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B-N's 91st House District contest will be expensive in November

Scott Preston (right) celebrates his primary victory to win the Republican Nomination for State Representative in the 91st district. He will face Sharon Chung in November
Emily Bollinger
Scott Preston, right, celebrates his primary victory in Tuesday's GOP primary for state representative in the 91st House District. He will face Democrat Sharon Chung in November.

You can expect big money from outside of Bloomington-Normal to finance one of the marquee Statehouse races in Illinois in November. Democratic McLean County Board member Sharon Chung of Bloomington faces Republican and Normal Town Council member Scott Preston in the 91st House District.

In Tuesday's primary election, Republicans made up about 57% of the total votes cast in the 91st District. One reason for the higher GOP turnout was the crowded race for governor at the top of the Republican ticket. But an Illinois Wesleyan University political scientist said one shouldn't draw a conclusion about the outcome solely from that number.

The district leans Democratic in its makeup, and IWU professor Tari Renner said it will be the only competitive House race in Illinois outside Chicago, based on results from the last election cycle.

Sharon Chung (left) celebrates her Democratic Primary victory for State Representative in the 91st district.
Emily Bollinger
Sharon Chung (left) celebrates her Democratic Primary victory for State Representative in the 91st district.

"President Biden won about seven points in the 91st District. But down the ballot, it only went to the attorney general last cycle by 6/10 of a percent. Those are some really tight numbers and especially in the year that it's pretty clear — Republicans have more enthusiasm," said Renner, a former mayor of Bloomington who himself considered a run in the 91st.

The down-ballot attorney general's race was seen as a better gauge of the base for each party than the top of the ticket that may attract voters who might not go to the polls during a midterm election.

The Democratic Party drew the new maps, and one might wonder why they created a swing district with such a narrow shape when they could have drawn a more compact district with the same party divide. There's also the question of why Democrats didn't do what they have done in other districts — make it more safe for Democrats.

Renner said they didn't have a choice. He said the party wanted to extend State Sen. Dave Koehler's base to some Democratic-leaning areas of Bloomington-Normal, and that required a long thin trip through rural and red territory to connect the Peoria metro area with the Twin Cities. State Senate districts overlap precisely with two House districts.

Renner said the Democratic party went about as far as it could manage with the available territory. For instance, it packed so many GOP voters into the adjoining 105th House District, that seat is perhaps three quarters red.

Both Chung and Preston have Bloomington-Normal roots. Renner said the race may be decided by the outcome on the west side of the narrow ribbon-shaped district that stretches from Bloomington-Normal west to the Illinois River.

"Bartonville is kind of a swing area. That may be the area that really determines this. Certainly, if Sharon Chung could win and even (get) anything in Bartonville, she has probably won," said Renner.

Renner also thinks neither candidate will get more than 53% of the vote, acknowledging Republicans have certain advantages in this midterm election. He said Illinois said Illinois is subject to Republican wave elections, but it's possible GOP gains won't be as pronounced as in other states.

"Maybe other events could intervene. The overthrow of Roe vs. Wade may very well improve some of the Democratic base, motivate them to vote. If inflation cools a little bit, the environment could be a little bit better for Democrats. But midterms are usually poison for the party in power," said Renner.

Renner also said if the GOP nominee for governor, Darren Bailey, proves to have less appeal to centrist voters, it could affect the race between Preston and Chung.

All this is a recipe for big money pouring into the race for the 91st District. Renner said spending could top $2 million between Chung and Preston. A lot will come from outside the district.

"It's no longer going to come from a centralized location now that the House of Madigan has fallen. But certainly state party chairs as well as the committees in each house of the legislature are going to pour a lot of money into competitive races because there aren't that many competitive races," said Renner.

If Chung were to win, she would be the first Democrat in four decades to represent Bloomington-Normal in the Statehouse.

WGLT Senior Reporter Charlie Schlenker has spent more than three award-winning decades in radio. He lives in Normal with his family.