What does it take for a Democrat to win countywide office in Sangamon County?
Pretty much a miracle, unless your last name is Langfelder and you are running unopposed.
On paper, at least, things this year looked more promising than usual for local Democrats.
Republican coroner Cinda Edwards, whose appointment to the post drew criticism from critics who saw politics in the ascension of a wife of a Springfield alderman, had an unexpectedly close primary race last spring against Tom Shafer, a perennial candidate for elected offices. Circuit clerk Tony Libri was forced from his chairmanship of the county GOP last spring, less than a year before the general election. And religious figures, including Bishop Thomas Paprocki of the Catholic Diocese of Springfield, had criticized Republican circuit judge John Schmidt for ruling against Catholic Charities in a lawsuit against the state, which decreed that the church could not discriminate against homosexual couples when placing kids for adoption.
In the end, the Republicans won easily. The only bright spots for Democrats in local races were Josh Langfelder, who had no opponent and so won reelection to the county recorder’s post by an overwhelming margin, and Tony DelGiorno, who won a seat on the county board by defeating incumbent Tim Moore. His caucus will be a cozy one, with Republicans outnumbering Democrats on the board by a margin of 25 to four.
It wasn’t always this way. Old-timers recall a brief moment of Democratic glory in the 1970s when the county board had a blue majority. It lasted for all of six months, according to Patrick “Tim” Timoney, former chairman of the county Democratic Party.
One GOP veteran practically chortled as he recalled how R’s outmaneuvered the D’s on the board back when Jimmy Carter was in the White House, managing to get a Republican elected as board chairman even though R’s were in the minority. And so, despite a Democratic majority, the board drew up a district map for the board that favored Republicans.
“And it ain’t changed since,” said the veteran observer, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
County Democratic Party chairwoman Doris Turner blames that long-ago loss of power on personality issues that caused some Democratic board members to grow disillusioned with the party. While she admits disappointment at the overall results of local races last week, Turner puts on a bright face.
“I would say there was some hope in all of our countywide candidates,” Turner said. “We were encouraged by all of our countywide races.”
It is difficult to see how.
Beyond local results, David Gill, Democratic candidate for Congress, failed to get a plurality in Sangamon County, even though his district included the City of Springfield, considered the most Democratic part of the county. While Democrats Sue Scherer and Andy Manar carried their precincts in the county, their success can be attributed to legislative maps that favored Democratic candidates.
The judicial race between Schmidt, a Republican who got more than 54 percent of the vote, and Tim Londrigan, a Democrat with name familiarity and a fair amount of money, wasn’t as close as many observers had expected.
Timoney readily admits his calculus in the Schmidt-Londrigan contest didn’t pencil out. The way he figured it, Ron Stradt, a Democrat who was shellacked on Nov. 6 by incumbent John Milhiser in the state’s attorney’s race, exposed a weakness four years ago in Schmidt, who was then state’s attorney and ran against Stradt. Schmidt got barely 54 percent of the vote in his contest against Stradt four years ago, considerably below the 60 percent that a Republican should get in solidly red Sangamon County, Timoney says. Given Schmidt’s less-than-stellar showing in 2008, Timoney thought that Sangamon County could be a fatal chink in the race against Londrigan, who had name familiarity and a fair amount of money.
“I call it the Stradt Factor,” said Timoney, who figured that if Schmidt and Londrigan finished even in Sangamon County, the challenger would have a chance in the circuit that also includes Greene, Jersey, Macoupin, Morgan and Scott counties.
But the result for Schmidt, who got more than 54 percent of the vote in Sangamon County, wasn’t much different than four years ago, and he also carried Macoupin County, which Timoney says isn’t as much a Democratic stronghold as it once was.
Schmidt had a huge money advantage. He got a massive injection of cash in the final month of the campaign, when he put $25,000 of his own money into his war chest and supporters, notably the Sangamon County Republican Central Committee and U.S. Rep. Aaron Schock, kicked in another $43,000. All told, Schmidt raised more than $145,000. By contrast, Londrigan collected $66,315, including $9,000 during the final month of the campaign.
Timoney points to the Londrigan-Schmidt race as evidence of another Republican advantage.
“Money is a big issue,” Timoney said.
Money aside, Libri said that local Democrats keep making the same mistakes.
“Instead of starting at the county board level, they go after the top Republican positions,” the former GOP chairman said. “They have never focused on a level they can handle. … Why go head-to-head with an army that’s three times your size?”
Timoney points out that Libri never served on the county board, nor did other Republicans who hold countywide elected positions. But he allowed that there is a certain truth to Libri’s contention that Democrats might do well to focus on smaller races and build up to bigger ones.
“We’ve tried to do that, run really good candidates for county board and haven’t been very successful,” Timoney said. “It’s just that the county has been so locked up with R’s.”
Timoney also notes that the rise of Democrats in city elected offices coincided with the election of Rod Blagojevich to the governor’s post. A year after Blagojevich won his first gubernatorial race, Tim Davlin was elected mayor of Springfield, Cecilia Tumulty became city clerk and Jim Langfelder won the city treasurer’s post, showing that a governor has coattails when it comes to Sangamon County politics, Timoney said. Unfortunately for Democrats, any Blagojevich coattails were worn by a man who plummeted to the bottom of the electoral ocean, and Democrats have lost the mayor’s office, which is officially nonpartisan like other city posts.
“Blagojevich damaged the party more than he helped,” Timoney said. “If we would have had the right Democrat in (the governor’s) office, we could have turned this county around. We had Rod Blagojevich, who wasn’t concerned with the Democratic Party. He was concerned about himself.”
Contact Bruce Rushton at firstname.lastname@example.org.