NORMAL — If you were surprised by size of U.S. Rep. Rodney Davis’ margin of victory over his two-time Democratic challenger, you aren’t alone. So was Davis.
The Taylorville Republican beat Democrat Betsy Dirksen Londrigan two years ago by just 2,000 votes, or a 1% margin. It was one of the closest races in the country, and this year many political analysts considered the 13th Congressional District a toss-up.
Instead, Davis expanded his margin of victory considerably. He won with 55% of the vote, a nearly 30,000-vote margin, according to The Associated Press.
Davis’ critics argued he was too closely aligned to President Donald Trump. Now, Davis says his victory Tuesday shows just how popular Trump is in the district. (Trump won the district by 5 percentage points in 2016.)
“You saw a surge in areas that were supporting the president, and that surge actually helped me,” Davis said. “I’d like to think we helped each other in a lot of the areas of this district.”
The unofficial results are only a few hours old, but some explanations are starting to emerge for how Davis won—and won so handily—in a sprawling district Democrats drew to give themselves a shot. The district contains parts or all of 14 counties, including college towns like Bloomington-Normal and Champaign-Urbana.
One reason: Londrigan’s margin of victory shrank in the only three counties she also won in 2018. In Champaign County, which has the most votes in the 13th District, Londrigan’s margin of victory shrank from more than 69% to 67%. In McLean County, it shrunk from 62% to 57%. It also dipped from 55% to 54% in Sangamon County that includes her hometown of Springfield.
Turnout apparently fell among Illinois State University students who live in the 13th District. Turnout was 64% and 69% at the two precincts that vote on-campus, down from 79% and 71% four years ago during the last presidential election, respectively. It’s unclear exactly why.
One theory is that some college students simply aren’t on campus because they’re learning remotely from their permanent residences due to the pandemic, said Lane Crothers, an ISU professor of politics and government.
“Typically, communities that have universities in them tend to be bluer than the societies around them,” Crothers said. “And I don’t think that was quite as true this cycle, and that’s across the United States. And that’s because we had many fewer college students at college this year.”
During his victory speech Tuesday, Davis acknowledged his college-town volunteers.
“They did a great job. They busted their butts throughout this district,” he said.
Davis also ran up the score in the more rural parts of the district, expanding his margins from 2018 just about everywhere. In Christian County (which includes Davis’ hometown of Taylorville), Davis’ margin grew from 73% to nearly 76%. In smaller DeWitt County, Davis’ margin grew from 70% to 73%. He also added to his margin in Macon County (Decatur).
The Davis campaign touted its ground game as one key factor in the win. It had more than volunteers making over 1.5 million voter contacts, including 275,787 door knocks.
It’s unclear how significantly the pandemic impacted the Londrigan campaign’s ground game. Davis himself contracted and fought COVID-19 during the course of the campaign.
“This was always going to be a tough race, and then a pandemic hit, and started throwing curveball after curveball,” Londrigan told supporters Wednesday. “Running a congressional campaign is difficult in the best of circumstances. Running one virtually? Wow.”
National gains for GOP
Airwaves in the 13th were filled with aggressive attack ads from both campaigns and their supporters. The ads trying to link Londrigan to Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan (via the support she received from the Democratic Party of Illinois) apparently worked, said McLean County Republican Party chair Connie Beard. That outweighed any messaging from national Democrats, she said.
“They underestimated the Illinois voters’ disdain for Mike Madigan,” Beard said. “When that was obvious and clear—her connection to him—that damaged her a lot.”
It wasn’t just Davis. Republicans did well in U.S. House races across the country. Democrats are expected to keep control of the House, but Republicans will make gains, NPR reported.
The results are a major setback to Democrats, who boasted a massive cash advantage and opportunities to flip seats in places like Texas. Instead, they failed to defend several seats they picked up in the 2018 midterms, and many remain too close to call. Contrary to pre-election projections that Democrats would expand their majority, it has narrowed, which will mean governing will be much more difficult for the party.
“I’m so proud of the race we won. I’m so proud of how many races Republicans have won, when all the prognosticators said we were gonna lose a substantial number of House seats,” Davis said late Tuesday. “We haven’t seen that play out, but there’s still a lot of time left.”
Another big difference is that Londrigan’s narrower 2,000-vote loss in 2018 came in a year when Democrats were disproportionately mobilized, said Crothers. That’s how they won the House majority that year, he said.
But in 2020, the Republicans were energized too, Crothers said. And the 13th District, because of how it’s drawn, is “inherently Republican,” he said.
Ryan Denham is Content Director at WGLT in Normal.