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Illinois GOP: Puzzles over ways to rebuild

A blank space presents the perfect opportunity and the ultimate uncertainty. With no blueprint, any structure is possible. On the other hand, no plan means no guarantee. The best design remains elusive.

Illinois Republicans know the feeling. As they contemplate ways to rebuild their party following a string of defeats leaving them nearly powerless in Springfield, they're staring at the equivalent of a blank space. They are practically starting from scratch. The party does have a chance to redefine itself. With Democrats holding virtually all of the power in Springfield, and with Gov. Rod Blagojevich's administration under federal investigation, Republicans have an opportunity to offer a contrast. But there's no consensus yet on how they should construct such an alternative — and no guarantee on whether it will return them to power.

"If the George Ryan factor is not over, I think it's going to be over this year," says former Republican Gov. Jim Thompson, referring to the former GOP governor who was convicted of corruption. "And I don't think Republicans can lean on the excuse of the George Ryan factor for very much longer."

The GOP lost the only statewide post it held — the office of treasurer — in the November election. 

In the state Senate, the party lost five seats — four of them in the suburbs where Republicans have long dominated the political scene. The decimation of the GOP did not occur suddenly, though. The scandals surrounding Ryan may have pushed Republicans off a cliff, but the party had been gathering at the edge for years.

The party's nerve center, which had been concentrated in the governor's office since the early days of Thompson's administration in the late 1970s, collapsed as Ryan went down. At the same time, the party's machinery in the suburbs, where Democrats have made inroads, fell into disarray. The GOP's message as the party of integrity was lost in the negative publicity associated with Ryan. And, even as establishment Republican leaders worked to contain the Ryan debacle, conservative activists worked to paint those leaders as morally bankrupt, more interested in enriching themselves and their pals than in upholding party principles.

The national electoral sweep that put Democrats in control of Congress this year for the first time since 1995 was just the final blow.

"We need to restore the public's faith in our party," says House Minority Leader Tom Cross, an Oswego Republican. "We lost respect and we did a poor job on the integrity side, and that's a combination of some things on the national level and the state level. Refurbishing our image is a very important component of this."

The GOP establishment was slow to accept the fact that Ryan was crashing the party. The longtime Illinois official was extremely popular among GOP establishment leaders, and many in the party regarded him as a paternal figure. He served as Thompson's lieutenant governor in the 1980s, then served two terms as secretary of state before becoming governor in 1999. Last year, state Treasurer Judy Baar Topinka was loath to criticize Ryan — who had already been convicted — until the closing months of her campaign for governor.

At the same time, Blagojevich was able to shroud Topinka with images of Ryan, calling her "George Ryan's treasurer." He cemented that image with a television commercial showing footage from the GOP's unity day at the 2002 State Fair. Ryan was engulfed in scandal but, like other establishment Republicans, Topinka appeared determined to protect him. She stood beside Ryan, nodding and clapping. "You're a damn decent guy, governor," she told him, "and I love you dearly."

Winston & Strawn, the law firm chaired by Thompson until recently, is defending Ryan pro bono in the criminal matter. (The law firm also is representing Blagojevich, apparently in connection with the federal probe of hiring practices in his administration, though Blagojevich is a paying client. During 2005 and 2006, Blagojevich's campaign paid Winston & Strawn $952,517.24 in legal fees.)

Cross says voters are used to hearing stories about corrupt Chicago Democrats, but they expect Republicans to meet higher ethical standards. When Republicans fail the ethics test, Cross believes, voters punish them disproportionately. "When we take a hit on ethics, it's a huge hit," he says.

The unraveling of the party's stature laid bare the fragility of its statewide organization and the gulf between its leadership and its base. That weakness, ironically, may have resulted partly from the long string of top-of-the-ticket victories. The levers of party control were concentrated in the governor's office through 26 years of Republican rule under Thompson, former Gov. Jim Edgar and Ryan.

