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Republicans teeter toward irrelevance after blowout

Illinois’ Republican Party teeters on the edge of irrelevance from the shellacking it received Tuesday when voters backed a blue wave of Democrats and rejected the GOP’s further rightward movement that has been accelerated by former President Donald Trump and its lockstep ideology.

Nominating the most conservative candidate for governor in modern times, state Sen. Darren Bailey of Xenia, proved too much for general election voters in Illinois. Bailey’s rural, regional and evangelical Christian campaign theme to challenge progressive Democratic Gov. J.B. Pritzker was soundly repudiated, particularly in the suburbs, where voters rejected his opposition to abortion and gay rights, support of gun rights and labeling of Chicago as a “hellhole.”

Bailey’s losing coattails helped Democrats, who retained both U.S. Senate seats, took a 14-3 advantage in the state’s congressional delegation, kept all statewide elected offices, enhanced their majority on the Illinois Supreme Court and cast Republicans further into minority status in the Illinois General Assembly.

The Democratic wins even forced a changing of the guard in GOP leadership in the Illinois House and possibly the state Senate.

Moreover, the collar counties that were once the home of bedrock Republicanism as a contrast to Democratic Cook County and Chicago became more solidly Democratic, and the partisan evolution is beginning to sweep into exurban counties like DeKalb and Kendall McHenry County remained the one regional Republican exception, though barely.

The GOP losses symbolize a political party that has failed to adapt to the changing diverse demographics of the suburbs, moving from a message of social moderation and fiscal conservatism to a rigid-right ideology that is aging along with its dwindling base.

And with the possibility of Republicans being led by a new White House bid by Trump in a state that twice rejected his general election candidacy by 17 percentage points, the prospects for the GOP in 2024, with larger presidential year election turnout, may get even worse.

Don Tracy, who chairs the state GOP, called the results “very disappointing” and acknowledged Republicans did “terrible in the suburbs.”

But he did not mention candidate quality, party ideology or the Trump factor in his weekly “chairman’s memo” to the Republican faithful. Instead, he blamed the Republicans’ poor showing on “Pritzker-bucks,” a “well-oiled” Democratic operation for mail-in and early voting and “the advantages of incumbency.”

”We had lots of really great candidates” who were “constantly attacked by the Democrats on abortion, made-up issues and alleged extremism,” Tracy said. “In the coming days/weeks, we will be doing a deeper analysis on the elections and will share our thoughts on how best to move forward.”

But other Republicans found the source of blame to lie with the state of Republicanism today.

Former Gov. Jim Edgar, the state’s last two-term Republican governor, pins the blame on GOP primary voters fielding the far-right Bailey to effectively lead the ticket.

“We need more moderate candidates preferably at the top of the ticket. I mean, you had some good (GOP) people that just got kind of wiped out because the top of the ticket just wasn’t in sync with where the voters of Illinois are. We just can’t keep doing it and ever hope to be a viable party again,” said Edgar, who served from 1991 to 1999.

“We’re gonna have to realize there’s some issues that we’re going to have to be a little more tolerant on. We’re gonna have to figure out how we can diversify the party base. I mean, old white people is not a way to build long-term success in American politics, particularly in Illinois,” he said.

Ryan Burge, an assistant professor of political science at Eastern Illinois University in Charleston, said the Republican loss of suburbia is key to a minority status that he said is making the GOP irrelevant.

“I think the future of the Republican Party is that they gotta figure out who the heck they are and how they can appeal to suburban Chicago voters,” Burge said.

“I think the story of this election is Republicans cannot nominate a guy who was just radioactive in the collars — I don’t care how much you run up the score downstate,” Burge said. Citing the 2014 win of single-term Republican Bruce Rauner as governor, Burge said, “You can’t go from 60% Rauner in 2014 and 40% Bailey in Lake County and even think about winning. That’s not possible.”

Unofficial returns showed Bailey received about 37.5% of the vote in Lake County while the official count showed Rauner got 58% of the county’s ballots eight years ago. This year, Pritzker got nearly 60% of the county’s votes, according to unofficial returns.

