Originally Published in the Decision Desk HQ newsletter
Illinois’ 12th is the quintessential Obama/Trump district, dominated by a hope and change message that became resentment aimed at both the Chicago and the DC establishment. Representative Mike Bost rode this anger to power in 2014, and now he needs to rely on the Trumpian converts to keep him there. Democratic candidate Brendan Kelly, shedding Pelosi, works to pitch himself as someone to take on the dysfunction of politics, as Green Party candidate Randy Auxier positions himself to possibly play spoiler here. All of the major handicappers including the Cook Political Report, University of Virginia’s Crystal Ball, and 538 rate this as a tossup, with 538’s model giving Bost a 56.6% chance to win. My own House model, downloadable here, gives Bost a slightly larger boost at Leans R but shares something critical with 538: a plurality win under 50%. This race will be fierce and in the end, could be on the shoulders of a minority party to determine the winner.
Illinois’ 12th district snakes across the southwestern border of Illinois, shared mostly with Missouri and hits the southern end of the state. As the map and chart above show, Illinois’ 12th district is drawn so that it remains split between the populous Northern part of the region centered around St. Clair county and the rural Southern areas. The regional breakdown by year, where the rural areas group up all non-named other counties shows that in recent presidential and midterm elections, St. Clair and the rurals have traded the largest share of the vote. Another one of the major areas is terms of influence swings is the sliver of Madison county to the North where influence wanes in midterm elections. One of the big factors this time around will be if rural areas maintain the same advantage they did during the Obama era in off year cycles.
Downstate Illinois as a whole has become a lot more Republican in recent cycles, and the 12th is no exception, having gone to Obama by over 11 points in a 54.7–43.6% win in 2008 plus having a Democratic incumbent in the seat. This would change rapidly in 2016, as Trumpian appeal to virtually all of the district would cause a massive swing in the Republican’s direction. Obama even won the district in 2012 with a plurality at 49.7–48.1%, but Trump would dominate 55–40.2% even though Clinton won Illinois by the same margin as Obama did 4 years earlier. The chart below shows the Republican executive performance in the district as the lean against the statewide vote, with positive being more Republican and negative being more Democrat.
Williamson and the rurals have been steadily moving more Republican with a pronounced Trump swing, but as St. Clair moved Republican a bit, it was the sliver of Southeast Madison that had a huge swing becoming 20% more Republican in 2016, as the whole county became 15% more Republican. 2016 also marked the first time since Reagan that a Republican broke 50% in the county.
Downballot is a completely different story. It has all become Republican more quickly, with the Democrat winning 51.7–42.7% in 2012, then Bost coming out to beat that incumbent 52.5–41.9% in 2014, then securing an even wider 54.3–39.7% win two years later. But the geographical splits have stayed about throughout all three cycles as the area swings have dominated the direction. The chart below shows the same lean of the district for the House vote split below from 2012 to 2016.
Unlike the presidential numbers, there is little difference here, as the Southern areas become slightly more Republican and St. Clair a bit more Democratic. Madison moved towards Bost by a couple of points, but not close to the underlying radical shifts at the presidential level. Bost will be looking to tap into the new Trump voter shift that didn’t translate in the rural areas downballot as his Democratic opponent Kelly will need to fight the regional desertion overall, maybe targeting the old Madison voters, though there’s not a lot.
Democrats also have not been able to fully exploit the downballot vote to the constant presence of the Green Party on the ballot. For all last three cycles of this redistricting cycles, candidate Paula Bradshaw has consistently taken a large chunk of the vote. In 2012, she received 5.6%, identical to the 5.6% in 2014. In 2016, she received 6% of the vote as well, but the coalition of votes has changed since then. The map and chart below show the breakdown of how well Bradshaw has done over the cycles and the change in her share from 2012 to 2016.
Since 2012, the Green Party vote has plummeted from the downstate rural regions as they went Republican, but rose in the more Democratic northern areas, especially gaining more than 3% in the Madison portion. This trend also looks similar when looking at Green candidate for president Jill Stein’s vote from 2012 to 2016 as her share grew in St. Clair and especially in Madison the most as the graphic below shows.
While Bost needs to go downstate and persuade sticky Democrats to finally give him a boost downstate relative to the district overall, Kelly will need to stem the bleeding to the third party in the Northern regions. This map shows the media market breakdown of the region, with around two thirds of the population in the St. Louis market and the other third in the Paducah market. Based on the interior shifts, it is likely that we see Bost going after Paducah with his messaging as Kelly focuses more on the St. Louis media area.