During that time, Illinois trended increasingly Democratic, what political consultants and pundits call blue. For example, Democrat Jimmy Carter won 41.7 percent of the statewide vote in 1980, while Republican Ronald Reagan won 50 percent. But in 1996, Bill Clinton won 54.3 percent. And in 2004, Democrat John Kerry won 54.8 percent of the vote, while President George W. Bush won just 44.5 percent.

"It's tough to have a strong party structure without having the governor's office, even in these days where, you know, patronage is a forbidden term," Thompson says. "Holding the governor's office allows you to do things for the state of Illinois that make people feel good, and you can unify around these things."

The governor was the party's figurehead. Thompson and Edgar, in particular, were popular leaders who inspired voters to support the GOP.

"The governor has the bully pulpit," Edgar says. "People know about the governor."

Statewide political organizations are not what they used to be. Increasingly, campaigns are driven by flashy candidates and television commercials, rather than party slating and palm cards. Last year, for instance, the Illinois Democratic Party couldn't deliver a nomination for the one nonincumbent statewide candidate it backed in the primary election. Following the wishes of House Speaker Michael Madigan, a Chicago Democrat who is that party's state chairman, Democrats slated Knox County State's Attorney Paul Mangieri for treasurer, but primary voters nominated Chicago banker Alexi Giannoulias, who enjoyed a personal endorsement from ultrapopular U.S. Sen. Barack Obama.

"When people talk about the Republican organization not being strong and that somehow this happened during the Thompson and Edgar years, I think you have to look at the Democrat organization," says Mike Lawrence, director of the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University Carbondale. "Political parties generally aren't as strong as they were 35 to 40 years ago. Most campaigning today is centered on candidates and not on parties."

Edgar adds that local organizations, from county chairmen to precinct committeemen, are the true machinery of a statewide campaign. "The state party can be helpful, but it's not the 800-pound gorilla," he says. "The 800-pound gorilla in this is still the local party organizations."

Yet it's clear that even on this point, the GOP has lost ground. In the November election, the party lost four suburban Senate seats, striking at the heart of the Republicans' geographic base. The Senate Democrats now have more than enough members to steamroll GOP opposition on any measure in that chamber, even those requiring a supermajority of support such as approving state borrowing or overriding the governor.

GOP leaders say the suburban losses stemmed from demographic changes — particularly Democrats moving outward from Chicago — and the pro-Democrat push in the national election. Senate Republican Leader Frank Watson, whose home in downstate Greenville is roughly 250 miles from the suburbs, attributed his team's setback to an "angry voter" phenomenon.

"I don't think the demise of the party in Illinois is totally an Illinois issue," Watson says. "I think there was an angry electorate out there, whether it was the Iraq war or all the problems with Congress and the perceived and actual corruption there."

Watson says the four losses resulted more from this anger than from the region's changing character. "Demographics are changing every day, in the suburbs and throughout Illinois," he says. "A lot of what happened in the suburbs was a changing demographic, but it was more about the angry voter."

Still, it appears there was more at work in the suburbs than voter antipathy to national politics. Senate President Emil Jones Jr., another Chicago Democrat, and Madigan took distinctly different approaches to their coordinated campaigns. Election Day outcomes followed those strategies. While Jones went on the offensive, Madigan largely focused on defending his incumbents rather than trying to capture additional seats.

The House Republicans lost just one seat to the Democrats — the one occupied by Terry Parke, a Hoffman Estates Republican — after Madigan launched an attack in the final weeks of the campaign. Democrat Fred Crespo of Hoffman Estates, the speaker's candidate, captured the seat.

It didn't help Republicans that they had just one incumbent among the four Senate races they lost. And this incumbent, Cheryl Axley of Mount Prospect, had held her seat only since September 2005, when she was appointed to fill out the term of Dave Sullivan, a Republican who left the Senate to become a lobbyist.