An AP VoteCast survey of Illinois general election voters found suburban voters representing 49% of the state’s vote and supporting Pritzker 57% to 37% for Bailey. Suburban women, always a key demographic in statewide races, cast 26% of Illinois’ votes for governor and they went 61% to 31% for Pritzker, the survey showed.

Illinois House Republican leader Jim Durkin of Western Springs, who announced early Wednesday that he would not seek another term heading the GOP caucus, said nominating candidates like Bailey for statewide office is a losing strategy. Durkin has fended off previous challenges from more conservative members of his party. He saw the Democrats’ 73-45 advantage over Republicans likely go to at least 77-41 in the next General Assembly.

“I don’t know why we continue to nominate people who have an ultraconservative attitude toward government, knowing full well that it will be rejected in the area where the most votes are going to be cast,” he said.

Durkin noted his votes in favor of ratifying the Equal Rights Amendment and a previous proposal to ban assault weapons as examples of positions on “commonsense issues” in the voter-rich and increasingly Democratic-leaning suburbs.

Illinois House Republican leader Jim Durkin speaks on Republican Day at the Illinois State Fair in Springfield on Aug. 18, 2022. He announced last week he won't seek another term.

Durkin’s leadership role wasn’t the only casualty of the election. Several members of his leadership team — many of whom have records of bipartisanship — will be gone when the new legislature is sworn in early next year.

Along with Rep. Dan Brady of Bloomington, who ran unsuccessfully for secretary of state, Rep. Tom Demmer of Dixon lost for state treasurer and Rep. Avery Bourne of Morrisonville made a failed bid for lieutenant governor in the June GOP primary. Rep. David Welter of Morris lost to a more conservative challenger in the primary, and Rep. Keith Wheeler of Oswego was unseated in the general election. Rep. Mark Batinick of Plainfield, meanwhile, chose not to seek another term. Early Friday morning, Rep. Tim Butler of Springfield, who was reelected three days earlier, said he would resign before the new legislature is seated to take a job with the Illinois Railroad Association.

A powerful driver of Democratic turnout was abortion rights. While Republicans who oppose abortion may have cheered the U.S. Supreme Court’s late June ruling overturning Roe v. Wade, sending the issue to the states, it may have cost them at the ballot box, particularly among suburban women who tend to be socially moderate but fiscally conservative.

“I think people underestimated the abortion issue,” said Edgar, who supported abortion rights as governor. “I think that was the underlying issue in this election, not only in Illinois but throughout the nation. But I think it’s an example of where Republicans seem like they’re on the wrong side of issues.”

While the economy and inflation registered as the most important issue, the AP VoteCast found 27% of Illinois voters viewed the reversal of Roe as the “single most important factor” in their vote, and 78% of them voted for Pritzker, an ardent supporter of abortion rights who signed a law enshrining that right in state law. Another 17% voted for Bailey, who opposes abortion except in cases where a woman’s life is in jeopardy. Another 44% of Illinois voters called the reversal of Roe “an important factor” in casting their vote and sided 67% to 27% for Pritzker.

No current member of the Republican legislative minority supports abortion rights.

“Moderates (are) the trend of a certain portion of the state,” said Brady, who lost his bid for secretary of state to Democrat Alexi Giannoulias.

“And people want their government to work for them, but they don’t want government … invading their privacy on social issues and telling them what they can or can’t do with their bodies or with their other issues that are important to them,” he said.

Money also is an issue for Republicans. Rauner, a wealthy investor, used his wealth to fund GOP candidates up and down the ballot during his tenure, but after he lost to Pritzker, a billionaire entrepreneur and an heir to the Hyatt Hotels fortune in 2018, Rauner’s money for the GOP dried up.

This time around, Ken Griffin, the billionaire founder of the Citadel investment firm, sought to field his own Republican slate of candidates and funded his candidate for governor, Aurora Mayor Richard Irvin, with $50 million. But Irvin ran a disjointed and poor campaign and finished third as primary voters backed Bailey, who was assisted by more than $30 million in ads from Pritzker and the Democratic Governors Association that saw Bailey as an easier candidate for Pritzker to defeat in the general election.

As the primary campaign came to a close and Irvin’s defeat evident, Griffin moved from Chicago to Florida, joining Rauner in the state and taking his money with him.

