The Keyes decision strikes me as truly bizarre. (Illinois Republicans couldn’t find any backbench state legislators or bored rich guys?) It’s now certain that Democrats will control both of Illinois’ senate seats and the governorship – which hasn’t happened since the Truman Administration. (They also control the state legislature – something which surely wasn’t true in those malapportioned days). But Illinois is not the only state where a Senate seat will switch parties without much of a fight. In Georgia, Republican Johnny Isakson will almost certainly succeed Democrat Zell Miller. And therein lies the tale of the parties’ sectional realignment.
From Abraham Lincoln’s nomination at the 1860 Republican convention in Chicago, Illinois lay at the heart of the GOP. Numerous Republican congressional leaders hailed from the Land of Lincoln, including Speakers Joe Cannon and Denny Hastert, House Minority Leader Bob Michel and Senate Minority Leader Everett Dirksen. Even after the New Deal made Chicago a Democratic town, the GOP remained competitive statewide, usually winning Illinois in close presidential elections – for Richard Nixon in 1968, Gerald Ford in 1976, and George H.W. Bush in 1988. But the national party’s increasingly conservative, Southern orientation seems to have turned off Chicago-area voters as it has New Yorkers and Californians. Illinois hasn’t been competitive in the past three presidential elections, and won’t be in 2004.
Something similar has happened on the state level. In the 1970s and 1980s, the most popular politicians in the state were moderate-to-liberal Republicans like Senator Chuck Percy and Governors Jim Thompson and Jim Edgar, who could win huge margins in the Chicago suburbs and cut into Democratic tallies in the city. But such candidates have consistently lost GOP primaries in recent years to conservatives, who have, in turn, (usually) lost general elections to Democrats. The Keyes candidacy may cast the state GOP into minor-party status.
Georgia, of course, was solidly Democratic from the Civil War through the 1960s. Even as the civil rights issue become more prominent, Georgia Democrats such as Senator Richard Russell maintained their ties to the national party – for example, Russell opposed Strom Thurmond’s Dixiecrat candidacy. Later, he groomed Lyndon Johnson for the presidency in the hopes that he would be sympathetic to "Southern values." Even after most whites broke with the national Democratic party, Georgia politics in the 1970s and 1980s was dominated by moderate-to-conservative Democrats like Sam Nunn, Zell Miller and Jimmy Carter. Such Democrats could still win votes from rural Georgians and contributions from the business community, while maintaining some ties to the national party.
But Nunn-Miller-Carter Democrats gradually found it difficult to survive within a mostly liberal Democratic party. Carter proved to be far more liberal as president than as governor. Uncomfortable in an increasingly partisan Senate, Nunn retired in 1996 and was replaced by the more liberal Max Cleland. After a successful two terms as governor, Miller has seemed unhappy in the Senate and has essentially joined the GOP. In presidential elections, Georgia has been rejecting even Southern Democrats – Clinton narrowly carried it in 1992, but narrowly lost it four years later. Gore didn’t come close, and Kerry won’t make an effort there.
Finally, in 2002, the Georgia Democratic establishment came crashing down. Thanks to a strong GOP showing in rural Georgia, Cleland and Gov. Roy Barnes both lost. Party switchers gave the Republicans control of the state Senate. The long-term prospects for Georgia Democrats don’t look good in an essentially conservative state where the GOP has finally become a viable alternative. The party is barely making an effort to hold Miller’s Senate seat.
So Illinois is increasingly looking like a safe Democratic state and Georgia a Republican stronghold. There are lots of reasons for this: the civil rights revolution, the rise of cultural issues, demographic shifts in both states. (And there are idiosyncratic factors, too, such as Illinois Gov. George Ryan's scandals). But certainly the growing polarization of the parties is both cause and consequence of the shifts.