Old, but Still Grand? At the Moment, Things Can Only Look Up for Illinois Republicans

May 1, 2013

Abraham Lincoln is surely the most famous Republican from Illinois.
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There’s a sure-fire way to bug Republicans in Illinois: Call them up every two years and ask them why they can’t win elections. You almost can hear them wince as they explain what’s gone wrong and what they need to do to win over voters in the future. 

Add to their anxiety the ticking clock that is the 2014 Illinois gubernatorial race.

“I’m not totally pessimistic about the party in Illinois. I think nationally we’ve moved too far to the right, and that’s why we can’t win national races,” says former Illinois Gov. Jim Edgar, a moderate downstate Republican who left office after two terms in 1999 with a historically high approval rating.

“In Illinois, I think we still have the opportunity to be on equal footing with the Democrats, but we need to win the governorship. That’s why in two years, it’s the ballgame. If we don’t win it, then it could be a long, long time before the Republican Party is viable again in Illinois.”

The Grand Old Party — the party of Lincoln, the party of smaller government — can’t seem to catch a break these days, nor can it seem to convince a majority of voters that there is a place for them under the Republican umbrella. 

In November, with Illinois’ Democratic President Barack Obama on the ballot for re-election, Republicans failed to prevent Democrats from achieving veto-proof majorities in both chambers of the Illinois legislature. Republicans lost five Illinois Senate seats, giving Democrats a 40-to-19 majority. The GOP also lost seven Illinois House seats, meaning Republicans have only 47 seats to the Democrats’ 71.

  In Congress, Illinois Republicans lost four seats — including freshman Tea Party lawmaker Joe Walsh, who lost to Democrat Tammy Duckworth; longtime Republican Rep. Judy Biggert, who lost to Democrat Rep. Bill Foster; freshman Rep. Bob Dold, who lost to Democrat Brad Schneider; and freshman Rep. Bobby Schilling, who lost to Democrat Cheri Bustos.

In 2010, Republicans failed to get state Sen. Bill Brady into the governor’s mansion — even after disgraced ex-Democratic Gov. Rod Blagojevich had been brought up on federal corruption charges, and even against Gov. Pat Quinn, Blagojevich’s former lieutenant governor who had replaced him after he was impeached. During the campaign, Quinn painted Brady as a far-right conservative.

What’s going on? A lot, observers say.

  • It’s the Democratic-favored redistricting in Illinois.
  • It’s the party’s inability to connect with voters.
  • It’s the ideological conflict of Republicans who want limited government but believe the state should regulate such bedroom issues as same-sex marriage and abortion.
  • It’s the Democratic Illinois president in the White House and an election cycle in which people are voting for Democrats.
  • It’s the national debate on matters such as immigration, which deters Hispanic voters.
  • It’s bizarre, foot-in-the-mouth social commentary from such Republicans as Missouri’s Todd Akin (“legitimate rape”) and Indiana’s Richard Mourdock (pregnancy from rape “is something that God intended to happen”).

Illinois Republicans are proud to claim native son Ronald Reagan.
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  “When you have as bad a cycle as we did, you have to take a good, hard look at what you did right and what you did wrong,” says Pat Brady, chairman of the Illinois Republican Party, calling the losses “a natural byproduct of a bad election cycle.”

“I think that’s very healthy and productive, and we’ll deal a better result in the next election and the election after that.”

Critics in the party blamed chairman Brady after the stunning defeats in November. He also found himself in the midst of a public debate earlier this year over the issue of same-sex marriage. Brady expressed a more moderate position on the subject, saying he personally supports same-sex marriage. Several more-conservative members of the party, though, jumped on him afterward, suggesting he was unfit for the post and was disloyal to the party’s platform. Other Republicans came to his defense.

“I feel sorry for whoever is the state party chair when you don’t have the governorship because you don’t have leverage,” Edgar says. “I think Pat Brady has done as good a job as somebody can do in that position.”

Social issues, such as same-sex marriage and abortion, continue to be a sticking point for voters when it comes to casting ballots for Republicans. A Pew Research poll released in late March showed 44 percent of Americans oppose same-sex marriage, compared with 49 percent in favor of it.

