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Changing Dynamics in Illinois Politics

As the champion for architects in Illinois policy circles, AIA Illinois watched the election results closely. Here are some takeaways from this cycle and things to watch for in governing between now and the next election.

Blue Wave?

There was much talk of a probable blue wave sweeping the country, which was based on historical pendulum swings away from an incumbent president’s party in mid-term elections. While that was a factor, much more was in play this year. The big issues that candidates used to “nationalize” local elections, from Congress on down the ballot, were seen in commercials and mailers. On health care, Illinois state policies have been more progressive than Obamacare, especially as it relates to Medicaid expansion and children’s health coverage. As a result, the potential repeal of Obamacare would not hit Illinois residents as hard as in other states who have no state-based or mandated health programs. Immigration, also, isn’t the hot button here as it is in border states; plus, Illinois has long been a destination for migrating workers of all kinds who were and continue to be needed in the manufacturing, agriculture, service and tech sectors. With immigrants already embedded in communities across Illinois, the issue of immigration didn’t resonate as a threat.

Proxy Fights

Candidates tried to paint their incumbent opposition in a negative light through guilt by association. Democrats pointed fingers at Trump Republicans, and the GOP countered with accusations of Madigan Democrats. These arguments worked to a point, but not everywhere. Suburban areas responded to the anti-Trump message by flipping two congressional seats from red to blue (Roskam v. Casten and Hultgren v. Underwood). More rural southern Illinois districts had reservations about legislators who received money and staff support from Madigan and flipped an open seat from blue to red (Phelps-Finney v. Windhorst).

Billionaire Battle

Stop me if you’ve heard this before: a wealthy businessman who never held political office overwhelmed an incumbent Governor by spending a huge sum of money and repeating a constant refrain of “record of failure.” The same playbook used by Bruce Rauner to defeat Pat Quinn four years ago was utilized by JB Pritzker to beat Rauner this time. Observers were shocked at the $65 million Rauner spent in the 2014 contest; Pritzker far outpaced that mark and set a new campaign record (nationwide) of $171 million. In the end, Rauner lost by the biggest margin since the 1948 race for Governor, which made it tough for Republican candidates down the ballot.

The Year of the Woman 2.0

Following the contentious battle featuring sexual allegations against a Supreme Court nominee, a number of women were motivated to run for office, such as Carol Moseley-Braun, who become one of four women to join the US Senate. Sound familiar? Twenty-six years later, the numbers are even more noteworthy. In 44 contested races where a close result was expected, 38 out of 88 candidates were women. This number is extraordinary in its own right. Even more remarkable is the fact that in the 21 races featuring a man vs a woman, the woman candidate was twice as likely to win regardless of party, taking 14 contests.

Supermajority Rule

While the House and Senate in Washington are going to be run by different parties, Minnesota is the only state in the nation to also have its legislative chambers split between parties. Every other state legislature now has one-party rule including Illinois, where the power is concentrated even more firmly in the hands of Democrats after the recent election.

More ballots are trickling in by mail, so we can only forecast the final outcome at this point. (All mail-in ballots must be received and tallied by November 20.)

Going into the election, the Illinois Senate was made up of 37 Democrats and 22 Republicans. One Senate race is too close to call but the Democratic candidate is ahead.

Observers expect that the Senate will have ultimately added three Democrats making 40 in total, well in excess of the supermajority threshold of 36 and the most since 2014. That leaves 19 Republicans in the Senate.

Going into the election, the Illinois House had 67 Democrats and 51 Republicans. One House race remains a nailbiter with the Democrat holding just a two vote margin as of this writing.

After hundreds of millions were spent by Governor Rauner and Republicans to make House Speaker Mike Madigan a household name with low approval ratings, the Democratic caucus will likely add seven seats to regain the supermajority status back for the first time since 2016. At 74 Democrats in the caucus, this is comfortably above the supermajority mark of 71 votes and the most members Madigan has ever had in his entire tenure as Speaker, which began in 1983.

That leaves 44 Republicans in the House. We predict that House committees will be run at nearly a 2 to 1 ratio of Democrats to Republicans.


Swing districts almost all went to the Democrats this year. The majority caucus will be larger in number and in ideological breadth too. New Democratic members will have come from districts that, until recently, had voted for Republicans. And the liberal wing of the party will be anxious to pass progressive legislation they didn’t want to risk losing seats over in years past. A larger and more diverse caucus will be harder to manage in some ways; individual legislators could hold out knowing their single vote is not essential for passage. Factions could form within the majorities as happened in the Republican Congress. A comprehensive and unified Democratic agenda is far from a sure thing. Many remember the last time that the Executive and Legislative branches were in Democratic hands with supermajorities in both chambers. The 98th General Assembly from 2013-2014 was not without its challenges. On the Republican side, most of the losses were by more moderate members of the party, narrowing the bandwidth of their ideological spectrum.


Following the census every ten years, legislative district boundaries are redrawn. Going into this remap cycle, the Democrats hold all the cards and can draw and pass the map on their own. The state itself is becoming more and more divided by region. Large metropolitan areas and university towns vote heavily Democratic, with small towns and rural areas downstate voting heavily Republican. The suburbs have gone from reliably Republican to firmly Democrat. Illinois is as blue as ever and the remapping will only further complicate the task ahead if Republicans are to gain ground.

Old Friends and New

Forty-nine legislators who served in the last General Assembly will not return, which is a very high level of turnover. Several retired on their own accord and others were defeated at the ballot box. Many were friends of the architecture profession. Six of those who retired were AIA Illinois Legislators of the Year, some of our greatest allies. Their voices will be missed.

One more big trend worth noting is the number of first time candidates for office in this election. Twenty-nine candidates in those 44 competitive races were running for public office for the first time. You expect many new faces in races for local posts, but not necessarily for state or congressional races. Fourteen of them won and nine of those bested incumbents. There are a lot of new faces in politics as motivated citizens are no longer content to sit on the sidelines.

We will work with the large number of legislators remaining with whom we have enjoyed successful relationships, and we will make friends among the newcomers too. Architecture issues are not partisan and don’t shift with the political winds. Architects and policymakers aspire to help create healthy and vibrant communities. As always, we will partner with anyone willing to work with the design profession to build a better Illinois.


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