Metro-East News

In a year Republicans did well in Southern Illinois, why does the St. Clair County GOP struggle?

J.B. Pritzker thanks supporters in Caseyville

Illinois Governor-Elect J.B. Pritzker and Lieutenant Governor-Elect Juliana Stratton thank supporters at the Steamfitters Local 439 hall in Caseyville. The stop on Sunday was part of a three-day tour across the state.
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Illinois Governor-Elect J.B. Pritzker and Lieutenant Governor-Elect Juliana Stratton thank supporters at the Steamfitters Local 439 hall in Caseyville. The stop on Sunday was part of a three-day tour across the state.

In Deborah Brennan’s run for the St. Clair County Board, the Republican and first-time candidate challenged Democrat incumbent Ken Easterly. Brennan spent $200 on yard signs and $1,000 on a mailer to be sent to voters in her district.

The money she spent was all her own to supplement the three rounds of knocking on doors she did in the district.

Brennan said, however, she got “zero” help from the St. Clair County Republican Central Committee in her unsuccessful run for the county board.

“I don’t know what help they could have given me that would have made any difference,” Brennan said, because she was running against a member of the Democratic machine.

As Brennan and other Republican candidates had steep hills to climb in St. Clair County, surrounding counties in Southern Illinois went red. In Madison County there’s a mix of Republicans and Democrats holding countywide offices.

Traditionally, the metro-east has been a Democratic stronghold, but in recent years, the Republicans have chipped away at that dominance. The three congressional districts found in Southern Illinois are all held by Republicans.

The margin of defeat for Republicans grew from previous elections in St. Clair County, which included a loss in every countywide election and a net loss of one seat on the County Board, even as Southern Illinois tends to be more conservative. So what went wrong in November?

Easterly’s campaign sent out six mailers in the district, two that were negative against Brennan, saying she wants to cut funding to animal shelters, or doesn’t care about law enforcement and parks, as well as three mailers that backed his campaign and lauded positive attributes about him. There was one mailer with a form to request a vote-by-mail ballot, Brennan said. There also were three billboards in her district promoting his candidacy.

The mailers were paid for by the Democratic Central Committee, Brennan said.

“The (Democratic) political machine was just way more powerful than I expected. The response I got when I knocked on doors was overwhelmingly positive. I had every reason to believe I was going to be successful. The people that I had talked to all told me they were very supportive,” Brennan said.

Not enough focus locally

However, some Republicans point to issues within the local party itself as to why the GOP couldn’t gain ground in the county.

Sources with ties to the party said most of the local efforts went toward pushing for the re-election efforts of U.S. Rep. Mike Bost and Gov. Bruce Rauner, which left little to no resources to help with the local races.

Ed Cockrell is among the local Republican County Board candidates to say the local party didn’t help local candidates, such as with raising money or sending out mailers.

The Democratic Party, meanwhile, sent out mailers saying who to vote for, even handed out cards near polling places listing Democratic candidates.

Cockrell, who won a seat he had previously held on the County Board, said the St. Clair County Republicans need to be more inclusive, and help candidates garner resources needed to win.

“We need to focus on getting a number on the County Board to represent that we could put a check and a balance into the ‘do as your told, shut up and vote type government,’ which is up there right now,” Cockrell said.

He said there isn’t much help for the local candidates for County Board.

When he ran countywide in 2016, Cockrell, who was a member of the Freedom Coalition, didn’t receive help from the local party. He said the local party was more concerned with filling slots, but doesn’t follow through with promised help.

St. Clair County Republican Central Committee Chairwoman Barbara Viviano said she did not wish to comment for this article.

Former St. Clair County Board member Craig Hubbard, a Republican who lost in the primary election this year, also pointed at the local leadership in the party.

“I think locally, St. Clair County, they have a weak chairman,” Hubbard said. “I think a lot of things can be done recruiting and helping out and, in my opinion, she has not come through with things.”

“The Democrats have a fundraiser, and they could fill a whole building. Republicans have a fundraiser and they’re lucky to have 100 people come,” Hubbard added.

Hubbard said the local GOP should concentrate on flipping one or two County Board seats at a time.

Paul Evans, a candidate who unsuccessfully ran for judge, said the Democratic Central Committee has access to more potential volunteers because most of the countywide positions are held by Democrats. County employees have traditionally donated to party coffers, sometimes referred to as a lug, giving local Democrats a better ability to raise money.

The GOP last won a countywide office in St. Clair County when Jim Wilson won a seat on the Board of Review in 2014. It was the same year Rauner won St. Clair County in his bid to become governor. Judy Baar Topinka also won the county when she was re-elected to be comptroller.

“It limits the number of resources that can be given to a candidate,” Evans said.

Democrats celebrate

According to State Board of Elections records, the St. Clair County Democratic Central Committee, which was first to endorse J.B. Pritzker’s campaign for governor, received $400,000 from the billionaire businessman’s gubernatorial campaign, which was victorious in his bid to run the state.

A little more than a month after his election victory, Gov.-elect J.B. Pritzker and Lt. Gov.-elect Juliana Stratton went on a thank you tour around the state. It included a stop at the Steamfitters Local 439 union hall last Sunday in Caseyville.

“You crushed it here in St. Clair (County). We didn’t win Madison, but we’re getting close, aren’t we?” Pritzker said to the crowd. “We won in counties where frankly people didn’t expect us to have a shot in and it’s frankly because Democrats stood together. ... Up and down the state, up and down the ticket, this was all about us sticking together and sticking to our fundamental values as Democrats, about standing up for working families and people striving to get to the middle class.”

St. Clair County also has a large black population, which has traditionally supported Democrats. One of those predominantly black areas is East St. Louis, which had more than 7,500 people predominantly vote Democratic.

Duane Henson, a Republican who ran for county clerk, and has served as a precinct committeeman, said some worked harder than him, and he worked harder than other candidates, but candidates who ran countywide all did about the same.

“At the end of the day, we were all a couple thousand votes of each other,” said Henson, who chose to self fund his campaign.

Henson wouldn’t comment on the leadership of the party. He did say he also has heard the suggestion of putting efforts into smaller races to develop candidates.

“You focus on the smaller races and if you could get into some of the school boards and so forth and make some effective changes there, then you could get your message out and work your way up, (but) that takes several election cycles,” Henson said.

Henson said there was brainstorming sessions among the candidates during the campaign and the party organized participation in parades leading up to the election.

“Could we be better organized? Sure. I think there’s always room for improvement.”

Party leaders however, are looking to see what can be done better the next go-around.

“I know they’re doing a lot of analysis, some people who are a little higher up in party that me, have been discussing … what’s our path moving forward, what can we do different, what have we done wrong? You do that after anything,” Henson said.

“I don’t care if it’s in business or politics or whatever. If you’ve got a campaign you’re running, and if something doesn’t go right, you try to figure out what went wrong. Or if it did go right, what did go right, so you could do it the same or better next time.”

Joseph Bustos is the state affairs and politics reporter for the Belleville News-Democrat, where he strives to hold elected officials accountable and provide context to decisions they make. He has won multiple awards from the Illinois Press Association for coverage of sales tax referendums.