Among the other incumbents, Republican Steve Rauschenberger of Elgin ran unsuccessfully for lieutenant governor, Ed Petka of Plainfield did not run for re-election and Adeline Geo-Karis of Zion lost in the primary. The newly elected Democrats are Sens. Michael Bond of Grayslake, Linda Holmes of Aurora, Dan Kotowski of Park Ridge and Michael Noland of Elgin.

The GOP's attempt to keep a Republican in the north suburban district occupied by Geo-Karis, in particular, left egg on the face of its leaders. Geo-Karis came to the United States from Greece as a child. She earned a law degree at DePaul University, became the first woman to practice law in Lake County and served as an officer in the Navy. She was the dean of the Senate, beloved by Republicans and Democrats alike.

But as she neared her 88th birthday last year, GOP leaders feared she would lose in the general election. Watson's lieutenants successfully backed another Republican, Suzanne Simpson, against Geo-Karis in the primary election. 

Geo-Karis then threw her support behind the Democrat in the race, and that Democrat, Bond, beat Simpson in the general election.

"In the Senate Republican debacle, where we lost four suburban Senate seats, I think my leadership had no handle on what it was like to live or run suburban races," says Sen. Kirk Dillard, a Hinsdale Republican.

Dillard is GOP chairman in DuPage County, long the party's stronghold in Illinois. Sen. James "Pate" Philip, who spent 12 years as the chamber's minority leader and 10 as its president, hailed from DuPage. Philip retired in 2003 after the Democrats won control of the Senate, thanks in part to a new legislative district map favoring Democrats.

Rep. Lee Daniels also was from DuPage. He was House Republican leader for nearly 20 years, serving two years as speaker. Daniels stepped down as GOP leader in 2002 amid a federal investigation into whether he improperly used his state staff to work on political campaigns. Daniels' former chief of staff, Michael Tristano, pleaded guilty to corruption charges and is cooperating with federal prosecutors. Daniels has not been charged with wrongdoing, but he resigned from the House last year. 

Republican rank-and-file support may be scattered throughout the state, but Dillard argues the GOP's leaders must come from the suburbs in Cook County and the counties surrounding Cook, where the population is concentrated. "The suburbs are the battleground and should be the GOP base. One suburban township is equivalent to eight or 10 downstate counties in population."

He says the Republican Party is successful in DuPage because it runs an efficient government, operates a professional campaign apparatus, has diversified its base among minorities and has successfully articulated its good-government message.

"My county operation has a message," he says. "And the state party has no message. That's the big difference."

Dillard ran for Senate GOP leader four years ago after Philip retired, but he lost that bid to Watson. Dillard said at the time that the closed-door vote represented something of a backlash against DuPage, but Watson said that wasn't the case. He said he enjoyed support from colleagues around Illinois.

Still, it was clear that the vote for Watson, following decades of suburban leadership, was a coup for downstate Republicans.

"You cannot discount the significance of what was happening nationally in Illinois. I think there is a strong connection," Cross says of GOP losses in the suburbs last year. "But I also think that the days of counting on Republican votes automatically coming out of the suburbs are over. I don't think you can take anything for granted."

Beyond the debate over the locus of the party's geographic base, there are opposing views on how best to reshape the party statewide. Establishment Republicans favor candidates with broad appeal, but party conservatives favor something closer to ideological — or at least partisan — purity.

"You're going to hear a lot of people from the right saying, 'We've got to show voters there's a difference,'" Edgar says. 

"Well, you can show voters there's a difference. But if our difference is something they don't want, that isn't going to do us any good."

Edgar says the GOP must stay focused on reclaiming its image as the party of integrity and fiscal responsibility. 

"At the state level and the local level, you don't want to get too hung up on the national ideology issues because they don't pertain, really, that much to state overnment," he says. "Whether you're an effective governor or not I don't think matters if you're to the right or left of center. It has a lot to do with other issues — your managerial style, your integrity, your ability to pick good people."

