, giving the party a 5-2 majority on the high court.

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Clockwise from top left: Republican Mark Curran, Democrat Elizabeth Rochford, Democrat Mary Kay O’Brien and Republican Michael Burke. 

Clockwise from top left: Republican Mark Curran, Democrat Elizabeth Rochford, Democrat Mary Kay O’Brien and Republican Michael Burke.

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Democrats went into Tuesday’s election fearing they might lose their slim majority on the Illinois Supreme Court, but they ended up extending their control after a hard fought — and expensive — campaign.

Democratic candidates won both vacant seats, giving the party a 5-2 majority on the high court.

Appellate Justice Mary Kay O’Brien declared victory Wednesday morning in a nail-biter in the 3rd District against incumbent Republican Justice Michael J. Burke. The race was neck-and-neck for much of election night as results slowly trickled in.

With nearly 95% of the vote counted, O’Brien got 50.6% of the vote. “It was a long night,” O’Brien told the Sun-Times with a laugh when reached by phone.

“All judges can do is promise to be fair and impartial. ... We’ve seen that democracy can be fragile and it requires all of us to take our oaths of office seriously,” she said. “I’m proud of the campaign we ran and I’m excited to serve.”

Burke released a statement Wednesday morning congratulating O’Brien. “It was a close and hard-fought election,” Burke said in a statement. “It is my hope that Illinois’ judiciary acts with independence and impartiality. In these politically polarized times, that is more important than ever.”

The margin of victory was wider in the 2nd District. With 95% of precincts reporting, Judge Elizabeth Rochford got 54% and her Republican opponent, Mark Curran, received 46%. Rochford declared victory Tuesday night after getting a call from Curran congratulating her.

The two open seats had offered Republicans an opportunity to flip control of the state’s highest court where Democrats have held a majority since 1970, even with Democrats presided over the redrawing of district boundaries.

The newly drawn 2nd District covers Kane, Lake and McHenry counties plus DeKalb and Kendall counties and the 3rd District covers DuPage and Will counties, plus Bureau, Grundy, Iroquois, Kankakee and LaSalle counties — all areas where Republicans were favored to win a decade ago.

But unofficial election results posted by the counties show Democrats had a good night in DuPage, Lake and even in McHenry and DeKalb.

The court’s ideological bent could be significant to preserving Illinois’ strong abortion protections in a region where many states have banned the procedure since the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling overturning Roe v. Wade.

“The women of Illinois and the 56 million women across the Midwest can now count on Illinois being here for them to make their health care decisions for themselves,” Terry Cosgrove, president of the pro-choice Personal PAC, said in a statement Wednesday.

The PAC endorsed both O’Brien and Rochford.

O’Brien said she felt the abortion issue was front and center on a lot of voters’ minds and drove them to support Democrats in many races, but particularly for the justices.

The justices will also likely consider challenges to the Democrats’ landmark criminal justice reform legislation, known as the SAFE-T Act, as well as issues related to gun violence, protecting the environment and workers’ rights.

The high stakes led to millions of dollars being poured in the races.

Even though Democrats created a new map for the districts, victory was hardly assured, particularly in a midterm election where Republicans believed they would benefit from voters’ struggles with inflation and President Joe Biden’s low national approval.

At Rochford’s watch party Tuesday at Post Time Bar and Grille in Libertyville, her longtime friend Garrett Malcolm said he wasn’t worried about her chances as much as he would have in the past after watching once red suburbs go blue in recent elections.

“We’re not voting Republican anymore,” Malcolm said matter-of-factly. “It’s really been a change.”

The Kane County attorney said that before President Barack Obama’s election in 2008, he would have had a hard time believing the majority of his neighbors would have supported anyone but the Republican candidate.

This year, Kane County went for Democrats down the ballot, and voters there preferred Rochford to Curran 52% to 45%.

Malcolm cited two reasons why the suburbs would continue electing Democrats: The continued denial by Republicans that Biden won the presidency, and the unqualified candidates they have been fielding.

Pointing to Rochford’s opponent, he noted that Republicans had nominated a former sheriff who had no judicial experience. “The audacity of [Curran] even running,” Malcolm said, shaking his head.

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