McLean County’s top Republican has a warning for local GOP candidates running in 2018: Get ready to campaign hard, or get ready to be walloped.
Local Republican incumbents will face more challengers than usual in the 2018 elections—a two-front assault coming from Democrats energized by the election of Donald Trump and Libertarians who are on the ballot for the first time. Monday was the filing deadline to get on the March 20 primary ballot.
Eleven of 13 county-government races are contested. Two longtime GOP state lawmakers, Dan Brady and Keith Sommer, face their first challengers in years. And Democrats sense an opening with Gov. Bruce Rauner, one of the most vulnerable Republicans in the country.
“If you’re not ready for it, you’re gonna get mowed over by it,” said Chuck Erickson, chair of the McLean County Republican Party and a County Board member.
“I’ve been telling Republicans all along that the Democrats are energized and they’re focused and they believe this cycle is going to be advantageous for them. I’ve been warning them about the possibility,” Erickson said. “I think they’re prepared. I hope they are.”
“Lazy” GOP candidates will lose, he said. Candidates will have to campaign hard to win.
“If you don’t go out and do the stuff that it takes to win a campaign, you will be beat by one of those Democrat candidates. It will happen,” Erickson said. “The day when you can win just with ‘Republican’ behind your name in McLean County, that’s over.”
Local Democrats turned their energy into electoral success once already, in April, when they nearly swept Normal Township supervisor and trustee races, after being unable to even field more than a single candidate in previous cycles, said John Whalen, treasurer of the McLean County Democrats.
And 59 Democrats filed to run for precinct committeemen in 2018, a 168 percent increase, according to a post on the party’s Facebook page.
“That gives us the ground troops, the soldiers on the ground, to get out the vote in those precincts. That bodes well for us in the next (general) election, not just in the primary,” said Whalen. “You’re seeing a real groundswell of people interested.”
The historically Republican county—rural conservatives surrounding a more liberal college town—is shading a bit more Democratic as of late. Donald Trump narrowly won McLean County as a whole in 2016, 45 percent to Democrat Hillary Clinton’s 44 percent. That’s because of how well Trump did in rural McLean County, outside Bloomington-Normal, where he picked up 63 percent of the vote.
The McLean County GOP’s top priorities will be to retain its 15-to-5 majority on the County Board and to hold the governor’s office, Erickson said.
Two County Board members—Republican Jim Soeldner of Ellsworth and Democrat Paul Segobiano from Bloomington—face primary challengers.
Soeldner, the board’s vice chair from District 2, will face Republican challenger J Snyder in the March 20 primary; the winner would then face Democrat David Siebert and Libertarian Paul Michael Enerson in November. Soeldner also faces a challenge for his Republican precinct committeeman position from Diane Benjamin, a conservative blogger from Ellsworth.
“I have no idea what Jim did that has somebody out there who’s not happy with him,” Erickson said. “Jim has been a fairly conservative member of the County Board.”
In a statement Tuesday, Soeldner said he welcomed a spirited race against his challengers.
"I believe after consideration of all the opponents, the voters of District 2 will affirm I've done a good job of representing them on the County Board," said Soeldner.
Segobiano faces a Democratic primary challenger in Shayna Watchinski, a community activist, in District 8 on Bloomington’s west side. The winner would face Libertarian Steve Suess.
“That caught me off-guard,” said Whalen. “It’s a good problem to have if we’re going to have some contested races. The more activity we have, the more people we have running for the office, the better government we’re going to have.”
More women, particularly Democrats, filed to run in 2018. They’re part of a national surge in women’s activism—especially among first-time Democratic candidates—sparked by the election of Trump, despite his treatment of women.
There is only one Democratic woman currently on the McLean County Board. Four of the Democrats who’ve filed to run for county office in 2018 are women; Democrats Jill Blair of Bloomington and Jennifer McMillin from Decatur are running for the Illinois House.
“That’s where a lot of this is coming from,” Whalen said. “That’s very encouraging.”
Nine of 10 County Board races will be contested in 2018.
“This is not the norm,” Erickson said. “But this is good for democracy. People are getting a choice. And that’s what people complain about when there aren’t challengers.”
Meanwhile, eight candidates from the McLean County Libertarian Party filed to run for county positions. Voters will be able to pull a Libertarian ballot in the March primary for the first time due to presidential candidate Gary Johnson’s strong showing in 2016.
Their conservative economic message could cut into the Republican vote for County Board races, which tend to focus on fiscal—not social—issues, said Erickson.
“That could hurt Republicans potentially,” he said. “It’s a very anti-incumbent mood.”
McLean County Democrats will have a lot of races to focus on in 2018. But the race for county clerk—with Democrat Nikita Richards challenging incumbent Republican Kathy Michael—is key because Democrats can’t often mount a countywide campaign, said Whalen.
“The more of those candidates you have, they bring their group behind them that supports them, and that helps build it for all the other candidates,” Whalen said.
Whalen has been involved in Democratic politics since the mid-1980s. He’s used to people being surprised that there are any Democrats in McLean County, let alone officeholders.
“We can give voters in this county a choice,” Whalen said.
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