That’s hardly a consensus. But here’s the statistic that matters: 70 percent of millennial voters — those between 18 and 32 years old — support same-sex marriage. The poll also showed that support for same-sex marriage by young conservatives and those who identify themselves as Republicans has nearly doubled during the past decade.

That’s where Republicans, many of whom are opposed to same-sex marriage, are failing to connect with a key demographic — young voters. Millennials perceive the GOP as a party for older white men who are too conservative and too involved in things that, by definition, Republicans shouldn’t be involved in.

Illinois Sen. Jim Oberweis, a conservative Republican who was critical of Brady after he expressed his opinion on same-sex marriage, says he doesn’t know exactly what the GOP needs to do to be more successful in Illinois.

“I wish I knew the answer to that question. I could be a hero,” he says. “My belief is that we 

  must stick to our fundamentals, and our fundamentals have to be about improving the business climate in Illinois. The business climate has been poisoned by years and years of Democrat domination, in my opinion, and they have made life more difficult.”

Former Gov. James R. “Big Jim” Thompson was a master on the stump.
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  Brady says: “Social issues certainly are important, but I do not think they are deal breakers, necessarily, for people that don’t go lockstep on the social issues, particularly among young people. If you want to attract them, you can’t appear to be too rigid on social issues.”

Social issues became part of the Republican ideology in the post Roe v. Wade era, when the Christian Coalition, Protestant fundamentalists and the “Moral Majority” were activated in the party and became a political force. Fiscal conservatism is still a major part of the Republican platform, but social issues continue to play a heavy role in the political conversation. 

“I think in 20 years, [same-sex marriage] will be a moot point. The younger generations don’t understand our viewpoint on that at all,” Edgar says. “But I don’t think that should be the defining point of whether you’re a Republican or not. I don’t think there’s any one issue that should be the defining issue.

“The social issues that have dominated the last decade or so have put us in a position that has made it difficult to win a national election. Young people don’t agree with us on most social issues at all, even if they do agree with us on the fiscal issues.”

  When it comes to Republicans and their stance on gay marriage, “young people just don’t understand what the problem is,” says Chris Mooney, a political science professor at the University of Illinois Springfield, “whereas [some lawmakers] would live and die by it.”

One significant difference between Republicans and Democrats is that Republicans have a point of view and have always stood for something — limited government, lower taxes and the like. The Democratic Party is more of a composite of interests. That’s why the electorate’s evolving view on social issues has been so difficult for Republicans, Mooney says.

Former Gov. Jim Edgar ended his two terms with a high approval rating.
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  “It’s hard for them to make some of these changes because they don’t want to violate their principles. Gay marriage is a classic example. It’s changed so fast they don’t know what to do with it,” he says.

“If it turns out to be such a popular thing with exactly the constituency they need to appeal to — young people, Libertarians — the problem is that it violates the [Republicans’] whole family-values thing. The Democrats have this problem, too, but they’ve hung their hats less on social issues than the Republicans have. So it’s tough.

“It really all comes down to demographics,” Mooney adds. “It’s not like Republicans are any more driven by differences than the Democrats are. But the Democrats are winning, and it’s a lot easier to be magnanimous and happier with yourself when you’re winning.”

The other big problem for Republicans in Illinois was the redrawing of the state’s congressional and legislative maps, a process controlled by Democrats and designed to favor Democrats. 

“A lot of people say, ‘Look at how bad the Republicans did in Illinois during the last election.’ It underscores the importance of controlling redistricting,” Edgar says. “I think that had a lot to do with what happened. I don’t view that as an indication that the Republican Party is doomed in Illinois. I think we just didn’t have control of the map. Now it means probably for the next decade we won’t control the legislature.”

That is where the microscope focuses. To have a say in Illinois public policy again, the Republicans may have to retool their message, win over young voters and regain the governorship in 2014. Republicans may have a chance if they put up the right candidate, and that probably means someone moderate.

House Minority Leader Tom Cross, a moderate Republican from Oswego, says the governor’s race is critical for the future of the Republican Party in Illinois.

