Illinois is thought to be a blue state…so why is so much of the state so red?

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On any political map, Illinois is a reliable blue state that has elected Democratic governors four of the last five elections and last backed a Republican presidential candidate before Michael Jordan was winning championships in Chicago.

But as that political streak again gets put to the test in the high-stakes 2022 gubernatorial campaign, Democrats are losing a battle for counties across Illinois, surrendering vast sections of the state’s topography to Republicans.

Before Democratic Gov. JB Pritzker’s successful 2018 campaign, the number of Illinois counties voting Democratic got smaller and smaller during a 20-year period. Democrats went from winning 43 counties in the 1998 governor’s race down to a dismal one county in the 2014 race, in which Democratic incumbent Gov. Pat Quinn lost reelection.

That kind of track record can make the state actually look geographically deep red – even though Democrats currently hold every statewide elected office.

For nearly a century, in 25 races for the Executive Mansion, Republicans outpolled Democrats in more counties 22 times during that span, a WBEZ analysis of election data going back to 1924 showed. The GOP won the governorship 15 times during that period compared to 10 for Democrats.

And yet, in the state’s more recent political past, Democrats are the ones with the upper hand as blue Illinois gets bluer, and red Illinois gets redder – and angrier that they don’t have a voice statewide.

That’s owed primarily to Democrat-heavy Cook County with its 5 million residents, including Chicago.

The pattern of Democrats contracting into more densely populated areas while surrendering big swathes of political turf is already shaping the contours of the still-early 2022 gubernatorial campaign. Currently, it looks to be a race between the governor from Chicago and one of possibly four or more GOP contenders, three of whom hail from deep-red downstate.

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