For the party that had dominated Champaign County politics for about 150 years, these are challenging times.
The Republican Party had provided most of the county’s judges, officials and county board members almost from the time it was created in the 1850s until a shift in the local electorate that began late in the last century and accelerated in 2016 and 2018.
Republicans now control only three of the eight countywide elected offices and are outnumbered on the county board, 13-9.
And based on the number of candidates on the primary election ballot this spring, things aren’t getting any better.
Democrats have candidates for all five of the countywide offices up for election this year — even a contested primary for circuit clerk — while Republicans are missing candidates for state’s attorney and auditor.
There’s no Republican candidate in the 52nd state Senate District, which includes Champaign and Vermilion counties, and which a generation ago was solidly Republican. In 1988, for example, longtime Republican Sen. Stanley Weaver ran unopposed.
The race for the seat of retiring Judge Tom Difanis is for now a two-person contest between Republican Jason Bohm and Democrat Scott Lerner. But the race for the vacant seat once occupied by Judge Michael Jones features a single Republican (Cherie Kesler of Seymour) and four Democrats (Troy Lozar of Mahomet, David Moore of St. Joseph, Ramona Sullivan of Savoy and Ruth Wyman of Urbana).
Democrats also have 15 candidates for various county board seats while Republicans have just five. The GOP has no contenders in districts 5 (traditionally a Republican district that includes rural precincts and parts of southwest Champaign), 7, 8, 9, 10 or 11.
And when it comes to the foot soldiers of local politics — the election of precinct committee persons who coordinate campaigns in the county’s 118 precincts — Democrats have a huge advantage in this spring’s election. They have 74 candidates throughout the county versus just 27 Republican contenders.
Undoubtedly part of the problem locally is President Donald Trump, who got only 36.4 percent of the county’s vote in 2016. He also is believed to be responsible for the GOP’s poor showing in 2018, where it lost all five contested countywide races on the ballot and all five statewide races — including the contest for attorney general, where a Champaign County resident, Erika Harold, was on the ballot.
Further, the congressman who represents the greatest part of the county — Republican U.S. Rep. Rodney Davis of Taylorville — didn’t even get 31 percent of the Champaign County vote in 2018, down from 42 percent in 2016 and 46.7 percent in 2014.
For now, Republicans are focused on protecting the three countywide offices they have, all of which are on the ballot next November.
“I don’t know that things are going to repeat themselves in 2020,” said outgoing Republican Party Chairman Mark Ballard. “I don’t think it will endanger Katie (Blakeman, the county circuit clerk) and (Mark) Shelden (the recorder of deeds) from being turned out of office.
“Everything’s cyclical and it was just sort of a perfect storm of reasons for people to vote against the Republican candidates the last time. That will run its course and people will get back to voting for the best candidates as opposed to voting against Trump. Clearly the performance of some of the Democrats who are holding public office has been subpar so hopefully people will see that when it was in Republican hands, the offices were run professionally and effectively.”
He specifically mentioned the county treasurer and county clerk offices, which have had issues this year with work backlogs, hiring staff and late property tax bills.
A potential successor as Republican county chief, Diane Michaels of rural Rantoul, agreed.
“It’s important to have some consistency with our elected officials, as you can see from what happened last fall,” she said. “I don’t want to be too negative but there have been some bumps in the road in some of those offices and it’s important to our county and our community that we have good, qualified, effective county officials.”
Ballard admitted that Republicans were “disheartened” by the 2018 election results and said that may account for the lack of candidates in 2020.
“The thought is, ‘You know, they’ll get it out of their system and we’ll make a comeback,’” he said. “It is a cyclical kind of thing. What happened locally was that people were just taking a vote against Trump and we ended up with what we ended up with. It’s a sad state of affairs.”
He said he thinks the national Democrats’ push for Trump’s impeachment and conviction may backfire.
“I think a wild card is the whole impeachment thing. Is that going to bring out people who may have voted against Trump last time or who stayed home and didn’t vote who now vote against the impeachment issue and thereby vote for whoever we do have on the ballot this time?” he suggested. “I don’t know. We’ll just have to see.”
What is clear, though, is that it is virtually impossible for local Republicans to make gains this fall. Their best hope is to stop the slide that suddenly has made them the minority party in Champaign County and to begin a rebuild in 2022 or 2024, once Trump is no longer the divisive factor.
Tom Kacich’s column appears on Sundays. He can be reached at email@example.com.