Changing political party control at the county level: DuPage County in 2020, the 1930s, and 1856

Voters in DuPage County appear to have supported Democrats more than Republicans at every level in the 2020 election:

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DuPage County, once known as one of the most solidly Republican areas in the country, appears to have given Democrats control of the County Board for the first time since the 1930s. Two more Democrats are leading their races for countywide office, and could be joined by another when the final votes are tallied.

DuPage voters also backed Democrats in every federal race from president to U.S. representative, as well as every state senator and nine of 13 state representatives.

It’s a stunning turn of fortune two decades in the making, observers say, the result of shifting demographics, shrewd campaigning and the divisive reign of President Donald Trump.

The article above tells of recent changes in DuPage County with new residents and a desire for a new party in charge.

But, as the article also notes, this is not the first time such a shift has happened in DuPage County. I do not know much about what happened in the 1930s – I assume the Great Depression and the New Deal were involved – but I have read more about what happened in the 1850s.

In the early decades of DuPage County, which was officially founded in 1839, local political leaders were Democrats. For example, Joseph Naper, founder of Naperville, served in several political positions as a Democrat. Local historian Leone Schmidt details this state of affairs in her 1989 book When the Democrats Ruled DuPage.

This Democrat hold on DuPage politics lasted about two decades. Schmidt concludes her book with the changes that came with the first Republican party candidates in the 1856 elections.

Historian Stephen J. Buck further describes the shift in a 2019 article in the Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society:

In “Free Soil, Free Labor, and Free Men: The Origins of the Republican Party in DuPage County, Illinois,” Stephen Buck synthesizes many of the widely accepted explanations for the Republican Party’s emergence in the 1850s, including the powerful ideal of free-soil in the trans-Mississippi West; opposition to the political clout of the “Slave Power” nationally; and genuine moral commitments to the abolition of Slavery. DuPage County, in Buck’s retelling, serves as a sort of case study in the steady growth of free-soil principles in northern Illinois beginning in the 1840s. Buck finds that by the time of the Lincoln-Douglas debates in 1858, the sectional crisis was so encompassing that it deeply inscribed party identification, even in elections to town and county offices.

This work builds on Buck’s 1992 dissertation where he goes into detail regarding the changes. The issue of slavery and free soil was important in DuPage County and when the Republican Party started in 1854, it quickly attracted support in northern Illinois. In the 1856 elections, Republicans convincingly beat Democrats in local races. And this trend continued in subsequent elections.

Comparing the current shift toward the Democrat party in DuPage County to past shifts, this one seems to be longer in the making. It takes time for suburban populations to change dramatically as different communities attract different residents and national and state politics and forces interact with local conditions. Yet, DuPage residents of the future may well look to the elections of 2016 and 2020 where DuPage turned to the hands of Democrats.

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