The 57th state Senate seat has been held by a black Democrat for nearly 50 years, but it could see big changes next year.
Currently there are four candidates, and only one is black. One is a Democrat, while three Republicans are expected to square off in the March primary.
Kenneth Hall was elected in 1970 to the seat and served until his death in 1995. Hall was replaced by current state Sen. James Clayborne.
Now with Clayborne not running for re-election next year, can the seat flip Republican or go to a white candidate?
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In 2014, Republicans came close to winning the seat, but Clayborne ultimately defeated Republican challenger Katherine Ruocco 30,624 votes to 28,486 votes after the East St. Louis votes were tallied late.
According to the statisticalatlas.com, which analyzes U.S. Census Bureau Data, in the 57th State Senate District, white people make up 57 percent of the district, blacks make up 35.6 percent of the district, and Hispanics make up 3.5 percent. The district includes East St. Louis, Centreville, Freeburg, Belleville, and parts of Fairview Heights, Mascoutah, Granite City, O’Fallon and Shiloh, among other communities.
But will race play a factor in the 2018 race?
One the candidates who is running is radio shock jock Bob Romanik, who is hoping to win the Republican nomination for the November 2018 ballot.
“I’m running as a white guy. I think it’s time for a white state senator. We’ve had a black state senator for 50 years,” Romanik said.
Romanik ran in 2016 with the Republican nomination for state representative in House District 114. He lost to now state Rep. LaToya Greenwood. During that race he was censured by the St. Clair County Republican Central Committee.
He says he’s prepared to put $2 million of his own money into his campaign account, but he doesn’t know how much he’ll spend.
Romanik isn’t afraid to use racial epithets in conversation or on his radio show.
“I’m asking all the proud whites, and all the proud blacks, the hard-working decent people to vote for me, and I’ll represent them,” Romanik said.
Steve Campbell, political director with the Illinois Senate Democratic Victory Fund, said party leaders spoke to a handful of potential candidates about running before Cahokia Unit School District 187 School Board President Christopher Belt officially announced his run for the party’s nomination. Belt is black; no other Democrat filed to run.
“I think we always want the best possible candidate to run. I know this district has been represented by an African-American the last couple of senators there,” Campbell said. “There’s a large and active community there, but I think we just want the best possible candidate to run. I think that Chris is a qualified guy, and he’s shown to be a hard work and been received well.”
However, the race itself could be expensive, Campbell said.
“It’s the St. Louis media market. Television is pretty expensive,” Campbell said. “Other than 2014, there really hasn’t been a real competitive Senate race down there. Today’s races can cost total upward of $1 million. ... It all depends who matches up against who.”
Belt, who filed his petitions Monday, said he doesn’t view his run as an effort to keep the district represented by a black person.
“I really do not. If I was chosen mainly based on my skin color, then it negates all the accomplishments I’ve made in my life,” said Belt who worked in law enforcement in St. Clair County in the state’s juvenile probation program, and as school board president in Cahokia. “If I’m just reduced to a candidate that’s black, or got the nod because I’m black, then all that stuff goes out the window.”
The Republican Senate Campaign Committee in an email said it is excited about the upcoming contest in the 57th, but refrained from further comment.
Also in the race for the Republican nomination is Air Force reservist Tanya Hildenbrand, of Belleville.
“I don’t think skin color should differentiate us from one party into another,” Hildenbrand said. “We all have the same concerns.”
Hildenbrand said concerns of having safe communities and having good jobs cross racial lines.
“Folks are moving out of the district. That includes African-Americans and white Americans because they’re not happy and jobs are not there,” Hildenbrand said. “You have to talk about jobs. That’s what I would be focusing on.”
St. Clair Township Supervisor Dave Barnes, who lost to Clayborne in 2012, also filed to run for the 57th state senate seat.
He said skin color shouldn’t be an issue in the race.
“It shouldn’t be because we don’t look at the color of skin. I work for the people of the district and the township. I look at need,” Barnes said.
He did say, however, that doing well in the black community, such as East St. Louis, would be a challenge.
“I’m sure it will be a challenge for anyone,” Barnes said. “I think I’m known down in that area. I’ve been knocking on doors. They know that I’m fair.”
Andrew Theising, the political science chair at Southern Illinois University in Edwardsville, said the 57th State Senate District is one district that could flip Republican.
“I think there’s a very good chance that this district could go Republican,” Theising said. “If we look at the trends in St. Clair County generally over time, Demcratic support is waning and Republican support is growing.”
Theising noted that the Illinois 12th Congressional District seat, which was once held by Democrats Jerry Costello and Bill Enyart, is now held by Republican Mike Bost. The numbers slowly trended toward Republicans during the course of the eight years.
How much race will play a factor is hard to say, Theising said. However, the black population have been loyal to Democrats in the district.
“I think the Democrats are in a weaker position. If we look at the cities that have had some strong Democratic support over the years, East St. Louis’ population since 2010 has remained rather steady, but Centreville is down 5 percent, Belleville is down 5 percent, Cahokia is down 6.5 percent, Fairview Heights is down 2.3 percent,” Theising said referring to estimates compiled by the U.S. Census Bureau.
“That classic urban center, those communities are declining,” Theising added.
He said areas such as O’Fallon and Shiloh, which have trended Republican, have seen population growth.
I think there’s a very good chance that this district could go Republican. If we look at the trends in St. Clair County generally over time, Democratic support is waning and Republican support is growing.
Andrew Theising Political Science Department Chair at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville
Theising said the key to race could be voter turnout. The turnout in St. Clair County for 2012 and 2016 was almost identical.
“I would argue a different mix of people showed up,” Theising said.
In 2016, Donald Trump, the Republican candidate for president, received 3,500 more votes in St. Clair County than Mitt Romney received in 2012 when he was the GOP presidential nominee.
Hillary Clinton, the 2016 Democratic presidential nominee had 7,000 fewer votes in St. Clair County than President Barack Obama received in 2012.
“Those (7,000) Democrats that left, they didn’t jump Republican, they stayed home,” Theising said.
There were more than 60,000 registered voters who didn’t show up in each of those elections and Theising said he would guess that 60 percent are Democrats.
“There’s enough people not participating that could change the outcome,” Theising said. “At the end of the day, we are governed by those who show up.”