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Brown: Is Trump reviving Reagan Democrats?

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump signs autographs at a campaign rally in Concord, North Carolina on Monday, March 7, 2016. | Gerry Broome/AP

Mary Renkor approached her 23rd Ward early voting polling place with trepidation Monday in anticipation of doing something she says she had never done.

“I’ve changed my party to Republican,” the 65-year-old retired nurse from Garfield Ridge confided afterward.

“You wouldn’t believe how hard it was to declare. It just seems like treason or something,” explained Renkor, who said she’s “punched straight Democrat my whole life.”

The reason behind Renkor’s switch should be no surprise to anyone following the strange goings-on this election season.

“I’m voting for Trump,” she said.

Yes, Donald Trump, the current favorite for the Republican presidential nomination, has a following in Democratic territory, too.

Renkor cast her ballot at the Clearing Public Library at 63rd Place and Narragansett in the Southwest Side bungalow belt.

OPINION

Not long ago, this area was ground zero for the political phenomenon known as the Reagan Democrats — conservative, big-city Dems who altered the political dynamic in Illinois and elsewhere through their preference for the Republican president.

Is it possible that Reagan Democrats — or more likely their philosophical descendants — could be reborn in 2016 as Trump Democrats?

I regard that as a frightening possibility — and also a very real one.

While most Democrats have looked on with delight as Trump’s rise has set off a messy internal battle within the Republican Party, I’m struck by a sense of be-careful-what-you-wish-for.

The evidence is mainly anecdotal at this point, with Democratic ward committeemen reporting more Democratic voters than usual requesting Republican primary ballots this year. City election officials report only a slight uptick to 9 percent GOP primary voters from 6 percent in 2008.

Some Democrats may be taking a Republican ballot for the express purpose of voting against Trump, but I doubt there are many, especially in a year with a contested presidential race and other important contests on the ballot.

I’d actually made the drive out to the 23rd Ward to look into a related phenomena — Democratic voters who never really understood the legal requirement to declare their party until they went to vote for Trump. These voters have been caught off guard to learn that in a primary they can’t have their cake and eat it, too, meaning vote for their state and local Democrats and Trump as well.

When that happens, those angry Trump voters have found one more reason to be angry.

“People are mad because they never realized before they couldn’t vote for who they wanted,” said Larry Thomas, a poll watcher for Jason Gonzales, the Democrat trying to unseat House Speaker Mike Madigan.

Thomas, who is stationed outside the Clearing Library, said he’s been amazed at how many voters were unaware there is no ticket-splitting in a primary.

He said he spoke to three or four voters last week who emerged from the polling place to say they had written in Trump’s name on their Democratic ballot. That’s a vote that won’t count, of course, but if you’re making a statement you’re making a statement.

Kyle Schwab, another Gonzales worker, said he also heard a lot of pro-Trump, anti-Hillary Clinton sentiment last week from his sidewalk vantage point.

“It’s a more widely expressed opinion than I would have ever imagined,” he said.

One voter, mistaking Schwab for a Madigan supporter, angrily told him “you guys just lost five votes” after he learned he couldn’t vote for local Democrats plus Trump and stormed out of the polling place.

“Forget it, we’re not voting,” he said of his family, according to Schwab.

Renkor decided to just make the switch, even though it necessitated not being able to vote for Madigan.

“I like Madigan. That’s the only thing that hurts me. I feel bad about him, but sorry,” she said.

In a general election, it only gets easier to abandon the Democrats.