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Party politics in Illinois: Republicans v. Democrats et al.

Last year Paul Green assessed the future of both major political parties in the Illinois Issues August-September 1985 double magazine. Since that 10-year review, there have been some major surprises — especially in the Democratic party — but the same political themes reappear this year. This article is his update on the parties and includes his analysis of the effects of the March primaries on Republican and Democratic fortunes as the parties prepare for the crucial November elections.

CALIFORNIA may have the sunshine, New York may have the style, but Illinois has the politicians. Other regions may intellectualize their politics by stressing the value of education and the notion of "civitas," but Illinois follows the philosophy of Martin J. Dooley who said, "The only thrainin' I know for th' civic ideel is to have an alarm clock in ye'er room on iliction day."

The name of the game in Illinois is winning. Republicans, Democrats, independents, good government groups, reformers of all stripes and the growing cadre of political consultants (many of whom display the morality of Polly Adler and the loyalty of Paladin) all share the same desire: Victory at all costs.

Table 1

1986 Illinois primaries, turnout by region

Democratic Primary


Republican Primary

( 54%)

City of Chicago


( 12%)

Suburban Cook County



Collar counties


( 30%)

Other 96 counties

( 57%)



Statewide totals


The four main questions of Illinois Republican politics remain unanswered:

1. Will James R. Thompson retain his hold on the Governor's Mansion?

2. Can DuPage County solidify its control over GOP legislative activities in Springfield and the party's statewide political structure?

3. Will the Republicans finally break through and fully convert the state's huge white ethnic vote located in Chicago and other Illinois communities to the GOP cause?

4. Will the wide open 1988 presidential primary battle settle the moderate/conservative philosophical tug-of-war taking place within the Republican party's leadership circle?

The March 1986 Republican primary casts some light on these questions, even though the U.S. Senate nomination was the only contested statewide GOP race. The significance and implications of conservative, central Illinois state Rep. Judy Koehler's victory over moderate, Chicago businessman George A. Ranney Jr. has received little attention, however, because of the bombshells bursting since the Democratic primary.

Koehler's convincing triumph reveals vote patterns suggesting that downstate Republicans are not ready to abdicate their traditional leadership role in GOP affairs and become merely camp followers in a DuPage-led party dominated by suburban Cook County and its five collar counties.

Over half of the 1986 Republican primary vote came from the other 96 down-state counties (see tables 1 and 2). The percentage of downstate voters participating in the GOP primary was greater than the percentage of Chicagoans voting in the Democratic primary. Rep. Koehler defeated Ranney downstate by a nearly 2-to-1 margin. Despite the all-out efforts of some of Gov. Thompson's best and brightest political operatives, George Ranney, a classy and intelligent candidate, was buried under an avalanche of downstate Koehler votes.

Ranney defeated Koehler in Chicago, suburban Cook County and the collar counties, but due to low turnouts and relatively low vote margins, he was unable to build a lead to withstand Koehler's downstate power. Unless dramatic changes in voter preferences occur quickly in Chicago, the state's biggest city may become an insignificant campaign afterthought for future Republican primary candidates.

Koehler's main downstate strength was concentrated in her home base area of central Illinois. She is from Henry in Marshall County. The following comparisions reveal Koehler's midstate popularity:

• Koehler's victory margin in Peoria County nearly matched Ranney's combined county victory margin.

• Republican voters in Peoria, Tazewell and Woodford counties gave Koehler a greater margin of victory than Ranney's combined vote from Chicago, suburban Cook County and the collar counties.

• Incredibly, the same three central Illinois counties (Peoria, Tazewell and Woodford) each gave Koehler a higher victory margin than the combined victory margins of the 29 downstate counties that Ranney won.

10/August & September 1986/IIlinois Issues

Unfortunately for Koehler, her November Democratic opponent is Sen. Alan J. Dixon of Belleville. In boxing terms, Dixon is pound for pound the best vote-getter in recent Illinois history. In their fall showdown the incumbent's own home base strength in southern Illinois will likely combine with his long-standing popularity in Chicago to place Koehler and her central Illinois supporters in a giant statewide geopolitical vise. By election day Koehler's candidacy should be squeezed from both ends, leaving her with important victory margins from only her loyal central Illinois county followers.

