The Democrats’ dominance of Champaign County races in the 2018 elections took some people by surprise but caught almost everyone’s eye.
Democrats won every countywide race — stripping the offices of treasurer, auditor, clerk and sheriff from the Republicans and capturing the newly created office of county executive.
But it was two races Democrats lost that are shaping the campaigns for two important posts up for election in 2020.
In 2018, Democratic judicial candidates Ramona Sullivan and Chad Beckett carried Champaign County by healthy margins. But they lost their bids to GOP candidates Randy Rosenbaum and Roger Webber for two circuitwide seats by coming up short in the five other counties of the Sixth Judicial Circuit — DeWitt, Douglas, Moultrie, Macon and Piatt.
In 2020, two more circuit judgeships are up for election.
One position, now filled by retiring Circuit Judge Thomas Difanis, is elected circuitwide while the other, once held by the retired Michael Jones, is a resident judge post elected by Champaign County voters.
Reading the political tea leaves, Democrats have concluded their best chance of being elected is to run for the resident judgeship. Republicans, at least so far, appear to agree, focusing their attention on the circuitwide position.
Three Democrats — private lawyer Ruth Wyman, assistant state’s attorney Troy Lozar and assistant public defender Sullivan — have announced they’ll file petitions to run for the resident judge position.
A fourth Democrat — private lawyer David Moore — said Tuesday that he’s considering running for either the resident or circuitwide posts and will make up his mind “by the end of the month.”
Meanwhile, two Republicans — appointed Circuit Judge Jason Bohm and private lawyer Sami Anderson — are running for the circuitwide post. Anderson ran for circuit judge in the 2018 GOP primary but lost the nomination to Rosenbaum.
Bohm, who was appointed by the Illinois Supreme Court to fill the Jones’ vacancy, figured he would be running for his predecessor’s resident judge post. Then two things happened — first, Democrats showed surprising strength in Champaign County in November 2020, and, then, Difanis announced that he would retire.
“Anyone who runs for office has to decide which office they’re running for gives them the best chance to prevail,” said Bohm, a former federal prosecutor appointed to fill Jones’ seat in February 2018.
Just what the 2018 Champaign County results prove is open to speculation. But Bohm said “since (the 2018 numbers) are the most recent, they’re the most instructive.”
Democratic domination in a county once considered solidly Republican was attributed to an energized anti-President Donald Trump voting base, which sparked heavy Democratic turnout on campus and in minority neighborhoods. Further, Democratic efforts to identify their voters and get them to the polls, driven in part by Democratic Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s lavish campaign spending, were hugely productive.
Democrats are hoping — and Republicans are fearing — a super-charged repeat of that performance in 2020, when Trump will be up for re-election.
As a consequence, political realities make it unrealistic to expect anything other than another big year for Democrats in Illinois, where they control every statewide office, the General Assembly and the Illinois Supreme Court.
Further deflating already depressed Republicans is that in 2022 Pritzker will once again be spending lavishly from his multibillion-dollar personal fortune to win re-election.
At the same time, Republican foreboding about their prospects in Champaign County has unleashed a Democratic scrum for the resident circuit judge post.
Wyman, a former Urbana City Council member, said she agrees “with that assessment” and is preparing for a heavily contested Democratic primary election in March.
Fluent in Spanish and overseeing a broad-based civil and criminal practice, Wyman said she has been collecting petition signatures, meeting voters at the Saturday farmer’s market in Urbana and “going door to door.”
“That’s the democratic process,” she said, referring to the intraparty competition.
Recalling her 2018 campaign, Sullivan said it as a “wonderful experience” but described campaigning in all six counties as a “grueling” one that took a toll on her family.
“I am running for the resident circuit judge vacancy in Champaign County because these voters overwhelmingly told me that they want me on the bench. ... I owe it to the voters in Champaign County to run for this spot,” she said.
Lozar said his decision to run for the resident judge post was both political and personal.
“That (the 2018 results) is certainly part of it, Also, Champaign County is my home,” he said, explaining he has lived here all of life.
Moore, the fourth potential Democratic candidate for the resident judge post, said he’s still reviewing the question of whether to run, consulting with family members and local Democratic Party officials. He said running for the resident judge post is attractive because it requires “less money, less time and less effort” than running circuitwide but is a challenge either way.
He has a mostly civil law practice, but does occasional criminal cases.
There is a potential mystery GOP candidate for the resident judge position who, despite the 2018 numbers, is thinking of challenging the conventional wisdom for 2020. Urbana lawyer Jim Dedman said a Republican lawyer he declined to identify is considering entering the contest, despite the perceived odds favoring a Democratic nominee.
The candidate filing period runs from Nov. 25 to Dec. 2. The primary election will be held on March 17, 2020, and the general election Nov. 3, 2020.
Jim Dey is a staff writer for The News-Gazette. His email is email@example.com.