Illinois 17th District
Illinois’s western prairies are some of America’s richest agricultural land. They were first settled by Yankees coming overland from northern Indiana and Ohio and upstate New York. After 1848, Germans left their homeland in search of better opportunities and settled in a place that in many ways resembled the flat, orderly plains of northern Germany. These migrants farmed quarter-sections and built small towns, with banks and stores, community churches and libraries. As farming expanded, so did the need for agricultural equipment. Entrepreneurs and investors built farm-machinery factories, and the Quad Cities of the Mississippi—Davenport and Bettendorf in Iowa, and Rock Island and Moline in Illinois—became one of the nation’s biggest agricultural-equipment manufacturing centers. The plants were unionized in the 1930s and 1940s, and in post-World War II America wages went up as the demand for more sophisticated machines increased on Midwest farms, many of them reliant on government subsidies. But eventually the cost of subsidies rose too high, and the market had its revenge. In the early 1980s, farm profits vanished, land values declined and orders for new machinery and equipment dried up. The result was a depression in western Illinois and neighboring Iowa, and a political swing toward the Democrats and away from the Republicans, who had been the ancestral party in most of this area. The Democratic tide has receded a bit, but this was still one of the few parts of rural America carried by Al Gore in 2000, John Kerry in 2004, and Barack Obama in 2008. Recent job losses and wildly oscillating farm prices have helped Democrats maintain majorities here. From 2000 to 2007, population in the region declined, with Rock Island down 3.2% and East Moline down 2.5%, and median household income fell 18% in Rock Island and 16% in East Moline.
2008 Presidential Vote
|Cook Partisan Voting Index|
The 17th Congressional District includes the Illinois portion of the Quad Cities plus several rural counties to the south. It takes in the entire Mississippi River border with Iowa almost to St. Louis. From there, the geography gets more imaginative. A thin strip of land along the Mississippi River and the lower Illinois River connects the district to an extension that includes rural Macoupin County and some parts east of there. Then another thin reed sprouts north from Macoupin to include central Springfield (but not the state Capitol building), and then reaches some 40 miles farther east to take in a portion of the city of Decatur. Decatur is home to politically influential Archer Daniels Midland, the world’s largest agricultural processor and a key champion of ethanol. It would be fairly easy to drive directly from any part of the 17th District to another, but only if you crossed over into the 18th or 19th districts. There is, of course, a political explanation for this weird configuration. By removing the Republican counties east and north of the Quad Cities during redistricting, the 17th District was made more safely Democratic, and neighboring districts were reinforced for Republicans. Macoupin County is historically Democratic, and central Springfield and Decatur are solidly Democratic.