CARBONDALE — In 2016, Franklin County saw something it hadn’t before — the previous Democratic stronghold went for Republican candidates down the ballot. That trend continued this past Tuesday when more Republicans picked up county-level seats around Southern Illinois.
Franklin County Circuit Clerk Jim Muir switched parties from Democrat to Republican when he ran for the office in 2016. He was retained as an unopposed candidate this year. He said he realized recently that his ideas were shifting even as early as the mid-1980s. He said the ideals of the national Democratic party are turning locals off.
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“I think the national party … has really hurt the local Democrat party,” he said of the shift from blue to red at the local level.
Franklin County Democratic Party chair Randall Crocker said some of the problems he sees at the local level are people voting on single issues or for personality and not substance. He said Trump’s election in 2016 pushed some to skip learning more than party affiliation before casting a vote.
“They can care less about trying to choose the best person for the job — they’re just voting one way,” he said. “It’s just sad.”
While the county went red for the president in 2016, it also moved that direction at the local level, too, in 2016, 2018, and again this year. The county board now has a 7-2 Republican majority, and Abbey Dinn’s election as state’s attorney has put the first Republican in that office in more than 50 years, Muir said.
Union County also saw the ouster of two Democratic incumbents when Daniel Klingemann lost his state’s attorney seat to Republican Tyler E. Tripp, and Tiffany Busby lost her circuit clerk seat to Republican Keri Clark.
But, this shift wasn’t just isolated to Franklin and Union counties — counties around Southern Illinois leaned Republican on Tuesday, even ousting incumbent Democratic Jackson County State’s Attorney Mike Carr, who lost his reelection bid to political newcomer Joe Cervantez, who ran on the Republican ticket.
Cervantez had significant crossover support from both parties. He said criminal justice is a good place to engage people of all persuasions — it’s a system that touches almost everyone. This doesn’t mean it’s always comfortable to talk to voters about the issues, but it’s something Cervantez said is needed.
“We don’t grow unless we are in an uncomfortable situation,” he said.
He attributed his bipartisan success to his ability to engage with people from all walks of life and listen to their problems.
“You just have to talk to people,” Cervantez said. “That is the biggest lesson I learned.”
Cervantez said he believes one of the biggest sources of voter suppression is voters believing they only have one option. He said having a party tell a voter it’s their way or the highway isn’t productive. He said voters should demand both parties go and talk to them to earn their vote.
Paul Simon Public Policy Institute visiting professor John Jackson has been in Southern Illinois for 50 years, and said he has seen the slow erosion of the Democratic Party’s control in the region. He said he saw similar changes happening here as in his native Arkansas.
“We lagged probably a decade behind the changes in the South that took it from the solid Democratic South to the almost solid Republican South,” he said. He pointed to the weakening of unions in Southern Illinois for some of the hurt the Democrats have felt — he said in some races this year, the party couldn’t even get a candidate to run for some seats. He said Republicans have done a good job of siphoning off the traditional “blue dog” Democrats.
“What the Republicans have done is successfully split those off and persuaded the union members that cultural things … took precedent,” Jackson said. He said these “highly symbolic” items, like LGBTQ rights and other social issues have been used to sway middle-leaning voters to the right. But, he said, these issues likely don’t have any day-to-day impact on most voters.
He said the Democrats are likely going to have to do what the Republicans have done for decades if the party hopes to regain any footing.
“They’re going to have to work on building their way back up,” Jackson said.
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