It seems that the political fates are kind to Jim Thompson in Illinois. The Lyndon LaRouche intrusion into the Democratic primary left Thompson's gubernatorial opponent, Adlai E. Stevenson III, with LaRouchite Mark J. Fairchild as his lieutenant governor running mate instead of state Sen. George E. Sangmeister (42-Mokena). Stevenson's subsequent stumbles to find a new running mate, a new party and a new ballot position have played right into the hands of "Gentleman Jim." As a politician, Thompson is at his best when he appears not as a candidate but as a commentator. Stevenson's "time of troubles" has given Thompson the opportunity to criticize and analyze his opponent without having to defend or illuminate his own record. As of the first of August, reporters and pundits have made Stevenson's procedural candidacy problems the key gubernatorial issue and have not focused on the moe obvious question: Does Thompson, after an unprecedented three terms spanning a decade, deserve four more years?

Table 2

1986 Republican primary, U.S. Senate, votes by region

Total vote cast: 483,934




City of


















other 96












Winning margin:

Counties won:




Some Thompson partisans are predicting a landslide reelection victory reminiscent of the 1976 demolition of Michael J. Howlett. (Ironically, Stevenson's choice for his new lieutenant governor running mate is Howlett's son, Michael J. Howlett Jr.) Early polls, opposition disharmony, an improved national and state economy, the favorable fallout from the governor's massive "Build Illinois" public improvement program, and Thompson's own considerable campaign skills have led loyalists to label the upcoming gubernatorial contest "The IC Campaign" (Iowa Caucus). A comfortable Thompson victory in November automatically projects the governor as a national moderate leader who can make a move into the early 1988 GOP presidential caucuses in Iowa. A strong showing there could make Thompson a major player in the presidential sweepstakes either as an alternative to the current frontrunners or as a realistic vice presidential possibility for a conservative GOP nominee. As Potomac Fever rises, it will be interesting to see how much gubernatorial campaign time Thompson devotes to the land between the Illinois and Mississippi rivers.

The recent GOP primary has shown that though DuPage County has the potential to become the "new Chicago" economically, it still does not have the muscle politically to dominate the Republican party as Chicago controls the Democratic party. DuPage County is growing at such an incredible rate, however, that its emergence as a superpower equal to Chicago in Illinois politics seems only a matter of time.

Population, businesses and sports teams are either moving, talking of moving or thinking of moving to DuPage County. Luckily for Chicago, Lake Michigan is not owned privately or else the Interstate-5 corridor in DuPage might be renamed Lake Shore Drive. The big issue for Republicans is how well the "DuPage mentality" will play inside the party's own power structure and with the voters statewide. It is not inconceivable to see most Illinoisans acting like third world non-aligned countries as DuPage and Chicago go eyeball to eyeball for state supremacy.

On the white ethnic front, GOP strategists believe that Cook County sheriff candidate James O'Grady can provide the long-awaited ethnic political breakthrough. In 1984 similar Republican plans were dashed when Democrat Richard M. Daley smashed the state's attorney hopes of Richard Brzeczek. O'Grady's opponent, incumbent Sheriff Richard Elrod, appears far more vulnerable than Daley, and O'Grady has so far proved himself a more effective campaigner than Brzeczek. Given the disunity within the Chicago Democratic party and the current popularity of President Reagan in the city's ethnic wards, O'Grady's chances of victory appear to be at least even money. If O'Grady is defeated, however, GOP officials may find themselves in a tough spot since the supply of former Chicago police superintendents willing to run as Republicans is somewhat limited.

DuPage County is growing at such an
incredible rate, however, that its emergence as a
superpower equal to Chicago in Illinois politics
seems only a matter of time

Finally, 1988 looms as a major test of the future direction of Illinois Republican politics. Thompson and Secy. of State Jim Edgar are the Republicans' only two statewide superstars, and both are moderates by philosophy, temperament and campaign style. Neither reflects the nationwide conservative "Reagan revolution" movement, and unless Vice President George Bush or Gov. Thompson closes out competition in the state by next year, the 1988 Illinois GOP presidential primary may be a political bloodbath. Hardcore conservatives both downstate and in the suburban 5 1/2 counties (DuPage, Kane, Lake, McHenry, Will and suburban Cook) may challenge their moderate leaders and support their own 1988 presidential choice. At stake may be the political soul of the Illinois Republican party.

