On a warm fall day this month, Kevin Morrison spent his afternoon knocking on doors in northwest suburban Hoffman Estates.
It’s part of his routine — it is campaign season after all. Morrison, 28, is a Democrat running for a Cook County Board seat in the 15th District, where he grew up.
“This is my community, and I just want to see this county move in a better direction,” he told Paul Budzynski, 58, who took a break from edging his lawn to talk to Morrison.
Morrison is campaigning hard. He’s never run for political office before, though he has worked or volunteered for several politicians. He won his Democratic primary by only 10 votes. And he’s up against Tim Schneider, an established politician and chairman of the Illinois Republican Party.
But Morrison is getting an unusual boost — more than $200,000 from the Cook County Democratic Party. That’s nearly half of all the money Morrison has received, campaign contribution records show. He’s raised three times more than Schneider.
The Party’s chairman, Toni Preckwinkle, also is president of the 17-member county board, and she wants Democrats in almost all those seats.
Preckwinkle hopes to ride the blue wave Democrats predict will sweep the nation on Election Day, Nov. 6. The majority of Cook County voters went for Hillary Clinton for president in 2016 over Donald Trump, according to the Cook County Clerk’s office.
The county board now has four Republican commissioners, and Preckwinkle is going after three of them (the fourth is out of their reach). Their districts are in the suburbs, which overall have increasingly voted for Democratic presidential candidates over the last 30 years, election data show.
Locally, Democrats’ victories would flip the county board almost entirely blue for the first time in at least 20 years.
“This time around as opposed to any time, at least in the recent past, we feel like we have a real opportunity to win those seats,” said Jacob Kaplan, executive director of the Cook County Democratic Party.
Preckwinkle declined to comment.
The party rarely backs candidates at the county board level, Kaplan said. But polling showed the three Democratic candidates have a strong shot at winning. So the party has sunk nearly $700,000 into their races.
Here’s what’s at stake: Cook County is one of the largest counties in the nation. Tip to tip, it stretches from Glencoe along Lake Michigan in the northern suburbs to Steger in the far south suburbs.
County board commissioners are set to control a nearly $6 billion budget in 2019. The money flows to the county-run jail, health system, courts, forest preserves, and more. The board can hike taxes and approve new ones, too.
Schneider, 62, the state GOP chair who is running against Morrison, has a long record and name recognition. He’s led his county district for 12 years.
To him, the blue wave is a just a lot of hype.
“On the Republican side, we think there could be basically a potential red tsunami,” Schneider said.
He helped repeal one of the most hated Cook County taxes in recent history — a penny per ounce on sugary beverages — and got Democrats to buy in, too.
He sees himself as part of a firewall, a check on government. And there are some signs that Preckwinkle might try to raise taxes next year. Preckwinkle, who is running for Chicago mayor, recently pitched a 2019 budget with no new taxes, fees, or fines. Yet, there’s potentially a big deficit on the way.
“She has said that she is going to go out and raise between $100 and $200 million in the next year, so there’s only three ways you can do that,” Schneider said. “You can reinstate the soda tax, you can increase the property tax, or you can increase the sale tax.”
There are two other Republicans also seen as part of the firewall Preckwinkle is trying to knock down.
Sean Morrison is the Republican county commissioner in the 17th District, which stretches from near O’Hare airport to the southwest suburbs.
Morrison also is the Cook County GOP leader. He’s against taxes and for spending cuts, and for standing up to the Chicago Political Machine. Morrison didn’t return messages to comment.
His Democratic opponent is Abdelnasser Rashid, former deputy chief of staff to Cook County Clerk David Orr. His office runs suburban elections.
Rashid said a big moment that inspired him to run for office happened more than a year ago.
Rashid was at a Western Springs village board meeting representing Orr when trustees voted to opt out of county rules that hiked minimum wage and provided paid sick leave for workers.
“My wife and I looked at each other in shock,” said Rashid, 29. She and Rashid’s young daughter had come to the meeting, too.
“How could these incredibly wealthy trustees in one of the wealthiest towns in the county and in the country vote to reduce the wages for folks who were just earning a minimum wage,” he said.
The board later reversed its stance. But Rashid was fired up to run. He’s raised about $687,000. Almost 40 percent is from the Democrat Party. He’s outraised Sean Morrison by five to one.
There’s a third Democrat Preckwinkle is helping: Scott Britton from the northwest suburbs. He wants to unseat Republican incumbent Gregg Goslin in the 14th District.
Britton is a Chicago lawyer and a longtime public official in Glenview. He’s grateful for the Democratic Party’s financial support.
“Certainly from a financial standpoint … it has made it a lot easier for me to get my message out,” said Britton, 57. “Absent that, I think it was going to be a lot harder.”
Nearly 60 percent of Britton’s roughly $380,000 in total contributions is from the Democratic Party.
Still, he said he’ll be an independent voice should he win.
Britton’s Republican opponent Gregg Goslin has been on the county board for 20 years. He’s voted against new taxes and tax hikes, many that Preckwinkle pushed.
But he says he’s surprised she’s targeting him.
“She’s not warm and cuddly, but we had a nice relationship, so for her to do this to me or to my colleagues, it just wounds me,” said Goslin, 65, a real estate developer.
He added that he wants just one more four-year term on the county board. Goslin has raised just $7,250 this year.
Besides having lots of money, who wins the county board seats comes down to an old-fashioned ground game.
“You have to knock on doors,” said Melissa Mouritsen, an associate political science professor at the College of DuPage. “You have to talk to people and you have to make a connection with people. … And I’ll say as a suburban Cook County resident myself, tell me something different.”
Kristen Schorsch covers Cook County politics for WBEZ. Follow her @kschorsch.