Tom Kacich | Only recently did GOP lose its hold on Champaign County

Tom Kacich | Only recently did GOP lose its hold on Champaign County

For most of its history, Champaign County was as reliably Republican as the state of New Hampshire or the western suburbs of Chicago. Republican presidential candidates won the county in all but one election between 1940 and 1988, and, until last December, the GOP usually held all but one or two countywide offices.

But like the western suburbs and New Hampshire, Champaign County is no longer steadfastly Republican.

The GOP's hold on the county began to break in the 1990s and has accelerated this decade to the point where Democrats hold six of the nine countywide offices and 13 of 22 county board seats, and their presidential candidate has won seven consecutive elections between 1992 to 2016.

The recent Republican collapse isn't all Donald Trump's fault, but he sure hasn't helped.

There have been 46 presidential elections in Champaign County's 186-year history and Republicans won 30, Democrats 12 and Whigs three (1840, 1848 and 1852). In 1912, Progressive Party nominee (and former Republican President) Theodore Roosevelt narrowly won Champaign County with 35.6 percent of the vote, versus 35.4 percent for Woodrow Wilson and 25.6 percent for Republican William Howard Taft.

That one-quarter of the vote for the Republican nominee (misleading as it was since Roosevelt had been a Republican) was the worst showing ever for a Republican presidential candidate in Champaign County. Second worst was George H.W. Bush's 35.6 percent in 1992 in a three-way race where independent Ross Perot took 18 percent of the vote in the county.

Third, and arguably the worst of all, was Trump's 36.42 percent in the 2016 race where Libertarian Gary Johnson and Green Party nominee Jill Stein combined got less than 7 percent.

The anti-Trump vote carried over to the 2018 election where Republican U.S. Rep. Rodney Davis of Taylorville got a miserable 30.7 percent of the vote in his part of Champaign County, well below his average of nearly 42 percent in the previous three elections. Even GOP Rep. John Shimkus, who represents the more Republican areas of the county, did poorer last year.

All of which seems to spell more trouble for local Republicans in 2020, when Trump could again be at the top of the ticket. It's a circumstance that Mark Ballard, the head of the county Republican Party, is trying to overcome.

"We've no have delusions that it won't be extremely hard," Ballard said. "I've done a lot of talking with Democrats and with people who typically vote Republican but didn't (in 2018). It was interesting process to learn what drove people to vote the way they did.

"Nine time out of 10 — and contrary to what was written by people in your Opinions section — people voted Democrat because they wanted to send a message to Trump. They didn't care about the qualifications of the candidate. They didn't care about the track records of the candidates. They just wanted to send a message to Trump. And in doing so there are people now in office who just don't know how to do their job and the county is not better for it."

The local GOP, he said, has begun a strategic planning process "to figure out how we can make the biggest impact and get people to maybe vote for the candidate as opposed to voting against Trump. That's about all we can do until he's gone."

Local Republicans will continue to try to recruit strong candidates for offices, he said.

"We've always said that our purpose is to find the best and most qualified candidates who will try to make life better for the citizens of Champaign County no matter what party they vote for. We've always believed that and tried to find good, solid people. But it is what it is and we've got to deal with what we've got and not what we want," he said.

That doesn't mean Republicans will wave a white flag until Trump's name is no longer at the top of the ballot.

"I think Republicans expect us to come up with a plan — us being the executive part of the party — is to do the best job that we can to try to combat that and try to educate the voters to the greatest extent possible that, hey, if you vote against Trump what you're doing is voting against our own county," Ballard said.

Rebuilding the party, he said, might require him to stay on as party chair beyond next year. He had planned to step down, but a planned successor no longer wants the job.

"It will all be part of the strategic plan. Is there someone who has new ideas and has the leadership skills? If so, I can take on a different role," he said. "We need to fill volunteer positions in fundraising and recruiting volunteers and I'd be happy to assume one of those roles. We'll see."

A final historical note

In the 1834 election for governor of Illinois — the first election to take place in newly formed Champaign County — there were 102 votes cast. Cook County didn't cast many more, just 529.

Reflecting the settlement pattern at the time in the 16-year-old state, the greatest number of votes (1,360) were cast in Greene County (along the Illinois River and north of St. Louis), with No. 2 (1,288 votes) being in Gallatin County along the Ohio River.

Most of these numbers are from the book, "Illinois Elections, 1818-1990," compiled by Howard W. Allen and Vincent A. Lacey and published by the Southern Illinois University Press.

Feinen contributions

Champaign Mayor Deb Feinen, who has nominal opposition from Azark Cobbs in her race for re-election this spring, reported two recent campaign contributions: $1,500 from the Realtor Political Action Committee in Springfield and a $1,035 in-kind contribution from the same group for a fundraiser this month.

Rosenbaum finances

Judge Randy Rosenbaum, who was elected in November to a full term as a judge in the Sixth Judicial Circuit, closed his campaign fund earlier this month. Left unpaid was $40,000 he had loaned his campaign for the race. Rosenbaum defeated Democrat Chad Beckett, 52 percent to 47.9 percent, in the six-county circuit.

Petrie meetings

Pattsi Petrie, the former Champaign County Board chairwoman who is running for the Champaign City Council, said she will host meet-the-candidate coffees on the next four Wednesdays from 7:30 to 9 a.m. She'll be at Harvest Market, 2019 S. Neil, this Wednesday; Espresso Royale, 2409 Village Green Crossing, on Feb. 27; Biggby, 401 S. Mattis, on March 6; and Panera, 1903 Convenience Place, on March 13.

Tom Kacich's column runs every Sunday in The News-Gazette. He can be reached at kacich@news-gazette.com.

Sections (2):News, Local
-