The Personal Touch:
There was a very recent poll from the New York Times/Siena on this race that had Bost winning by only 1 point, 44–43%. There is a prevalent enthusiasm gap, with Bost up 2 among those who say that they were absolutely sure to vote, while winning by 5 among the types of people that voted in 2016. This is more a reflection of the drop-off of whites without college degrees more than other factors. Trumps approval is 48–46%, as the Republicans are winning the generic ballot 46–43%. One of the most interesting aspects of this poll is that there is virtually no gender split. There is a county breakdown with Madison remaining the battleground area.
According to rumors, the Republican internal polling has them more confident about Bost’s chances, but they have yet to release any polls. It may be Trump’s approval holding positive there, but it could be that the omission of the Green Party candidate in the NYT/Siena poll boosted the Democrat’s margin.
This race is slated to be an expensive one, and outside groups have already started committing some funds. Bost has raised $1.9 million but only spent about $575k, so he has over $1.3 million in the bank. Kelly, meanwhile has raised a little under $1.8 million keeping pace, but has so far spent just over $1 million, and has $777k left. Randy Auxier, the Green candidate has only raised $8,443 dollars and spent $7,666 of that. For outside groups, the House republican aligned SuperPAC Congressional Leadership Fund has spent $450k against Kelly, while the Democrats’ SuperPAC House Majority PAC has spent $220k opposing Bost.
There will be two congressional debates this cycle, the first on October 16th and the other a week later on October 23rd. Due to the previous performance, Green candidate Randy Auxier will be participating in both debates.
Mike Bost was first elected in 2014, defeating incumbent William Enyart, who had won the open seat in 2012 by a comfortable 9-point margin. Considered a marquee tossup race, with each candidate draining all their reserves, Enyart putting in close to $2 million, and Bost just under $1.3 million. Each side put in over $4 million dollars on their own, and the tally quickly rose, before Bost won by a wide 52.5–41.9% margin. The 2014 race revolved around this viral clip of Bost, then a state legislator, talking about being overwhelmed with midnight bills and throwing them into the air while yelling, “Let my people go!” But that seemed to have tapped into the voter resentment of the oft overlooked and outnumbered areas of Southern Illinois. In 2016, his campaign heavily outspent his opponent by about $1.5 million and no outside group really spent on this race, and he ended up handily winning. This McClatchy article is a great read into the personality of Bost, and how his fast as a pro-union firefighter has helped him keep good will in the area. His first ad strikes a Trumpian tone against, “unfair trade practices,” and taking on the bureaucracy. This makes sense as Trump swung through his district to visit the Granite City steelworks in July.
Brendan Kelly is currently the state attorney for St. Clair county, giving him a possible boost in the metro area. He is also a Navy veteran and has served as an executive committee member on several advocacy groups. Kelly took a similar tack to Bost attacking the Illinois establishment and both parties, but did it in a different tone, with an ad that shows him walking through a church, soft spoken. He closes it by saying that he would not back Nancy Pelosi for speaker. The Congressional Leadership PAC has been recently airing ads that question his record as a prosecutor and citing the line, “As prosecutors, our goal is not a conviction,” out of context and it remains to be seen if this will hurt him or not. Meanwhile, his campaign has focused on big-ticket issues revolving around health care and infrastructure, and especially pensions, a hot button state issue.
The candidate hoping to take up the mantle of the historically well off Green Party in this district is a philosophy and communications professor at Southern Illinois University Carbondale named Randy Auxier. A long-time union and environmental activist, Auxier also hosts a radio show that has been on the air for 17 years where he discusses philosophy but could have some name recognition from this and his writings. While it’s been the North where the Green Party candidate has grown, Paula Bradshaw had also been from Carbondale, so the regional bonus to third parties may not be an issue. He has run before on the Green line for Jackson County board and has run before, but this time he could hold a congressional seat in the balance. With such a high share of the vote taken in the past, I would be surprised if there wasn’t a plan to boost Auxier up to play spoiler in the area.
This race is still competitive by every measure, but as each candidate adapts a strategy to win over undecided voters, whether turning out non-traditional midterm voters or winning over new Green Party converts, the Democrats face a larger uphill battle in this district. I expect both parties to spend a lot here, and I’m going to agree with the House model of a Republican edge with a strong probability of a plurality win.