During a recent campaign trip, Ra Joy, who is the lieutenant governor running mate of Democratic gubernatorial hopeful Chris Kennedy, toured the metro-east with stops at the Lessie Bates Davis House in East St. Louis, a meet-and-greet with a local left-leaning group, a tour of the Melvin Price Lock and Dam, and the Mt. Paran Baptist Church.
“Forget race, forget religion, sometimes the hardest nut to crack in Illinois is geography; I’m quite intentional about pushing back against the state of Chicago mindset, or that there’s no life (south) of I-80,” said Joy, who was joined by Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, Chris Kennedy's sister.
Even though nearly two-thirds of the state population lives in that northeast corner of the state in the Chicago area and the collar counties, candidates running for statewide office in the March 20 primary election have been trying — in varied degrees — to give some attention to downstate voters.
Charlie Leonard, a visiting professor at the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute, said candidates who don't pay attention to Southern Illinois do so at their own peril.
"I would say downstate voters are offended if you don’t pay attention to them," Leonard said. "And Chicagoland voters are not offended if you pay some attention to downstate. It doesn’t hurt anything. And downstate voters often rightly feel neglected. There are enough votes south of 64, in the metro-east, in Champaign-Urbana."
A recent poll by the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University-Carbondale found 49 percent of downstate Democratic voters and 65 percent of downstate Republican voters don’t know who they will vote for in the attorney general race.
In the governor’s race, 33 percent of downstate Democratic voters, and 19 percent of downstate Republican voters, didn’t know who they would vote for in Tuesday's primary, the Paul Simon Poll found.
Leonard said the downstate results of the poll are of limited use when trying to interpret Southern Illinois politics. He said only a couple hundred registered voters out of the roughly 1,000 respondents were from downstate Illinois, which included areas that could be considered part of northern Illinois, such as Galena.
Leonard said there is a lot of value in doing the local retail politics of meeting with voters face-to-face, rather than relying on advertising.
The ballots cast in the 96 counties outside Chicago and the suburban collar counties make up a small percentage of the Democratic primary vote. Only 23 percent of the nearly 2.1 million ballots cast in the 2016 Democratic presidential primary came from downstate, according to the Chicago Tribune.
But still, the downstate vote can be important, especially in races with more than two candidates, and where the winner only needs the most votes, rather than a majority of the votes.
During the 2002 Democratic governor primary campaign, candidate Paul Vallas rarely traveled downstate. In the six-county Chicago area, Vallas held a narrow lead over former Attorney General Roland Burris, while then-U.S. Rep. Rod Blagojevich was a more distant third, according to the Chicago Tribune. Blagojevich, however, won 93 of the 96 downstate counties, where he had campaigned extensively. He ended up winning the nomination by about 25,000 votes — or 2 percentage points — over Vallas.
“That matters in the metro-east just like it does in Chicago. It’s a metro area. It has that history of face-to-face machine politics," Leonard said in an interview. "It can create a word of mouth or a buzz. ‘Yeah, well I met that guy,’ someone might say at a meeting or a coffee shop. 'Yeah, he came down here, he cares about us’ for an electorate that sometimes in state politics feels neglected. That could mean a lot with that many candidates, where a few hundred or a few thousand votes could make the difference.”
For statewide candidates, buying television outside the Chicago market can become a question of how to use financial resources.
“If you have as much resources as J.B. Pritzker or (Governor) Bruce Rauner it doesn’t cost that much extra to buy television in the St. Louis market or in SIU-Carbondale’s market," Leonard said. "If you’re Jeanne Ives or Daniel Biss, you have to do some of a harder political calculus about whether the relatively small number of voters in the 618 (area code) are worth it to spend the money.”
Both Ives and Rauner attended the St. Clair County Republican Central Committee's Lincoln Day Dinner. Rauner was able to take the stage and speak in front of the whole crowd as well as speak with attendees. Ives spent the evening shaking hands and speaking one-on-one with attendees.
“If I were Ives, I would be down in Southern Illinois, which is a conservative place, and conservative Republicans are amenable to the message that Rauner abandoned them on abortion and immigration," Leonard said. "They’re a better target, I would guess, for Ives than suburban Chicago Republicans.”
Ives met with local supporters again Tuesday, at Downtown St. Louis Airport in Cahokia.