August & September 1986/IIlinois Issues/11

How unpredictable are the "winds of wards"? Earlier this year, Illinois Democrats were looking forward to a possible sweep of the statewide races, retaining control of both chambers in the Illinois General Assembly, and an easing of internal party tensions that comes with political victory. Key to Democratic hopes was the top of their ticket: the reelection candidacy of Sen. Dixon, the party's unquestioned electoral trump card. The LaRouchians' primary victories shuffled the deck on the Democratic party, for Dixon no longer heads a single, united ticket. Simply stated, the unforeseen primary results have diminished the effect of Dixon's vote-pulling power for other Democratic candidates from the Statehouse to the court house.

March 18, 1986 — a day that will live in infamy in the hearts of Illinois Democrats — saw the party's lieutenant governor candidate, Sen. Sangmeister, and its secretary of state choice, Aurelia M. Pucinski, defeated by two unknown LaRouche disciples. The publicity surrounding this incredible event, plus the ensuing saga of gubernatorial nominee Stevenson's efforts to rid himself of his LaRouche running mate, has overshadowed other important developments inside the party.

The March 18 primary shows clearly that the city of Chicago still produces at the polls for statewide Democratic primaries (see table 1). In raw numbers, the Democratic turnout in Chicago nearly matched the total Republican statewide vote. Obviously, the major change in the big city's vote figures is that a single political organization no longer dominates the Chicago Democratic party.

Many interpretations and explanations have been given for the upset primary victories of LaRouchites Mark J. Fairchild for lieutenant governor and Janice A. Hart for secretary of state. The litany of the party's campaign mistakes and miscalculations is as endless as the list of mindless ramblings and absurdities of the triumphant LaRouchites. Almost everyone is to blame, but the ultimate cause of the twin defeats rests with the splintered Democratic Chicago vote.

According to Lee Harris, Sangmeister's campaign coordinator, the signs of defeat were overlooked: unfavorable downstate straw polls, the omission of Sangmeister's name on both Mayor Harold Washington's sample ballot in Chicago and the one put out by the Cook County Central Committee. They were overlooked, Harris said, because "it was an article of faith within the campaign that Stevenson's magic name and the mythic Democratic organization somehow would overcome the voters' lack of information and save the day."

Harris, a shrewd political organizer, reflects the views of many pros who have criticized Stevenson and Democratic party leaders for not recognizing the potential for an upset. The actual vote returns, however, reveal that the unthinkable occurred due to a series or combination of events — most of which by themselves would have meant little if Chicago Democrats had been united.

Instead, Sangmeister and Pucinski got whipped (see table 3). In the lieutenant governor contest, Sangmeister lost Chicago, beat Fairchild comfortably in suburban Cook and the collars, and was trounced downstate. As for Pucinski, she easily carried Chicago and suburban Cook, was clobbered in the collars and was annihilated downstate. How did it happen?

Downstate, both Sangmeister and Pucinski were swamped. Sangmeister managed to win only 20 of the 96 downstate counties, and only in Sangamon County did he capture a sizable victory margin. On the other hand, his LaRouche opponent, Fairchild, scored heavily in strong Democratic downstate counties like St. Clair, Macon and Madison.

If downstate was bad for Sangmeister, it was Death Valley for Pucinski. She won only three counties, and like Sangmeister, she ran well only in Sangamon County. Her downstate defeats were catastrophic. Margin-wise, nine counties (including most of the big vote-producers) gave her LaRouchite foe. Hart, pluralities of over 2,000 votes. In 11 counties Pucinski's vote percentage was 25 percent or less, with Cumberland County leading the anti-Pucinski pack with 13 percent.

Suburban Cook and the collar counties were more receptive to Sangmeister, whose home base is Will County, and Pucinski of Chicago. Sangmeister carried 22 of 30 suburban townships while garnering 54 percent of the vote. His loyal Will County Democratic voters gave him his only collar county victory, but due to his overwhelming popularity on the homefront (83 percent), he captured 55 percet of the collar vote. Pucinski outdid Sangmeister in suburban Cook, losing only three of 30 townships while chalking up a 60 percent vote total. The collars, however, were less friendly: Pucinski lost all five counties to Hart.

