How money and gerrymandering ended 40 years of GOP dominance in the 91st House

By Bill Dwyer for Chronicle Media

Sharon Chung ( photo)

Desi Anderson (Facebook photo)

If past is prologue, the campaign for 91st District State Rep. promises to be really expensive.

After 40 years of GOP control, the district flipped Democratic in 2022, as Sharon Chung, a teacher and musician, became the first Korean-American to be elected to the Illinois General Assembly. She garnered 52.3 percent against businessman and Normal Town Council member Scott Preston.

Now the Democrats want to keep it, and the GOP wants it back.

“This seat may be the best example in the entire state of Illinois, of the Democrats trying to draw themselves a new legislative district, and they’re going to be disappointed in the outcome,” the chairman of the House Republican Majority campaign committee, Rep. Ryan Spain of Peoria, said in 2022.

He was mistaken, and It’s doubtful the GOP will be so overconfident this time. While it’s true that redistricting helped the Democrats win the new 91st District, it’s also true that the GOP was just plain outspent in 2022.

The Bloomington metro area where both Chung and her general election opponent, Desi Anderson, live was a good 35 miles east, across I-55 from the old 91st eastern boundary. But in 2021, as if the Peoria area part of the 91st was tacked down to the map, and the rest of the district was flopping free, it was flipped over to the east and south.

Chung, who served on the McClean County Board, was a good candidate, smart and service oriented, who easily beat her primary opponent by 26 points. But for all Chung’s positives, it’s a fair question whether she would have won the general election without both a near totally redrawn district, and $1.8 million in funding, including financial and organizational muscle from new House Speaker Emanuel “Chris” Welch.

Welch was unapologetic in October 2022 about the money he brought to Chung’s efforts. The soaring costs of elections, he told Normal’s WLGT radio, “all started with … the Supreme Court decisions that have allowed dark money into our politics. And until we can correct that, you’re going to have to build campaigns to compete. We built campaigns to compete.”

And win. The House Republican Majority and Illinois Republican Party were simply outspent by Democrats, with the two campaign funds that Welch controls alone pouring twice the money — nearly $1.1 million — into Chung’s campaign as the GOP did for Preston.

Welch praised Chung, saying, “She’s knocking on doors and doing the old-fashioned political work, as well.”

Both Chung and Anderson will need that work ethic the next eight months.

Anderson lives in rural Carlock, about 10 miles northwest of Bloomington. She runs a venue for weddings with her husband. She’s a campaign veteran, having run in 2022 against assistant Senate majority leader Dave Koehler of Peoria, in the 46th Senate District (he won easily with 58.1 percent).

As of Dec. 31, Anderson, who has received $5,000 from Congressman Darin LaHood, had more than $25,000 on hand. Chung meanwhile, took in $40,000 in December alone, and has more than $72,000 on hand.

Both candidates tout the best interests of their constituents, but have different perspectives.

Anderson says Illinois is “moving in the wrong direction,” and rails against “out of touch lawmakers” who “fail to consider the working families, farmers, and future generations when voting on legislation significant to our livelihood.”

Chung, who says she is “really humbled and honored” by Welch’s support, says “I think he sees me as being part of this new generation of leadership that … can help people see how this impacts them and their everyday lives.”