On February 28th, Lori Lightfoot will compete against eight challengers in the first round of Chicago’s 2023 mayoral election. If no candidate wins a majority of the vote, the two top candidates from the first round will compete in a decisive runoff election on April 4th. With Lightfoot struggling to keep her approval rating afloat, she is exceptionally unlikely to win a majority of the vote in the first round and will be in a fight to even advance to the impending runoff election. Even if she makes it that far, Lightfoot is in serious jeopardy of losing re-election in a runoff if anti-Lightfoot voters unite around a common candidate. Lightfoot will be pushed hardest by four challengers: Congressman Jesus “Chuy” Garcia, Commissioner Brandon Johnson, businessman Willie Wilson, and (most importantly) perennial Democratic Politician Paul Vallas. Unlike in the recent New York City mayoral election, there are fewer distinctions in the political ideologies of these five competitors. While all of the candidates are somewhat left-leaning, no one identifies with the especially progressive wing of the Democratic Party. Although Paul Vallas has historically run for office as a Democrat, many see him as the effective Republican candidate in the race, given his moderate views on issues such as crime.
Chicago may be a diverse city, but it is one of the most Democratic areas in the nation. The mayoral election is non-partisan, but since Joe Biden won >82% of the city’s vote in 2020, all candidates will be unofficially aligned with the Democratic Party. The city consists of three major coalitions, each of which makes up almost an equal third of Chicago’s population: white college-educated voters, Black voters, and Hispanic voters. Two more minority coalitions, Asian and white non-college voters, could be a decisive block in a close election but lack the electoral prowess to boost a candidate into the runoff election unilaterally.
Most candidates attempt to court one of the three major coalitions of voters, hoping to dominate among them and win enough general support across the rest of the city to make the runoff election.
Preceding her first term as Mayor, Lightfoot served three years as the president of the Chicago Police Board after former mayor Rahm Emanuel appointed her to the position. Although most candidates for Chicago mayor attempt to court specific constituencies in order to power their campaign, Lightfoot won the most consistent support across the city in 2019. Lightfoot polled near the bottom of the field for most of her campaign for mayor but won the first round after an endorsement from the Chicago Sun-Times helped her gain broad appeal across the city. In the end, Lightfoot ran the strongest in the city’s white and well-educated Northern side. Lightfoot should still be strong with those voters, but her success may depend on how well she can court the city’s large African-American population on the South and West edges of the city.
Jesus “Chuy” Garcia emerged as Lightfoot’s top challenger and has polled near the top of the field through most of the winter. He currently serves in the US House of Representatives, representing Illinois’ 4th congressional district, and is a longtime face and name in Chicago politics. Garcia represents about 14% of Chicago’s population and is expected to run very well within the confines of his constituency in the Southwest portion of the city. Garcia’s success will be defined by how well he can run in Northwest Chicago with Hispanic voters he doesn’t currently represent. If Garcia is as successful with them as with the voters in IL-04, he should have a clear path into the runoff.
Paul Vallas is the most notable moderate candidate, challenging Lightfoot from the center and focusing his campaign on the growing crime issues in the city. Vallas has been involved in Illinois politics since 2002 when he narrowly lost to Rod Blagojevich for the Democratic nomination for Illinois Governor. He has welcomed an official endorsement from the Chicago Republican Party and a soft endorsement from former Illinois Governor Bruce Rauner, noting that the election is non-partisan and he wants to represent all Chicagoans. Vallas should run well in the more conservative regions in the corner of the cities, but to qualify for the runoff election, he will need to run well with generally left-leaning college-educated voters on the city’s Northside. Polling shows that Vallas has a great chance of qualifying for the runoff, potentially even finishing first out of the nine candidates.
Brandon Johnson has been a Cook County Board of Commissioners member since 2018, representing the 1st district, including portions of the city of Chicago and some inner-western suburbs. Johnson’s home base in Chicago will be with African-American voters from the city’s western portion, centering on the neighborhoods of Austin and Garfield Park. Johnson describes himself as a progressive and generally positions himself to the left of other candidates in the race, endorsing Elizabeth Warren’s 2020 presidential campaign. Johnson won endorsements of “Squad” member Delia Ramirez and freshman US Representative Jonathan Jackson, son of Jesse Jackson. Johnson has enjoyed solid fundraising but still lags behind some of his more established competitors.
Businessman Willie Wilson is by far the most conservative candidate for Chicago Mayor. Although he describes himself as an “independent Democrat,” he has stated that he voted for Donald Trump in the 2016 Presidential Election and has historically opposed LGBT rights. 2023 is his third campaign for Mayor after he narrowly missed qualifying for the runoff election in 2015 and 2019. Wilson is one of the most well-funded candidates in the field and should perform best with Black voters in the Southern and Western portions of the city. Wilson and Johnson should divide Black voters into more moderate and progressive coalitions but could ultimately draw enough support from each other that neither of them qualifies for the runoff.
Minor Candidates: Four minor candidates could draw support from major candidates and complicate this election for Johnson and Wilson. Given all four of these candidates are Black, and three represent majority Black areas in the South Side of Chicago, it will be slightly harder for Johnson and Wilson to build a large enough margin in heavily African-American areas.
King currently serves as an Alderman for the 4th Ward of Chicago, a South Side heavily Black area that includes the neighborhoods of Kenwood, Oakland, and Hyde Park. King has much stronger fundraising than other minor candidates, so she is the favorite to finish in sixth place. King will draw support from Wilson among southside Black voters.
Bucker currently served in the Illinois House of Representatives, representing neighborhoods near downtown Chicago. Buckner has been unable to gain enough traction to compete seriously in this mayoral race but could run well in his home district (including Downtown, Oakland, and Hyde Park neighborhoods). Bucker’s House district partially overlaps with King’s home base, the 4th ward, which will hurt both candidates given their already narrow base of support. Bucker may draw support from Wilson among southside Black voters.
Green is the farthest left candidate in the field and is a well-known Black Lives Matter activist in the city of Chicago. Green’s campaign has failed to gain any traction or notable endorsements, even from national left-wing politicians he stumped for in the past decade. He has also lagged behind in fundraising.
Sawyer currently serves as an Alderman for the 6th Ward of Chicago, a southside heavily Black Ward around Chatham and Becks Park neighborhoods. Given that Sawyer has spent the least amount of money out of any candidate in the field, he will struggle to contend for a spot in the runoff. However, he could siphon off enough votes from Wilson in and around the 6th Ward to keep him out of the runoff.