Chicago vs. downstate: Illinois’ urban-rural divide plays big role in politics, upcoming election

CHICAGO -- In Illinois state politics, the urban-rural divide is a dominate theme.

Illinois is the country's sixth most populous state. Within the 57,000 square miles are sprawling urban centers including Chicago, but most of Illinois is rural.

Tim Schneider, chairman of the Illinois Republican Party said Illinois basically has two states. Schneider, who is also a Cook County commissioner, thinks about the Chicago-downstate differences: blue Chicago, red downstate, anti-President Donald Trump urban Illinois, pro-Trump rural.

"So we have two states in Illinois, we have downstate that’s very pro-Trump. We have an upstate area that’s not, Trump is not so popular. So we have to work our candidates in a different way," he said. "We are having a little more difficulty in the northern part of Illinois because a lot of the Democrats are tying their Republican candidate to Donald Trump.  And while I think most of them like Donald Trump and what he’s done, they don’t approve of his rhetoric."

WGN traveled to western Illinois where just south of I-80, you hit Ronald Reagan Trail. It takes you to Reagan's birthplace and boyhood home. Farther west is Moline, one of the Quad Cities bordering Iowa. Moline is urban but feels rural.

Some people at Kavanaugh's Bar in Rock Island discussed their views on the upcoming election.

Bob Westpfahl said there's only one party and person to vote for: the Republican Party and Gov. Bruce Rauner. However, he said he didn't necessarily like the governor, but said he's better than "the second evil."

Rod Simmer, a loyal Republican said he’s worried about the economy.

"We’re a border town and in our area everything is going over the river," he said. "We’re in the Davenport-Bettendorf area. Businesses have better deals over there. Illinois is really killing us getting new business."

Outmigration and business exodus are themes Republican politicians highlight. They also talk up Chicago corruption, which is something that Patty Thompson said she’s worried about.

"The state is governed by Chicago and Springfield and no, I don’t really feel like we have a voice. No not at all," she said. "I’m sick of the corruption in Illinois. It’s very disheartening."

There were some patrons at Kavanaugh's who were voting Democrat. Cindy Versouis recalled Rauner once saying voters should fire him if they feel disappointed.

"He said if, 'I haven’t done a good job, kick me out in four years,' and I don’t feel like he’s done a good job so kick his ass out," she said.

The man trying to kick the governor out of office is billionaire J.B. Pritzker, who has pumped millions into a “Blue Wave Illinois” program designed to assist Democrats across the ballot.

Polls show President Trump’s approval rating in Illinois at 37 percent. He could be a drag on GOP candidates across the state.

At the Pritzker campaign field office in Moline, instead of ceding traditionally red territory to Republicans, the Democrats are on offense.

Doug House is president of the Democratic County Chairs Association.

"There are 30 offices like this across the state of Illinois and more than 100 staff that are working. In many cases J.B.’s office has become the county headquarters where everybody comes together," he said. "Some of these counties haven’t seen a headquarters in 40 years.

House said the amount of money Pritzker had doesn't really mean anything in this election.

"You know what it means, it means that there’s parity in competition. It was an issue when we didn’t have resources. It was an issue when we were able to be defined by a governor that had a great deal of money," House said.

Pritzker’s cash has Rock Island Republican County Chairman Drue Mielke playing defense.

"Our party doesn’t have all that money obviously. We don’t have a multi-billionaire funding each county in Illinois which is what Mr. Pritzker is doing," Mielke said.

It's not just about campaign cash. Mielke said the difference plays out at the statehouse, too.

"Chicago is really directing the whole course of the state and it doesn’t seem equitable," Mielke said. "Look at how we are funding our schools. All we hear about down here is Chicago Public Schools. Do our tax dollars that we put in do they come back here or are they helping Chicago Public Schools disproportionality with what they’re paying?"

But that’ not the full story. For years, Chicagoans paid local taxes for Chicago teacher pensions and state taxes to help pay for suburban and downstate pension. But in 2017, Chicago got a $200 million assist with pension costs. Research by the Paul Simon Institute found the downstate region receives more than it pays into the state coffers.

The south region receives $2.81 in state funds for every $1 generated, Cook County, 90 cents for $1 and suburban counties 53 cents for every $1 generated. But the divisive dialogue continues as politicians seek to exploit the alleged differences.

In 2014, Rauner defeated Pat Quinn by five points but he won every county but Cook. There are 102 counties in Illinois.