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Why Are Republicans Avoiding Social Issues?


Illinois' economy has been topic A among the men seeking the Republican nomination for governor. Getting far less attention are social issues like abortion and same-sex marriage. For a party whose rough primaries have often been compared to “circular firing squads,” the lack of focus on the topic is unusual. Brian Mackey looks at what’s behind the social silence.

State Sen. Kirk Dillard, from Hinsdale, can tell you exactly how close he came to winning the Republican gubernatorial primary four years ago.

MACKEY: “Was it 193 votes?” DILLARD: “Yes, but who’s counting.”

The conventional wisdom is that the 2010 Republican electorate was divided among several moderate candidates, including Dillard. And the rest — full of tea and vinegar, and angry over Obamacare — decided to go with the more apparently conservative Bill Brady. Since then, Dillard's made sure to highlight his conservative credentials. That includes speaking at an anti-same-sex marriage rally last fall.

“Defining marriage between one man and one woman, to protect children and our families, is something that the legislature has a duty to do," Dillard said at the time.

A lot of people in the Capitol had come to think of Dillard as a moderate, and wondered: what happened to that guy? In an interview, Dillard says, "My positions have always been the same. I'm a thoughtful legislator. Yes, I'm a social and fiscal conservative, but someone who clearly lives in the 21st century."

Translation: can we please just talk about something else?

"I'm not into the social issues," Dillard says. "I'm laser-focused on my strength, which is working with the Democrat legislature to make this state solvent again and improving our business climate. The social issues are taking the back burner."

Jobs. The economy. Taxes. There seems to be an unspoken agreement among the candidates to not focus on social issues.

Treasurer Dan Rutherford says it’s not like the Democratic supermajorities in the General Assembly are going to pass, say, restrictions on abortion.

“With all candor, that is perhaps an important issue for some, but ultimately it’s how we’re going to put more people back to work," he says.

There is, however, one candidate who says he’s not only willing to talk about social issues, but probably needs to do more of it.

“In the last election, I was so focused on the economic issues, that we stayed away from some of these social issues, like pro-life," says Sen. Bill Brady, from Bloomington. "And frankly, that was a mistake.”

Brady was the Republican nominee four years ago. He lost, narrowly, to Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn.

“My not articulating my position gave Pat Quinn, and others, the opportunity to define me. And they tried to do it in a very scary way," he says.

Brady says he won’t stand for that this time around.

“Yes, I’m pro-life. But let’s face it: No governor in the country can eliminate a woman’s right to choose," Brady says.

The last candidate in the race is private equity investor Bruce Rauner. (Incidentally, his campaign agreed to let him sit down for an interview — but never followed through.) Rauner spends most of his time criticizing state spending and government employee unions.

When pressed, he has acknowledged a few positions on social issues, like abortion. But it’s not what you’d expect from a Republican.

"I just think it’s better that a woman, and her physician, and her family, and her minister or priest make the choice that — make the decision than the government,” Rauner said at an event last year.

By and large, however, Rauner has robotically avoided talk of social issues. Here’s his response to a straightforward question about same-sex marriage at an editorial board meeting of the Chicago Tribune.

RAUNER: “I’ve said from day one that that’s an issue that should be decided by the voters directly in a referendum, whether, um …” TRIBUNE: “But that’s kind of a dodge now …” RAUNER: “No, well, no …” TRIBUNE: “Do it in your in your heart. Do you favor — do you support same-sex marriage?” RAUNER: “Doesn’t matter. What we should do ...” TRIBUNE: “It matters to us. It matters to voters.” RAUNER: “No. Because the voters …” TRIBUNE: “Why don’t you answer the question?" RAUNER: “… I’m going to do what the voters want done."

Never mind that Illinois doesn’t have legislative referenda.

With opinions that could offend many of the Republicans voters he’s been courting, it’s no surprise Rauner would rather focus on economic issues.

What is surprising is that Republican bigwigs — including some of this state’s most prominent social conservatives — have so far been willing to overlook Rauner’s obfuscation. We’ll soon know if voters are willing to do the same.

Brian Mackey formerly reported on state government and politics for NPR Illinois and a dozen other public radio stations across the state. Before that, he was A&E editor at The State Journal-Register and Statehouse bureau chief for the Chicago Daily Law Bulletin.
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