That left conservative billionaire megadonor Richard Uihlein, founder of the Uline office supply and packaging firm, as a $54 million source of funding to assist Bailey — primarily through a political action committee run by a right-wing radio host and political operative, Dan Proft of Naples, Florida. Proft, who finished sixth in the 2010 GOP primary for governor, has had little success as an operative in political contests.

“We can’t hitch our wagon to this one person and they’re going to fund everything and consultants around them are going to either lead them or mislead them,” said Brady, who defeated the Griffin-backed secretary of state candidate in the GOP primary.

State Rep. Dan Brady, the Republican nominee for secretary of state, campaigns at Manny's Cafeteria & Delicatessen on Jefferson Street in Chicago on Oct. 5, 2022.

The Trump factor also looms large over Republicans in a state that has overwhelmingly opposed him. Bailey was endorsed by the former president just days before the June 28 primary and Trump has proved to be a drag on the state GOP ticket.

“We need somebody to come along like a Reagan that maybe agrees with some or many of the (GOP base’s) positions but has a more gentle way of doing it, a friendly way of doing it,” Edgar said.

“I would never call Trump friendly. I mean, he just always has got a scowl on his face and that’s kind of the image of the Republican Party. We are unfortunately a Trump party, though, after (election) night I hope we realize we need to move away from that,” the former governor said. “Trump’s a lot harder to sell in Illinois than he is nationwide so it’s very important that we get away from that image, but I’m not sure that’ll happen.”

Durkin was more blunt in his assessment of the former president.

“If people are going to continue to hold on to him and fall on a sword for him, they’re making a terrible mistake because he would not do that for them,” Durkin said. “Donald Trump is a narcissist … who can’t accept that he’s actually lost an election. He’s led a life of bullying people and getting his way.

“But the fact is, he lost and he needs to move on and so do his supporters because … obviously, Tuesday, he was a drag, he was a weight that brought down this party. And I hope that everybody realizes that his influence is over.”

A major factor in determining where the party goes from here will be who House Republicans choose to lead their caucus going forward and whether their counterparts in the Senate will stick with GOP leader Dan McConchie of Hawthorn Woods or move in a new direction.

McConchie, who is facing a challenge from moderate Sen. John Curran of Downers Grove, largely blamed the poorer-than-expected showing for Republicans on election night on legislative maps drawn to favor Democrats and on a flood of negative ads funded in large part by Pritzker’s millions.

“I don’t mind having policy debates and winning or losing based upon the merits of those debates, but we had circumstances here in which you had people who just couldn’t get that message out,” said McConchie, who won his own race by about 2 percentage points, according to The Associated Press but was poised to add at least one seat to his super-minority caucus.

By Thursday, Curran had gathered support from more than half of the incoming Senate Republican caucus, according to a private letter shared among members. Curran did not respond Friday to a request for comment.

In the House, Rep. Tony McCombie of Savanna in northwestern Illinois said late Friday that she had gathered enough support to succeed Durkin. McCombie, who flipped a Democratic seat in the Quad Cities area in 2016 and was just elected to a fourth term, abandoned an attempt to unseat Durkin after the 2020 election, when the House GOP picked up one seat.

But in a sign of further disunity, state Rep. Dan Caulkins of Decatur, part of a conservative faction of the House GOP that shares Bailey’s political ideology, said in a statement Friday that reports McCombie had secured the post “are misleading and are nothing more than a deliberate attempt to create a desired outcome.”

Burge, the EIU professor, said that given the propensity of hard-right Republicans to vote in primaries, the GOP needs to find a strategy in which “two or three Bailey types” compete against each other in the primary in order to split the vote against a “rightish of center, Mitt Romney-style candidate” who would be “a viable candidate” for governor in a general election.

But he questions whether the legislature will see a GOP majority in either the Illinois House or Senate over the next two decades and said that would prevent an important check on one-party rule.

“That’s bad for democracy. Democrats won’t be held accountable. They have no need to compromise. They don’t need to work across the aisle. They can basically exert their will,” Burge said. “And if you’re a Republican in Illinois politics, you would leave. Why would you stay here? It makes no sense.”




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