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Republicans pick up seats; Democrats retain control of General Assembly

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Illinois State Capitol

The Illinois State Capitol is seen on June 19, 2012, in Springfield.

SPRINGFIELD — At the end of a long, blistering and unprecedentedly expensive campaign season, the results of Tuesday’s races for the Illinois General Assembly did little to alter the political stalemate that has led to the state’s historic budget impasse.

Republicans gained four seats in the state House and two in the state Senate, but Democrats retained control of both chambers, which means Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner still needs their cooperation to pass any portion of his pro-business, union-weakening “turnaround agenda.” He’s made that a prerequisite for signing off on any tax increases to balance the budget.

The state hasn’t had a complete budget since he took office in early 2015 and is currently running on a stopgap spending plan that’s set to expire after Dec. 31.

“Nothing has changed in the basic dynamics of the conflict,” said Chris Mooney, director of the Institute of Government and Public Affairs at the University of Illinois. “Both sides can say they had some wins.”

As a bright spot for Democrats, Mooney pointed to Susana Mendoza’s victory over appointed Republican Comptroller Leslie Munger in the race for the office that controls Illinois’ checkbook.

However, the loss of four House seats means Democrats no longer have a 71-member, veto-proof majority in the 118-seat chamber. But because they’ve had the minimum number of votes needed for an override, Democrats have had to vote as unified front to block Rauner’s vetoes, something they’ve failed to do on several high-profile occasions.

Riding a dual wave of campaign cash from Rauner and a handful of wealth allies and strong downstate support for GOP presidential candidate Donald Trump, Republicans defeated four House incumbents in southern and north-central Illinois and the Quad Cities.

Democratic state Reps. John Bradley of Marion and Mike Smiddy of Hillsdale were among the incumbents who went down to defeat, losing to Benton businessman Dave Severin and Savanna Mayor Tony McCombie, respectively.

Republicans saw one of their own incumbents, Rep. Dwight Kay of Glen Carbon, defeated, but that loss was offset by picking up the seat held by retiring Rep. Jack Franks, D-Marengo, who was often a weak link in the House Democrats’ supermajority.

While Democrats maintained their supermajority in the Senate, they lost two seats to Republicans, cutting their membership to 37 in the 59-seat chamber.

Sen. Gary Forby, D-Benton, was the lone Senate incumbent to see defeat, losing to Dale Fowler, the Republican mayor of Harrisburg. Republicans also picked up the seat long held by Sen. John Sullivan, D-Rushville, who didn’t run for re-election. Jil Tracy, a Republican former state representative from Quincy, ran unopposed.

Unsurprisingly, each party had its own interpretation of Tuesday’s results.

House Speaker Michael Madigan of Chicago, who also leads the state Democratic Party, put out a statement late on election night saying that the “unprecedented millions” Rauner and a handful of allies spent to bankroll the GOP’s campaign efforts and the popularity of Trump outside the Chicago area “created a difficult environment for many Democratic candidates.”

“Voters stated clearly that they wish to maintain a wide Democratic majority in the Illinois House of Representatives and maintain a strong check on Bruce Rauner and his anti-middle class agenda,” said Madigan, who was the target of Republican campaign attacks across the state.

“Democrats value the voters’ trust and we will continue to protect the middle class and those who don’t have access to billionaires and lobbyists,” Madigan added.

His Republican counterpart, House Minority Leader Jim Durkin of Western Springs, read the results differently.

“By handily breaking the supermajority, Illinois voters sent a strong message that it is time for Democrats to join Governor Rauner and legislative Republicans in enacting reforms to lower property taxes, create more jobs, address the pension crisis and place term limits on the career politicians alongside a balanced budget,” Durkin said Tuesday night in a prepared statement.

The state Republican Party said in an election night memo that the financial backing of Rauner and his allies and the party’s unified anti-Madigan message helped level the playing field in a year that should have favored Democrats.

Meanwhile, Rauner, who has been out of the public eye in recent days, attempted to stay above the political fray.

“This has been a long, grueling campaign cycle, both nationally and locally,” the governor said Wednesday in a written statement. “For the good of the people of Illinois, let’s put the election behind us. Let’s come together and focus on the future and improving the quality of life for every family in our state.”

The first opportunity to do that will be next week, when lawmakers return to the Capitol for the start of their fall veto session.

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