Thompson says successful Republican candidates must be attractive to Demo-cratic and independent voters as well as to Republicans. "The question is how do we find candidates who appeal broadly across the state," Thompson says. "You can't win in Illinois just by getting Republicans to vote for you."

Thompson takes a particularly pragmatic view toward party principles. 

As governor, he managed to win re-election — and continued to be popular — after raising taxes, something that is traditionally anathema to Republicans.

"I think voters want economic security; safety in the streets, homes and schools; a common-sense approach to economic development to lift the capacity of the state; and a decent transportation system, whether it's roads, mass transit, railroads or airplanes," Thompson says. 

"After that, it starts to spin off to regional concerns because we're a state of regions, not a unified state. All you've got to do is go through the state and see there are regional concerns in southern Illinois that people in Chicago wouldn't understand and vice versa. A party and the candidates of a party who respond to those imperatives, I think, will do well."

Lawrence, who worked as press secretary for Edgar, argues the GOP must broaden its base to include blacks and Latinos. He says the Republicans must do "sincere outreach."

"It was the height of cynicism to choose Alan Keyes to run for the U.S. Senate from Illinois," he says. "That wasn't extending a hand. It was extending the back of the hand to African Americans."

Conservatives in the party recruited Keyes, an ultraconservative African-American pundit from Maryland, to run against Democrat Barack Obama in 2004 after party nominee Jack Ryan dropped out of the race. Ryan abandoned his bid after his divorce file was unsealed in the midst of his campaign, showing his ex-wife alleged during their divorce that he had dragged her to sex clubs around the world.

Keyes blazed a scorched-earth crusade against what he views as the nation's moral breakdown. He disparaged as morally compromised everybody from fellow Republicans who refused to rally behind him to voters who rejected him at the ballot box.

Sen. Dave Syverson, a Rockford Republican who engineered the Keyes race as a member of the GOP State Central Committee, was elected to the Senate in 1992 together with four other conservative Republicans. The group, known as the "Fab Five," also included Rauschenberger, Chris Lauzen of Aurora, Pat O'Malley of Palos Park and Peter Fitzgerald of Inverness. Fitzgerald, the most successful member of the group, went on to win a U.S. Senate seat in 1998, ousting Democrat Carol Moseley Braun. Lauzen, like Syverson, remains in the Senate. O'Malley ran for governor in 2002, losing the nomination to then-Attorney General Jim Ryan.

Syverson said at the time that he supported Keyes because Illinois Republicans needed somebody who could quickly command the attention necessary to match Obama. Now he says that recruiting Keyes was a mistake and that it did not help advance the interests of social conservatives. "I was pushing Keyes because he was the stronger of two candidates that we were looking at, and he, at the time, was really pushing the economic issues that I thought needed to be pushed by Republicans," he says.

 "We have not done a good job of sending that economic message. And once we get people who will unite both sides of the Republican Party with an understanding that our focus ought to be electing fiscal conservatives and people who believe in smaller government and personal responsibility, then the Republicans can talk about pushing their issues whether on the conservative side or the social side."

Obama won 70 percent of the vote, and Keyes won just 27 percent. Keyes won 10 counties — Clark, Clay, Edwards, Effingham, Iroquois, Jasper, Massac, Richland, Wabash and Wayne — mostly in southeastern Illinois.

The GOP has long been split between the social conservatives and members who take a more liberal approach to matters such as abortion and gay rights. Establishment Republicans tend to be more liberal on social issues, or they believe that such issues should not dominate a platform. They also tend to win statewide elections, and they control the party's statewide infrastructure.

Conservative activists argue that establishment leaders overemphasize their push for a conservative social agenda in order to distract from their own shortcomings. "These people are characterless on any issue, and they're trying to run this right-to-life issue as being the only issue," says Jack Roeser, head of the Carpentersville-based Family Taxpayers Network. "They're nuts. It's only because they are totally broken on any kind of a value issue."

