At a recent Democratic governor candidate forum, J.B. Pritzker dropped some local touchstones into his opening remarks.
"I've been listening to people all across the state of Illinois, especially those here in central Illinois, and how neglected you all have been," he told the audience at the University of Illinois at Springfield. "Specifically, I've listened to the students and faculty here at UIS, to parishioners at Union Baptist Church, the farmers at the Farm Progress Show in Decatur and to early childhood educators in Champaign."
The church has a predominantly African-American congregation, dating back to 1871. The farm show is the Lollapalooza of the agriculture business. And Pritzker mentioning them was a way to demonstrate his Downstate bona fides.
For rival Daniel Biss, earning credibility in that region has meant regular stops on college campuses with a vow of free tuition as he tries to capture the youth vote. Chris Kennedy also has made regular appearances Downstate, and has proposed a statewide public works program to help create construction jobs throughout Illinois.
It's not just the Democrats. State Rep. Jeanne Ives has been traveling the state, hitting small towns where she hopes to pile up big margins in her Republican primary challenge to Gov. Bruce Rauner. For his part, the governor has spent recent weeks in Downstate media markets attempting to sell his re-election bid.
With the major governor candidates in both parties hailing from the Chicago area, how the contenders relate to Downstate voters could go a long way toward making or breaking their chances on March 20.
Christopher Mooney, a political scientist at the University of Illinois' Institute of Government and Public Affairs, said there is a risk factor for candidates who fail to devote time and resources Downstate in favor of the more heavily populated city and suburbs.
"One percentage point can make a difference in any race," Mooney said. "It's all about the margins you need to get across the state."
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By the numbers, the ballots cast in the 96 counties outside Chicago and the suburban collar counties make up a small percentage of the Democratic primary vote. Only 23 percent of the nearly 2.1 million ballots cast in the 2016 Democratic presidential primary came from Downstate.
Numbers alone can be misleading, however, particularly in a six-candidate contest where the winner only needs the most votes, not a majority.
Paul Vallas, now mulling a Chicago mayoral contest, knows it well.
During the 2002 Democratic governor primary campaign, the former Chicago Public Schools chief rarely traveled Downstate. At the time, he was afraid of flying.
In the six-county Chicago area, Vallas held a narrow lead over former Attorney General Roland Burris, while then-U.S. Rep. Rod Blagojevich was a more distant third. Blagojevich, however, won 93 of the 96 Downstate counties, where he had campaigned extensively. He ended up winning the nomination by about 25,000 votes -- or a scant 2 percentage points -- over Vallas, changing the course of Illinois political history.
Kennedy, who helped Vallas' campaign, called the Downstate effort then a "disaster."
In the current campaign, Downstate is "very significant and likely to be the determining factor as it has been in a number of significant races," said Doug House, the Rock Island County Democratic chairman who also heads the Illinois Democratic County Chairs' Association.
In October, the group backed Pritzker. Since then, he's given nearly $50,000 to the group, which is now airing ads Downstate to promote his candidacy.
"The Downstate region has a lot of media markets and a lot of opportunity for retail politics," House said. "Somebody who has spent the time, got around and talked to people can do themselves a lot of good getting to be known by the people down there."
Pritzker has had the money to air TV ads statewide for months, and his deep pockets already have assisted local county organizations with contributions. That organizational starting point "is maybe a secret weapon," Mooney said.
"When you have a lot of organization, you can work with the ground troops and with the various county associations. They may not be all that strong in every county, but they exist in every county," he said.
An added benefit, he said, is that such a network can also provide political intelligence gathering.
"That's one of the great things about having those people around the state. If there's a problem somewhere, you're going to hear about it through those people," Mooney said.
But Democratic demographics Downstate have changed greatly over the years, particularly in deep southern Illinois. Gone are the big union-labor coal operations and manufacturing. The area also has transformed from socially conservative Blue Dog Democrat to Republican.
Across the Mississippi River from St. Louis, the onetime Democratic-voting Metro-East monolith made up of Madison and St. Clair counties is no more.
Madison County has evolved into a bedroom suburb that favored President Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton 55 percent to 39 percent in November 2016. Clinton won St. Clair County, but got just 50 percent over Trump's 45 percent. Still, Pritzker has pumped $200,000 into the St. Clair Democratic organization.
Kennedy, who was chairman of the University of Illinois board, called the Downstate vote "super important."
"I've spent a ton of time Downstate. I went Downstate every week of January and the first half of February," said Kennedy, who added that family members are serving as surrogates in the region.
