AUG 30, 2023
Illinois Democrats to launch candidate recruitment strategy focused on challenging more Republicans outside urban areas
Illinois Democrats gather at the State Fair on Governor’s Day earlier this month. [Ben Szalinski/The Daily Line]
Illinois Democrats are stepping up their focus on down ballot races in 2024 as the Democratic Party of Illinois (DPI) will launch a new recruitment strategy on Wednesday aimed at improving party operations in rural areas dominated by Republicans and giving voters more choices on their ballots.
“It’s sort of a continuation of the chair’s commitment to building a bench and operating a party that is focused on that bench-building process year round to put ourselves in a position to ultimately have a collection of not just volunteers and new voters, but engaged candidates and campaign staff that we can plug into races in years to come,” DPI Executive Director Ben Hardin told The Daily Line.
DPI Chair Lisa Hernandez took over the party last year pledging to establish ongoing operations for the party even outside the two-year election cycle. That led to the DPI getting involved in local school board and other municipal races during the April municipal election after Republicans launched their own efforts.
“Earlier this year, we saw how important it was to offer our support in local races as extreme Republicans turned their sights to school and library boards around the state,” Hernandez said in a statement. “Our values are under siege at every level of government, and it’s crucial that Illinois Democrats work together to defend our communities from retrograde politicians up and down the ballot.”
The recruitment effort will focus on finding candidates to run in local races where there otherwise wouldn’t be a Democrat on the ballot. Recruitment will be focused on races for judge, county board, state’s attorney and other local offices on the 2024 ballot. The House and Senate Democratic caucuses will continue to do their own recruitment. It’s part of a national strategy by Democrats through the “Contest Every Race” initiative to boost party operations outside urban areas.
“We are sending out a series of text messages to strong Democratic voters, folks with a high propensity to turn out for Democrats, and asking those folks if they have any interest in running for office,” Hardin said.
The text messages will tell them why it is important to get involved and why it’s better to run for office rather than stay content with voting. The goal is to build up a network of Democrats who are interested in running for office in 2024 or future election cycles to give the party a better presence in local races, especially in Republican areas.
“We’re here to help, we’re here to provide you tools and resources to get you training and ultimately you may not win your races, but what you’re doing here is building momentum in places where it hasn’t existed in years,” Hardin said.
With petition gathering starting on Tuesday and candidates set to file the week after Thanksgiving, the party will be identifying and vetting candidates, then holding training sessions and giving candidates resources to gather signatures and set up campaign operations and run them.
The Illinois Democratic County Chair's Association (ILDCCA) has been doing outreach to recruit candidates and volunteers for races at different levels of government for six year, four years over text, ILDCCA Chair Kristina Zahorik told The Daily Line. In McHenry County, where she serves as county party chair, Zahorick said they recruited over 400 new volunteers during a recent election cycle through text outreach.
“I think its been incredibly successful and that is why we continue to recruit," Zahorik said.
While Democrats tend to dominate statewide elections and General Assembly races, most of Illinois’ 102 counties lean right. Gov. JB Pritzker won 12 counties in 2022 after winning 16 counties in 2018 despite winning blowout races both years. President Joe Biden won 14 counties in 2020.
Democrats do well in urban areas as Biden won Cook County with three quarters of the vote. But in rural Edwards County, Biden only received 488 votes while former President Donald Trump took home 84 percent of the vote.
“I think having a Democrat file [to run] for an office that has not had a Democrat run in years is a victory in itself,” Hardin said.
It’s a baby steps process, Hardin said, “simply by finding someone that’s willing to step into that void and step up for our values.” Over time, the recruitment efforts could strengthen local Democratic Party operations and lead to more candidates stepping up to run and eventually winning office.
“We’re hoping that this program with DPI’s involvement assisting the County Chairs Association can start to build some of this local structure,” Hardin said, adding that some downstate Democrats have described feeling “adrift” with minimal party operations in their area.
Zahorik said she feels party politics is shifting in Illinois with more interest in Democratic candidates from voters in rural counties in central and southern Illinois.
“Even with areas where it is a challenge to perhaps get folks to run with the Democratic label, we still see success in running for other offices where you're not having to declare one side or the other but it's folks who share our values," Zahorik said.
Hardin said the party is taking care to avoid causing primary races between Democrats. The state party will work with the local party to identify which races don’t have a Democrat attempting to run.
In some areas of the state, the DPI also believes the recruitment strategy, which will also include enlisting more volunteers to be aggressively involved in campaigns, will help flip some seats.
“In the places in our state where that infrastructure is strong, this program is intended to help county chairs identify volunteers and build their local benches,” Hardin said.
The suburbs have shifted toward Democrats in recent elections and the county parties tend to have stronger organizations in place and more candidates in all slots on the ballot. By reaching out to recruit more volunteers, the party can build up additional infrastructure and more people who might be interested in running for office in a future election, Hardin said.
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