The next great test for the Illinois GOP is right around the corner. Next year, U.S. Sen. Richard Durbin will face re-election, and the Republicans will face an opportunity to capture a statewide seat. Ousting the Springfield Democrat, assuming he runs for re-election, won't be easy. Durbin is now the No. 2 ranking member in the Senate and wields considerable influence in Illinois and in Washington, D.C. 

Moreover, the presidential election also is next year, and dollars for federal campaigns may be scarce.

As of mid-February, a year and a month from the primary election, Republicans had not identified a formi-dable member of their ranks to challenge Durbin.  

Up-and-comers in the GOP establishment range across the party's ideological spectrum from U.S. Rep. Mark Kirk of Highland Park and Sen. Dan Rutherford of Pontiac on the left end to Sen. Bill Brady of Bloomington and U.S. Rep. Peter Roskam of Wheaton on the right end. About a dozen other folks, including Sen. Christine Radogno of Lemont, fall somewhere in between.

Last year, Rutherford ran for secretary of state, Brady ran for governor and Radogno ran for treasurer — all unsuccessfully.

Rutherford says there is hope for the future. In his own race last year, he says he cut into incumbent Democrat Jesse White's support by running an aggressive yet positive campaign. White's Republican challenger in 2002, former Winnebago County Board Chairwoman Kris Cohn, did not win a single county.

"Four years ago, Jesse White won every single county in the state of Illinois," Rutherford says. "Four years later, he did not. I carried 22 counties. And we carried certain counties by 60 percent of the vote."

The GOP farm team also includes Cross, Rep. Aaron Schock of Peoria, Rep. Dan Brady of Bloomington, Rep. Chapin Rose of Mahomet, 

Rep. Timothy Schmitz of Batavia, Sen. Randall Hultgren of Wheaton, Dillard and Andy McKenna, the state party chairman. Rutherford says the GOP must push harder — and deeper — to build its farm team. "We have not been as good at nurturing new people in getting into the base operation of public service," he says. "What I'm talking about is folks in forest preserve districts, aldermen, township officials. We need to be working to get these people on the stage so they can be seen and build their presence."

Establishment Republicans tend to favor candidates who do not champion a conservative social agenda, even though they may believe in the cause. Sen. Brady, for instance, hinted of his conservative views while campaigning for governor last year, but he promoted himself more often as a great advocate for business.

"When I talk with my conservative friends, and I do have many of them," Radogno says, "the thing I raise with them is, 'How are you going to be better off in furthering or advancing or maintaining your position? By having Republicans in office or by having Democrats in office who probably would advance the agenda in exactly the opposite direction?'"

Roeser, on the other hand, would prefer to see a conservative's conservative like Lauzen advance in the Republican ranks. Opposition to abortion is, after all, a plank in the party's platform.

GOP consultant Dave Diersen, who publishes a daily roundup of news stories pertaining to conservative interests, argues that discouraging abortion is one of the party's most important planks. "If a candidate for a government office or political party position believes that government should facilitate abortion, that candidate should run as a Democrat," Diersen says. 

"If a candidate for a government office or political party position believes that government should discourage abortion, that candidate should run as a Republican." 

But it's not simply a conservative social agenda that the right wing of the party is trying to advance. These activists also are working to purge from the GOP leaders they see as sellouts. Dan Proft, a GOP consultant who used to publish a conservative newsletter called IllinoisLeader.com, says the fall of the party revealed that it was "little more than a top-heavy, out-of-touch, visionless ruling council whose legitimacy solely derived from holding the governor's mansion" and other constitutional offices.

"The Illinois GOP is now beset by a chaotic warlord-ocracy because those in the positions of trust and the leadership within the GOP for the past 30 years — Thompson, Edgar and Ryan and those they installed — sold the party out," Proft says.

"By this I mean those persons gave away the moral high ground on ethical leadership, they blurred the lines on the critical issues of the day and they were exposed as hypocrites for their unwillingness to call out the bad actors in our party."

