Rural IL-17 May Be Slipping Away From Democrats. What's Causing the Shift?

Nov 18, 2020

Fulton County has long been a reliable Democratic vote. In every election since 1988, the rural county just west of Peoria has turned out in force for the Democratic presidential nominee, including voting for Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012.

But that all changed in 2016, when the county swung 10 points in favor of Donald Trump, with the Republican getting 54 percent of the county's votes.

And though Trump lost his re-election battle, he increased his margins to 62 percent in this corner of Forgottonia this year.

Robin Johnson, a political scientist at Monmouth College, says a political realignment may be happening in the 17th Congressional District that includes Fulton, Knox, and Warren counties--all three of which voted twice for Obama.

"We saw them move over in 2016, and it was a big question if whether they would stay, and in fact, they have. I think nationwide, in these so-called pivot counties, all but 10 stayed with Donald Trump this cycle," said Johnson.

But that trend toward Republicans also is starting to permeate down ballot. Fulton County voters cast ballots for Republicans Mark Curran, Esther Joy King and Mary Burress over incumbent Democrats U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, U.S. Rep. Cheri Bustos, and state Sen. Dave Koehler this year, respectively.

Daryle Coleman, chairwoman of the Fulton County Democratic Central Committee, says those incumbent Democrats have visited the county regularly and strived to be accessible to constituents. But that wasn't enough to sway Fulton County voters to split their tickets.

"We went pretty well red in this last election, and that was pretty disappointing to us," said Coleman.

Democrats still control a majority on the County Board and most countywide offices. But Republican County Board Chairman Patrick O'Brian defeated incumbent Democratic County Clerk Jennifer Bankert by a decisive margin this year.

O'Brian says Fulton County hasn't changed much over time. But the Democratic Party has.

"The rural values haven't changed, but it just seems to me that the values of the Democratic Party have led more left. And I think that's the reasoning for it," he said.

Johnson said western Illinois counties may go the way of southern Illinois, which voted solid Democratic from the Civil War up through the Reagan years before becoming the Republican bastions they are today.

He said the shift is partly due to Trump's influence, but also because of a trend he calls "negative partisanship."

"Voters in the middle, or soft Republicans, don't like Trump, but they hesitated to vote for Democrats because of the Democratic brand has really been perceived in many ways as being too far left and out of the mainstream--more culturally, I would say, than maybe economically," he said.

Coleman agrees the county's partisan leaning may be shifting, noting she's seeing a lot more Trump and anti-Pritzker signage than ever before.

"There's been a change in the makeup of the county itself," she said.

Johnson said these shifting voting patterns are a case study of the Democratic Party's larger issues in its struggles to shore up its House majority and gain a Senate majority.

"The Democrats have a severe disconnect with rural America. And there's some in the party who feel they don't have to pay attention to it. That demographic changes and population loss in rural areas mean they don't have to worry about rural areas," Johnson said. "I think you saw in these last few elections, that's not the case."

Johnson said Democrats can start by going out into rural America and listening to understand the origins of their problem connecting with these voters.

That's happening on the local level. Coleman said she's been contacted by several people looking to get involved in local Democractic politics following the election.

On the federal level, Bustos managed to hold off King in the 17th Congressional District race, albeit by the slimest margin since she was first elected in 2012--and mainly on the strength of high Democratic turnout in the district's four most urbanized counties.

But with the loss of several moderate Democrats holding seats in swing districts like hers, Bustos announced days after the election she wouldn't seek another term as head of the House Democrats' national campaign arm.

There's no subscription fee to listen or read our stories. Everyone can access this essential public service thanks to community support. Donate now, and help fund your public media.