“The Democrats have just done such an atrocious job governing. They spend too much money, they’ve raised taxes, unemployment is up. The pension system became even worse when they shorted the payments in the mid-2000s,” says Cross, a state lawmaker since 1993. “I think where they’ve gone on policy has been so bad that if we can have a discussion in the upcoming gubernatorial race on economic issues, we have a good shot of moving the ball forward.”

Oberweis says the party has an image crisis in which people view Republicans as not interested in helping people in need. Not true, he says. Republicans want to help, but they want to do it in a fiscally sound fashion, “not spending money hand over fist.”

“I’ll be honest with you, I’ve gotten an education as a new state senator. I believe at least 50 percent of my colleagues are well-intentioned people who believe their job in Springfield is to help allocate the unlimited resources of the state in ways that they see most beneficial,” he says. “I’m not saying they’re bad people. I’m saying they’re good people trying to do good things, but they view the state of Illinois as an infinite pool of money to do good things with, and we don’t have an infinite pool of money.”

Ultimately, Oberweis says, Republicans must convince voters the GOP is well-intentioned and open to new ideas and helping people who need a hand. Success in 2014 is going to depend on how well the party campaigns in Chicago, he believes.

“The other side just keeps promising, ‘We’ll spend more on this,’ and ‘We’ll spend more on that,’” he says. “It’s hard to overcome. We can’t just be the party that says, ‘No, you can’t spend money on that or that.’ We have to emphasize we’re trying to do the right thing for the long term, not just the short term.”

So how do Republicans change the message? It has to begin at the national level, they say, and, in fact, already has. 

“You have to broaden the party, which means not discouraging people who don’t agree with everything in the platform,” Brady says. “I think when you look at the time when we’ve had the most success is when we were the party of big ideas, whether it was Abraham Lincoln and abolishing slavery and preserving the union … or Ronald Reagan with ‘Get Government Off Your Back.’ I think we learned from the last election that our message has to be a positive one and about how we’re going to make people’s lives better. We can’t be the party of ‘We’re Always Against Something.’ We have to be for something.”

The immigration issue at the national level also must be hammered out because it has affected Illinois, Cross says.

“When I talk to friends of mine in the Latino or Hispanic community, they say people in their community are immediately turned off and think deportation, so we can’t even get them to listen to our message about fiscal issues or education or public safety. They don’t even want to listen, he says. “I think whether it’s immigration or social issues, that’s hurt us in our ability to communicate about where we are on jobs, taxes and fiscal issues that I think we’re right on, but if you’re so turned off, you’re not willing to listen to us.”

Getting the right message to the right people won’t happen overnight, Cross says. The party must re-establish relationships, build trust and make sure voters hear from Republicans who are “thoughtful and not flame-throwing kind of elected officials.”

“Those are the kind of people that will help us emerge from this and establish credibility with voters in those areas where we lost,” Cross says.

“I think we have to be careful not to sound hateful or hurtful or intolerant. I think we sometimes come across that way. People have the right to voice their opinions, but we have to think before we speak and make sure what we say and when we voice our opinion, regardless of what side you’re on, that it’s not viewed in a hurtful, hateful manner.” 

Brady says the 2014 election will play out differently for Republicans. For one thing, he says, Republicans are focusing on “voter technology” to give them an edge over Democrats. That will enable them to identify voters and get their message out in a more sophisticated fashion.

“In Illinois, we’re ahead of the Democrats right now in terms of technology. That, to me, is going to make up the difference,” Brady says, adding that he thinks the future is bright for the GOP. “Here in Illinois, we have great young candidates. They’re very diverse. We really have a very solid crew of people to build a good party around.”

Edgar says he thinks a shift to the center also is necessary for the GOP, as well as a major effort to attract young voters and women — “or we’ll go the way of the Whigs.”

“In Illinois, I think we’re in better shape for that [than nationally],” he says. “I think we’re in a position where if we nominate the right person, we have a good chance of winning the governorship in two years. That will make a big difference. We won’t be having these discussions like we have every two years with Illinois Issues.”

Jayette Bolinski is a freelance journalist in Springfield and a former reporter for The State Journal-Register and at the state Capitol.

Illinois Issues, May 2013