The key fact of the LaRouche victory comes down to Chicago. Despite receiving some terrible downstate and collar county totals, Sangmeister and Pucinski did well enough outside of Chicago to win their primary battles. All of the socio/cultural chatter about downstate's rejecting their ethnic-sounding names, or the geo-political analysis concerning the insensitivity of the state central committee in endorsing Sangmeister and Pucinski, or the charge of a lack of candidate effort simply do not tell the story. None of these problems would have mattered if the party's bedrock voters — Chicagoans — had delivered in the traditional manner. Local Windy City politics, and not state issues (and certainly not any voter preference for the vacuous LaRouche philosophy), dictated the defeat of Sangmeister and Pucinski, Sangmeister's Chicago totals are awful.

12/August & September 1986/Illinois Issues

Table 3

1986 Democratic primary, four executive office contests, votes by region


Lieutenant Governor

Total vote: 658,427

Attorney General

Total vote: 862,362

Secretary of State
Total vote: 733,637


Total vote: 797,479







J. Hart



R. Hart


City of










































( 9%)




































































Winning margins:








Counties won:











He won only 20 of 50 wards; his opponent not only beat him badly in the black community but also devastated him in some of the organization's remaining strong ethnic wards. Pucinski did better than Sangmeister in her hometown, but her totals, especially in her northwest side bailiwick, were shockingly below expectations. For example, her unknown opponent received a higher vote percentage in 10 black wards than Pucinski tallied in the heavily Polish 41st Ward of her father, Ald. Roman C. Pucinksi.

An in-depth analysis of the Chicago primary returns shows two factors that determined this primary. First, the ongoing civil war between Chicago Mayor Harold Washington and Cook County Democratic party chairman, Ald. Edward Vrdolyak, for city and party control has obliterated all other political considerations. Second, the corollary decline in party unity in the remaining organization wards since the death of Mayor Richard J. Daley is accelerating.

Historically, many top Chicago Democrats (and for that matter, many Chicagoans) have viewed Illinois politics as a sideshow. Real power rested in the city, and as Milt Rakove used to love to say. "Chicago politicians were sent to Springfield to be trained or be punished." Nevertheless, for decades Chicago Democrats have flexed their party muscles to determine winners in statewide primary races. The recent primary has demonstrated conclusively that the Washington-Vrdolyak power struggle has become so extensive that their respective followers have abdicated their basic party responsibility in order to gain a temporary political advantage or to embarrass their factional foes. How else can one explain black voters rejecting a solid state legislator like George Sangmeister, who was the hand-picked candidate of Mayor Washington's endorsed gubernatorial candidate Stevenson, or the rejection of an articulate, female member of the Metropolitan Sanitary District, Aurelia Pucinski, to support a couple of political misfits like Mark Fairchild and Janice Hart? Or did the need to maintain existing political alliances in Chicago prevent Chairman Vrdolyak from listing statewide candidates' names on the Cook County Central Committee's sample ballots? The answer to both questions is the same: Chicago politics.

Beyond the current personal Washington-Vrdolyak vendetta is the general decline of the once mighty Chicago Democratic machine. By no means is the machine dead. In the 1986 Democratic primary, however, the organization (resting mainly in the northwest and southwest side ethnic wards) did not have the unity, flexibility and resources to turn back all who challenged. Taking their toll on the machine are new lifestyles, changing demographics, technology, anti-patronage court decisions and age (As one precinct captain told me, "It's tough to turn out a big vote when your neighborhood's leading occupation is widow."). The golden era of Chicago's machine politics is over. All Harold Washington has done is to speed up the process. Thus many beleaguered Democratic ward committeemen, facing several important state and county contests in 1986, took a pass on the Sangmeister and Pucinski races in the primary. They simply could not push everyone, and these two state candidates appeared to be shooins. They were wrong. The incredible fall-off in votes cast for lieutenant governor and secretary of state compared to the more publicized attorney general contest demonstrated that nothing in Chicago Democratic politics can any longer be taken for granted.

In the 1976 Democratic gubernatorial primary the endorsed choice of the party state central committee, Secy. of State Michael Howlett, defeated incumbent Gov. Dan Walker by winning 65 percent of the Chicago vote. A decade later, comparable votes from the city would have easily nominated Sangmeister and Pucinski.