This tension came to a head during Fitzgerald's tenure in the U.S. Senate when he spearheaded the appointment of Patrick Fitzgerald, who is not related, as U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Illinois. It was 2001, and the senator was the state's senior Republican when he recruited Patrick Fitzgerald, then a New York federal prosecutor. Establishment GOP leaders, including U.S. Rep. Dennis Hastert of Yorkville, who was then speaker of the House, resisted the move, ostensibly because the senator did not consult with them and because Patrick Fitzgerald was not from Illinois.

Sen. Fitzgerald had another view. He believed powerful Illinois Republicans, and Democrats, were cool to Patrick Fitzgerald because they could not influence him. The prosecutor has busted public corruption with particular zeal. He presided over George Ryan's conviction, and he is probing the administrations of Blagojevich and Chicago Mayor Richard Daley, both Democrats.

Peter Fitzgerald served one term in the Senate and declined to seek another term in 2004. Topinka, who was chairwoman of the Illinois Republican Party at the time, refused to endorse the incumbent Republican for re-election.

 More recently, social conservatives have focused their ire on Bob Kjellander, the state's GOP national committeeman. In their eyes, Kjellander embodies a party establishment primarily interested in enriching itself financially. Over the past three years, calling for Kjellander's resignation became something of a litmus test in conservative circles. Even Cross, the House GOP leader, has called on Kjellander to step aside.

Kjellander is a friend of presidential political adviser Karl Rove, former treasurer of the Republican National Committee, and the state party's direct line to the White House. He also is a successful Springfield lobbyist who has earned a fortune lobbying Blagojevich's administration. In one instance, he won an $809,000 consulting fee from an investment firm that did business with the administration.

In October, Kjellander was identified as "Individual K" in the plea agreement of Stuart Levine, who pleaded guilty to participating in a scheme designed to steer millions of dollars in kickbacks and other payments from companies seeking business with state boards over which Levine had influence. The feds indicted Antoin "Tony" Rezko, a Blagojevich fundraiser and adviser, as part of the same probe. Rezko is fighting the charges.

Kjellander refuses to step down from the National Republican Committee.

"There's absolutely nothing there," Kjellander says of his surfacing in the Levine plea agreement. "It's two sentences in a 58-page plea agreement. 

All it says is that I was doing my job as a lobbyist for the Carlyle Group, period. I didn't share any fees with anybody. There is nothing wrong there whatsoever. Because it's me, it's the headline."

Roeser, now 83, has bankrolled candidates willing to take on Kjellander. His pick for governor in the last election, dairy magnate Jim Oberweis, used his time onstage at the Illinois State Fair to call on Kjellander to resign his national party post. It was unity day for Repub-licans, and Kjellander was seated next to other party leaders on the same stage.

Roeser says the Republicans can't win unless they show a firm conser- vative vision. He called on Republicans to vote for Blagojevich last year over Topinka. He argued that defeating Topinka, and keeping Blagojevich as governor, was the best way to force the party to rebuild itself.

Roeser himself ran against an incumbent Republican governor, Edgar, in 1994 because he believed Edgar wasn't sufficiently conservative. 

"The Republicans had better have a platform with some decent values in it," he says. "They better find parts of it that are relevant to what's going on in this state right now. And they better present a vision, or Republican voters are not going to come out."

Kjellander calls Roeser a "rule-or-ruin Republican." Other establishment elders say the party's right wing is packed with gadflies like Roeser who ought not to be taken seriously.

"My favorite conversation with Jack Roeser was about the second year I was governor when he came in and said, 'We should be more like George Ryan,'" Edgar says. "Of course he turned on George Ryan — not because of the ethics issue but because George turned out to be more liberal than he thought he was going to be."

The Illinois GOP's problems, it turned out, ran much deeper than party leaders grasped. 


Aaron Chambers is Statehouse reporter for the Rockford Register Star.

Illinois Issues, March 2007

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