Mayor Lori Lightfoot (D) is bracing for a competitive reelection bid this Tuesday as she vies against eight other challengers for a spot in the Chicago mayoral race’s runoff election in April.
Lightfoot, once a political outsider and reformer candidate, made headlines four years ago as an underdog candidate who beat the odds to become the city’s first Black female mayor, as well as its first openly gay mayor.
But fast forward to 2023, and Lightfoot’s political future is less clear. Given the unlikeliness that no one candidate will outright win at least 50 percent of the vote on Tuesday, Lightfoot needs to be one of the two top vote-getters to head to the runoff race in April.
Here are five things to watch for ahead of the Chicago mayoral race:
Does Lightfoot get knocked out in the first round?
Lightfoot could get knocked out in the first round of Chicago’s mayoral race, becoming the city’s first mayoral incumbent in over 30 years to lose their election. Her path toward reelection is far from certain, given that recent polling shows her either in a statistical tie for first place or trailing several other challengers.
Her top competitors according to surveys include former Chicago Public Schools (CPS) CEO Paul Vallas, Rep. Congressman Jesús “Chuy” García (D-Ill.) and Cook County Commissioner Brandon Johnson.
Vallas and García have previously run for mayor, with the congressman making it into a runoff against former Mayor Rahm Emmanuel in 2015. García ultimately lost that race by double digits. Meanwhile, this is Johnson’s first time running for the city’s top executive position.
At the same time, polling hasn’t always been an accurate predictor. In Chicago’s last mayoral race in 2019 — in which Lightfoot won — a Chicago Sun-Times poll found Lightfoot at 2.8 percent in late January while the top two challengers in the poll were shown to be Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle and Bill Daley, whose father and brother were also mayors of Chicago.
If not, how close is it between Lightfoot and her challenger?
If Lightfoot advances into the April runoff, politicos will be keeping tabs on the margin between her and her challenger and, more importantly, where her support comes from.
Experts credited her ability to make the runoff last time in 2019 in part because of white, progressive-leaning voters from the North Side’s lakefront area. But some politicos suggest that García or Johnson may have a better shot at that group of voters this time around.
Both men have received high-profile endorsements from unions. Johnson has the backing of the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU), the Illinois Federation of Teachers, and SEIU Healthcare. Meanwhile, García has received union endorsements from groups like International Union of Operating Engineers Local 150 in addition to former and current elected officials like former Gov. Pat Quinn (D).
Unions like Plumbers Local Union 130 UA and Local 881 United Food and Commercial Workers have both donated to Lightfoot’s reelection campaign, while she’s also enjoyed support from key individuals like Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-Il.) and former Illinois Secretary of State Jesse White (D).
Does Paul Vallas make it into the runoff?
Recent polling suggests that Vallas is likely to make the Chicago mayoral race runoff on April 4.
A Chicago Sun-Times-WBEZ-Telemundo Chicago-NBC5 poll released earlier this month showed Vallas in a statistical tie for first place between Lightfoot and García, with the congressman receiving 20 percent and Vallas and Lightfoot receiving 18 and 17 percent, respectively.
A separate poll from a group of Black and Latino nonprofits and the Center for the Study of Diversity and Democracy at Northwestern University found Vallas leading at 19 percent, followed by García with 17 percent support and Lightfoot at 14 percent.
Those polls come despite the fact that Vallas has been hit by opponents who have cast him as a Republican and pointed to his support from the Fraternal Order of the Police. News coverage has also noted he’s received support from some individuals who have donated to Republicans in the past.
But some experts believe that Vallas’s tough-on-crime messaging could help him galvanize support in a year when crime and public safety is a top issue for many voters.
What does high early turnout mean for Tuesday?
Election officials and local news outlets have noted that there’s high interest in this year’s Chicago elections, which also include races for all 50 wards’ alderman positions, new police district councils and other top elected official positions.
WTTW reported last Wednesday that early voting seen in Chicago at that point was close to triple the amount of early votes cast in the last two Chicago mayoral elections. The Chicago Board of Elections on Sunday reported that close to 178,000 ballots had been cast as of Saturday night while another over 15,000 mail-in votes were still being processed.
Among the age groups that are leading in early voting are voters aged 65 to 74 years old, followed by those who are 75 years and older and, third, 55- to 64-year-olds.
It remains to be seen whether the same level of enthusiasm among residents casting early votes will carry over to those who may vote on election day, and what that would mean for Tuesday’s results.
Do concerns over crime tip the scales?
Polling has found crime and public safety to be the most important issue on many residents’ minds in the Chicago mayoral race, but whether the issue serves as a referendum against Lightfoot is less clear.
After all, Lightfoot took office during a pandemic — an unprecedented event that tested mayors and other elected officials across the country. Data from the Chicago Police Department suggests that criminal complaints in 2022 on crimes like murder and theft are above pre-pandemic levels in 2019, while other criminal complaints for crimes like burglary and aggravated battery are lower than four years ago.
Candidates like Lightfoot and García have launched ads centered around crime and public safety, in a sign of how significant the issue is in the race.
In one ad, García touches on how he almost lost his son to gangs while in another, Lightfoot accuses Johnson of wanting to defund police, using a 2020 interview in which he said the statement isn’t a slogan but “an actual real political goal.”
Johnson in an interview with The Hill last week would not say whether he would remove funding from the Chicago Police Department if elected mayor, only saying he would be “investing in what works.”