In the Democratic gubernatorial race, Daniel Biss, of Evanston, went on a college tour around the state working to drum up support among young voters. Those stops included appearances at Southern Illinois University in Edwardsville and at Southwestern Illinois College in Belleville.
In February, Democratic frontrunner J.B. Pritzker went on a statewide bus tour, the second of the campaign. It included stops in Belleville and Collinsville, along with his lieutenant governor running mate Juliana Stratton and U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin. The Belleville stop included meeting with campaign volunteers before they went to knock on doors on behalf of Pritzker.
On Thursday, Pritzker is scheduled to appear at a get out the vote rally in Venice.
Last month, Pritzker gave $200,000 to the St. Clair County Democratic Central Committee. Pritzker also has been working on building a general election campaign infrastructure by having several field offices outside of the Chicago area, including one in Belleville and one in Carbondale.
“J.B. is focused on building a statewide, grassroots campaign and making sure Democrats win up and down the ballot," said campaign spokeswoman Jordan Abudayyeh. "In the final days of this primary, we're focused on getting out the vote in every part of the state."
Other candidates in the Democratic primary for governor are Madison County Regional office of Education Superintendent Bob Daiber, Chicago anti-violence activist Tio Hardiman and Burr Ridge Doctor Robert Marshall.
Daiber has been making his rounds across the state with various news conferences on various topics in an effort to gain attention.
Hardiman has made visits to Champaign and Peoria, as well as a visit to Southern Illinois in January and Decatur in December, among other downstate visits.
There probably will be fewer votes cast in the attorney general race, Leonard said. People may only vote in the top race and then leave the rest of the ballot blank.
“If you’re in the Democratic A.G. race with a lot of people, most of whom have very limited name recognition, now you’re talking about a different sort of political calculus, and it makes more sense to show your face, and if you have the resources to buy some media, particularly radio and maybe some social media stuff — it doesn’t cost as much.”
GOP attorney general candidate Erika Harold, of Urbana, has been giving a lot of attention to downstate voters, as she has appeared at several Lincoln Day dinners downstate, sometimes alongside Rauner, including the St. Clair County Republicans Lincoln Day dinner in February.
Gary Grasso of Burr Ridge, recognizing the importance of downstate, had meetings planned on Tuesday with area Republicans, including one with St. Clair County Republican Central Committee members. He's had previous visits to Mount Vernon, Springfield, Bloomington, Effingham and Quincy, among others.
Grasso said the race is wide open. He said he's planning to spend as much time as possible downstate leading up to Tuesday's vote.
“All of the sudden a poll comes out, nobody knows her, nobody knows me, so we’re trying to get our messages out," Grasso said.
What about Democratic candidates for attorney general?
Kwame Raoul, of Chicago, worked to shore up support in the metro-east early in the campaign, making a visit to the St. Clair County Democrats in November. Raoul ended up being endorsed by the St. Clair County Democratic Central Committee.
Raoul has also made visits to Champaign County, Peoria, Bloomington, Marion County, Cairo, and Macoupin County, among others.
On Tuesday he had a meet-and-greet in East St. Louis, with state Rep. LaToya Greenwood, D-East St. Louis and state Rep. Jay Hoffman, D-Swansea.
Aaron Goldstein of Chicago, a Democrat candidate for attorney general, made visits to Clinton County on Feb. 24, according to his Twitter feed, and appeared at a National Pan-Hellenic Council candidate forum in East St. Louis over the weekend.
Renato Mariotti of Chicago, a Democrat candidate for attorney general, made stops in February in Carbondale, Cairo and Coles County.
Jesse Ruiz of Chicago, a Democrat candidate for attorney general, made a stop in December in Madison County.
Pat Quinn, a former governor and now Democratic candidate for attorney general, made a visit to Belleville on March 3 to discuss his plans to provide assistance to veterans, service members, and military families across Illinois if he's elected as attorney general.
Scott Drury of Highwood, a Democrat candidate for attorney general, has made visits to Peoria, Champaign, Urbana and Decatur, according to his Twitter page.
Democratic attorney general candidate Sharon Fairley, of Chicago, made a visit to Rock Island in February and Champaign in October.
Nancy Rotering of Highland Park, and a Democrat running for attorney general, has made visits to Champaign, Springfield, Peoria, Vermillion County
Attorney general candidates have less money than gubernatorial candidates, so “face time might buy them more (support),” Leonard said, referring to meeting people and shaking hands.