The evolution in Downstate political party support toward Republicans also was in evidence in the 2014 GOP governor primary, where the number of votes was split almost equally between the Chicago area and Downstate.
That gives the 96-county region significant influence in this month's one-on-one contest between Rauner and Ives, where the winner needs to score a majority of the votes.
TV ad time costs less Downstate, and personal visits play a role in gaining support. That's why Ives' recent schedule found her at GOP gatherings in small towns of about 1,200 people such as Toledo, which is south of Charleston in Cumberland County; Milford in Iroquois County in east central Illinois; and Altamont, nearly double the population, in Effingham County in southern Illinois.
In the 2016 presidential election, those three counties accounted for a combined 36,000 votes. But Trump won Iroquois with 75 percent of the vote, Cumberland with 76 percent, and Effingham with 78 percent. Even though the total number of votes is small, there's the chance to roll up wide margins, and Ives has been actively pursuing Trump's local voters.
Ives' message "hits a lot of the buttons" of socially conservative Downstate Republicans, said Mooney, who cited the candidates' opposition to abortion, transgender and immigrant rights as well as her attacks on Chicago. "She gives the movement conservatives Downstate something to love."
But Rauner has the money and organizational support to deliver his message and his votes. After winning the GOP primary for governor four years ago, the former private equity investor spread money around to county organizations as he rebuilt the state Republican Party into an adjunct of his political operation.
Rauner also has had a heavy schedule of visits to Downstate communities, including the media markets of Decatur, Moline and Bloomington. He largely has been touting his state budget goal to create a path for a tax cut -- though the concept is widely viewed as politically unrealistic among Republicans and Democrats -- as a financial counter to Ives' social messaging.
Regional disparities on social issues are a predominant feature of the Republican race. Ives has railed against Rauner's approval of measures expanding taxpayer-funded abortion and immigration rights.
That also may be a reason Rauner has not taken a definitive stance on proposed firearm restrictions in the wake of the Feb. 14 Parkland, Fla., high school shooting that left 17 dead. Support for gun-owner rights is a major Downstate issue.
On Friday, Rauner was asked at a stop in Moline if he supports the gun dealer licensing bill that's on his desk, and he raised points also made by those who oppose the plan.
"The federal government already regulates these gun dealers, and we've got to be careful about putting too much redundant regulation, it won't really change or improve anything but it may actually hurt small businesses in Illinois. So we've got to evaluate the issues and we're in the process of doing that."
One Downstate issue has had an elevated profile in the governor's race: an outbreak of Legionnaires' disease at the Illinois Veterans Home in Quincy, where 13 people died and dozens more were sickened following an cases that started in 2015.
"It's literally made Adams County, in some respects, the center of the universe," said House, the head of the state Democratic county chairs organization. "All of the officials and all of the candidates are, whether you're the incumbent, whether you're challengers, whatever primary -- it makes no difference. It's an important issue."
The Rauner administration's handling of the outbreak, as well as its own internal messaging, has come under fire from the governor's critics following reports from WBEZ-FM 91.5. Last month, Rauner told Crain's Chicago Business "we've handled it exceptionally well and we would not do anything different," but this month he appointed a top deputy to oversee the administration's response to the issue.
Beyond the concerns of voters statewide over the treatment of military veterans, the problems at the aging Quincy home also underscore and aggravate long-standing regional concerns: a feeling that Downstate is neglected in favor of Chicago, and worries over the fate of state institutions -- including universities and prisons harmed by the state's historic budget impasse -- that have now become the last major employers for some towns.
Pritzker has accused Rauner of "fatal mismanagement" at the Quincy home. Kennedy said it was time to build a new facility because "we need to defend them as they grow older just as they have defended us in their youth." Biss called the administration's actions at Quincy "grotesque." Ives asked, "What the hell is wrong with this governor?"
The lone Downstate candidate in the governor's race, Democrat Bob Daiber, the Madison County regional superintendent of schools, said "poor infrastructure in our buildings" was to blame for Quincy's problems.
"If you don't have an improvement plan for a facility, it's what you wind up with," said Daiber, who is being vastly outspent in his bid to become the first Downstate governor nominee since then-U.S. Rep. Glenn Poshard lost to Republican George Ryan in 1998.
"It's good to push the can down the road. It's good to eliminate things in your budget and try to cut taxes. But the end result is, you have people die ... and that's what happened at the Quincy veterans home," Daiber added.