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Di Leo: Beware of ignoring “safe” districts in a crazy election cycle

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Democrat mailers 2018 my district

By John Di Leo - 

Reflections on the fall campaign, for fellow conservatives… others may find this inside baseball boring, and are welcome to disregard…

In 1994, Congressman Dan Rostenkowski had been in Congress for 36 years.  First elected to his solidly Democrat Chicago district in 1958, he could not possibly lose, and rose to great power in the House of Representatives.  By 1994, he had been chairman of the powerful House Ways and Means Committee for over a dozen years.

His power was unparalleled; his seat secure… until the House Post Office Scandal erupted, and he became the very poster child of America’s fury at the haughty, entitled Democrat regime that had ruled the House for 40 years without a break.  When November, 1994 finally arrived, even this un-defeatable lion of Congress went down in flames.

Even that, however, could not have happened if there hadn’t been somebody else on the ballot for the public to choose.  Luckily for the Republicans – and for the voters – Michael Patrick Flanagan had filed as a sacrificial lamb candidate in this impossible district.  As 1994 shaped up to be a possible shakeup year, he worked harder and harder, making a victory possible despite the impossibility – on paper – of such a win.

Congressman Flanagan only lasted a single term; he lost two years later when the voters’ fury had abated and the Democrats ran someone not named Rostenkowski  (He was replaced, in fact, by Rod Blagojevich, whom the voters later had reason to regret for a host of fresh reasons).

But Flanagan was there long enough to be a part of the revolution of 1994.  He helped the GOP retake the House for the first time in 40 years, and paved the way for a dozen straight years of Republican majorities.

The important lesson today is that this was only possible because a candidate filed in an impossible district, and made an effort, so he was able to take advantage of an opportunity – a wave, if you will – when the opportunity presented itself.

The Challenges of 2018

Like those of 1994, the elections of 2018 are midterm elections.  Midterms do have certain similarities – with a different electorate than in presidential years, they are generally more dependent on each party’s base, and parties use the popularity of the incumbent president to stir up their rank-and-file in support or opposition.  Such years usually go against the president’s party, either in a small way or a very big way, as in 1994, 2006, 2010 and 2014.

But even so, there are certain truths that do not vary from cycle to cycle: 

  • Assumptions can become reality if enough people believe them.
  • Party identification doesn’t mean a thing if you don’t actually cast your vote.
  • You can’t win if you don’t run.
  • Just like in a lottery, even if the odds make victory look impossible, somebody has to win, so it’s worth trying.

2018 is largely expected to have some kind of “blue wave.”  Most pundits believe the November election to be a net gain of some kind for the Democrats nationwide; the only question is whether it’s big or small.

As a result of this expectation – that’s all it is at this writing, an expectation – there are certain seats that gain all the attention, the swing seats, the seats that could go either way, so both parties work hard there.  If it’s a big wave, many of these may go Democrat.  If it’s a small wave, fewer will, and the effort to hold them will keep them in Republican hands.

But Democrats and Republicans don’t always learn the lessons of history, and in particular, Republican voters in Illinois have an abundance of dangerous complacency. 

Take Chicago’s northwest suburban area, currently represented by State Representative Tom Morrison and State Senator Tom Rooney, for example.  Both are well-known and well-liked, both are mainstream Republican legislators.  They are working hard, and there’s no reason on earth to toss them out.  And because it is considered such a safe Republican area, the average voter – particularly, the average base voter – would never dream there’s a chance of them losing. So we get complacent.

But this is also a district that was represented in Congress by Philip M. Crane for 35 years, until he lost to an aggressive leftist who campaigned as a moderate and took advantage of a favorable year to stage an upset.  With the exception of the one term in which the district was represented by Joe Walsh, thanks to Joe’s hard work and the favorable 2010 winds, this has amazingly become a safe Democrat congressional district.

Democrats understand this dynamic well.  They leave far fewer opposition “safe seats” unchallenged than Republicans do.   And they have two awful leftists – but hard-driven campaigners – challenging these two “safe Republican seats.”

Hopeful for a blue wave, or even just hopeful that Republican complacency will be enough, Morrison’s and Rooney’s Democrat challengers have been flooding the area with mailings all summer (this writer has received as many as four expensive full-page, full-color mailings from these Democrat challengers in a single week).  They’re the typical vague hogwash we have come to expect: to paraphrase, they make the stirring arguments that   “the Republicans are out of touch,” “the Republicans are old fuddy-duddies,” “the Republicans don’t really care about you,” etc. etc. 

But the message isn’t even the key, it’s the motivation:  Why do the Democrats pour so much money into such a district, one that is virtually impossible on paper?

Because they know that sometimes you can win an unwinnable race… and that statement has a corollary:  sometimes, you can lose an unlosable race, too.

Republicans in Illinois are dispirited as they have never been before.  With no president on the ballot, and a governor heading the ticket this fall who is usually right on economics but lousy on everything else, Republicans don’t feel motivated to go out and vote. In swing districts, they may understand the need, and show up anyway.  But in the districts where “Republicans can’t possibly lose,” just enough voters may stay home… out of frustration with the party, out of anger at the governor, and out of complacency that the good ones – like Morrison and Rooney – can’t lose, so “they don’t really need my vote.”

And from such thinking comes the reality lesson:  If everyone says the candidate doesn’t need their vote, then by 9:00pm on election night, it will be painfully obvious that their votes were indeed needed after all.

There is no such thing as a guaranteed result.   Anything is possible in politics.    That’s what these ultra-left Democrat challengers are counting on.

So this fall, if you’re working hard in swing districts, that’s great… but don’t forget to work hard in the “absolute certain” Republican districts too.

Even a seat that can’t be lost can indeed be lost if you spend all your time in other districts, and forget to re-elect that "safe" incumbent due to complacency.

If you vote Republican in presidential years, there is simply no excuse to stay home in a midterm year.  The candidates need your vote just as much this year… maybe more.

Copyright 2018 John F. Di Leo

John F. Di Leo is a Chicagoland-based trade compliance trainer, writer, and actor.  A former campaign activist and onetime Republican County Chairman in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, he has now been a recovering politician for over twenty years (but, like any addiction, you’re never really “cured”). His columns are regularly found in Illinois Review.  Use the tool on the left margin of the web page to obtain a free subscription to Illinois Review’s article notices!

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