Leaving aside the LaRouche fiasco, several Democrats emerged stronger politically from the primary. Incumbent Atty. Gen. Neil F. Hartigan smashed the surprisingly well-financed challenge of Chicago Aid. Martin J. Oberman. Hartigan carried every county in the state. He rolled up enormous victories downstate (Hartigan's lowest winning percentage was in Champaign County with 61 percent), battered his opponent in suburban Cook and the collars, and eked out a narrow victory in Chicago. Oberman's big city strength was due in large part to the endorsement he received from Mayor Washington. Going into November, Hartigan is a heavy favorite to win reelection over Republican Bernard Carey, a supplemental opponent who has replaced the GOP's original attorney general choice, James T. Ryan. Given Hartigan's incredible downstate power, Carey will have a difficult time putting together a winning campaign coalition.

August & September 1986/IIIinois Issues/13

Jerry Cosentino was also a big victor in the Democratic primary. His successful state treasurer campaign against incumbent Treasurer James H. Donnewald, maverick Patrick Quinn and LaRouchite Robert D. Hart (husband of Janice) to win back his old office was perhaps the state's most interesting primary (see table 3). The four-way shootout featured intrigue and unusual voting coalitions as Cosentino parlayed backing from both feuding factions in Chicago to barely outcount Donnewald statewide. Key to Cosentino's victory was the surprising support Hart garnered throughout the state, especially in Donnewald's home areas downstate.

As strange as it seems, the Illinois Democratic party's pre-primary dreams for a massive victory and a possible 1988 statewide presidential comeback hinge on the candidacy of its enigmatic former gubernatorial hopeful, Adlai Stevenson. Given the enormous amount of publicity surrounding the devastating impact that the LaRouche upsets have had on Stevenson's candidacy, there is no reason to repeat them here. Suffice it to say that since March 18, the Stevenson campaign has received more direct hits than the German World War II battleship Bismarck. The fact that his campaign is still afloat at all is due almost entirely to his own personal tenacity and not to any grand strategy. Stevenson entered the '86 contest to erase the embarrassing humiliation stemming from his 1982 gubernatorial defeat. Bluntly speaking, Stevenson's bitterness goes beyond his narrow loss to Thompson; it stretches to the manner in which Thompson, the press and eventually the public impugned his character and personality.

Can Stevenson convince Democratic voters to "punch 3"? That is, vote straight Democratic and then vote for him and his new secretary of state candidate Jane Spirgel? More importantly, can Stevenson convince independent voters that his procedural ballot and political party problems have not consumed his entire campaign? Stevenson can beat Thompson only if he presents a clear alternative to the state policies of the last decade. Undoubtedly, Stevenson is a "dead bang loser" (Chicago terminology) if he spends any more time debating the State Board of Elections, Democratic county chairmen or union leaders. He must go to the people because governors in this state are chosen in a general election and not in a party caucus.

Illinois Democrats have more questions than answers. The war in Chicago drains their party juices; their top-gun statewide candidates, Dixon, Hartigan and state Comptroller Roland W. Burris, face easy reelection contests though they worry about the LaRouche factor; maintaining Democratic control in the state Senate is uncertain; and downstate party leaders rumble over the inability of Chicago to get its act together.

Ten years after the death of Richard J. Daley, Illinois Democrats are still searching for a new leader. The party's tight organizational structure is in disrepair, many Democratic candidates are becoming Republicanized in their political strategy (heavy use of TV, direct mailings and separate campaigns) and philosophical and racial divisions tug at the party's core voters (though issue differences in the Republican party are equally divisive). Yet, Democrats hold both U.S. Senate seats, control both chambers of the General Assembly and half of the statewide offices. To be sure, their presidential candidate has not carried the state since 1964, and their 1988 choice will probably continue the losing tradition, but state and local Democratic candidates have done incredibly well despite their overall organizational slide.

Paul M. Green is director of the Institute for Public Policy and Administration, Governors State University. The author wishes to thank Merle Janowitz and Mary Jane Fields of the State Board of Elections and Connie Kaplan of the Chicago Board of Election Commissioners for their assistance.

14/August & September 1986/Illinois Issues

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