Flipping McLean County: 91st District candidates talk about what comes next

Candidates for the 91st District, winner Sharon Chung and Scott Preston.
Candidates for the 91st District, winner Sharon Chung and Scott Preston.(WEEK)
Published: Nov. 9, 2022 at 8:49 PM CST
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BLOOMINGTON/NORMAL (25 News Now) - The race results for the 91st Illinois House seat are historically unusual for the region, with the redrawn district including many areas that have consistently voted Republican in the past. But Tuesday night’s winner is the district’s first Democrat in 40 years.

The newly redrawn 91st district was previously more centered on the other side of the Illinois River. But since the 2020 census, state legislators approved a new map that puts the 91st across multiple counties, including Peoria, Tazewell, Woodford, and McLean. Republican Keith Sommer held the seat prior to the race, but did not seek reelection for this cycle, leaving the seat open.

The race pitted two local candidates against each other for the title: McLean County Board member Sharon Chung for the Democrats, and Normal Town Council member Scott Preston for the Republicans. In the end, Chung claimed victory by four percentage points, leading Preston 52% to 48%. It was an unusual result, given the voting patterns the area had seen for decades.

“It really seems like the Democratic party kind of held serve,” says Associate Professor of the Department of Politics and Government at Illinois State University Carl Palmer.

It was a common pattern across both Illinois and nationwide: Democrats claiming victories in areas that it may not be expected. The results of the race were tight early on, which Chung says were expected to begin with. But once mail-in ballots began to come in, that’s when their optimism took hold. Preston had an advantage in Peoria and Tazewell Counties, but Chung was able to garner the majority of her support from her home turf: the Twin Cities.

“We’ve had a really energized party here, and really taken initiative to turn it around her in McLean County,” she says.

But for a historically red area, what might have lead to the flip? Palmer cities a few possibilities. One possibility is engagement from college students at ISU and Illinois Wesleyan, with reports of up to 1,600 students turning out on Illinois State’s campus to vote on Election Day. There’s also the possibility of having a sudden flip if a party maintains control of power for too long. But the part of the incumbent president usually doesn’t fare as well as those across the aisle, especially if the president’s approval rating is low (a relevant situation).

According to reports, the race for the 91st was particularly well-funded While the candidates couldn’t get into specifics, both noted plenty of support from those in Springfield over the course of the election. All the more reason the district may have avoided the anticipated surge of Republican victories that many were anticipating.

“In this state specifically, the ‘Red Wave’ was really like a soft blue wave, the Democrats really increased their presence,” says Preston.

Palmer states that there’s no definitive answer as to why the election turned out the way that it did. If anything, the answers will lie in information that’s yet to come.

“I really think we’re going to need to see the data to start unpacking this,” says Palmer.

Preston conceded to Chung early Wednesday, publicizing the announcement in a Facebook post. But despite the differing results, both candidates are excited about their future prospects. For Preston, he will continue to serve in his community through his time on the council, as well as taking care of his son Jack, born just three months ago. For him, staying at the forefront of local affairs is were he wants to put much of his focus.

“That’s something I’m passionate about, that’s something I’ve been genuine about from the start, and I look forward to continuing to do that,” notes Preston. “In what ways, I don’t know, but there’s a lot of work to be done.”

As for Chung, she has already broken down multiple political barriers with her victory. The daughter of first-generation Korean immigrants, she will become the first Asian-American elected in any Illinois district outside of Chicago, as well as the first Korean-American to sit on the General Assembly. Sharing the accomplishment with her family last night, she says the rush was still there when we sat down to speak with her. But she knows there’s also a lot to accomplish as she prepares for her January inauguration.

“I’m just really excited for this, to see what we can do. I’m just kind of going along for the ride a little bit right now,” Chung says with a laugh.