Trump-Rauner a one-two punch for Illinois Republican Party already on the ropes — but GOP not ready to throw in the towel
Despite having a member of their own party in the White House, or partly because of that fact, these are tough times for Illinois Republicans, probably the worst in memory.
Coming up on two years since Bruce Rauner vacated the governor’s mansion, taking his money with him, the Illinois GOP has no statewide elected officials, faces super-majority opposition in both chambers of the Legislature and can claim only five of 18 members of Congress. Party coffers are anemic, if not quite bare.
To top it off, President Donald Trump is so unpopular in the state, particularly among the Chicago suburban voters who once gave Illinois Republicans an even chance, that no quick turnaround seems likely.
It’s so bad that Jim Edgar, the state’s last popular Republican governor, revealed Monday that he, too, is voting for Joe Biden for president.
Yet as the Republican National Convention convenes this week to officially nominate Trump for a second term, nobody is quite ready to throw Illinois into the same permanently out-of-reach category as California and New York either.
And the corruption scandals engulfing Illinois House Speaker
Mike Madigan and other prominent Democrats give them hope for the future.
“It’s always darkest before the dawn. I do think it can turn on a dime,” said DuPage County Board Chairman Dan Cronin, who nonetheless is concerned Republicans could lose their once unassailable majority on the county board if local GOP candidates are caught up in the anti-Trump sentiment revealed by suburban polling.
“It used to be all politics are local. Now everything seems to be driven by national politics,” complained Cronin, who is asking DuPage voters to “look at what we’ve accomplished” locally with Republicans running the county instead of being swayed by national issues.
House Republican Leader Jim
Durkin admits Trump “poses a challenge for us.”
“President Trump is not value added in the suburbs,” Durkin said, although he believes Trump’s popularity downstate could translate into Republicans picking up as many as four seats to pare down the Democrats’ advantage in the state House.
Trump is just part of the state GOP’s problem.
The demographics of Chicago’s suburbs have been changing for several decades leaving fewer dependable GOP loyalists in the six-county region.
Plus, some independent voters were turned off by Rauner and his dogmatic pursuit of an agenda that led to a government stalemate.
Another problem created by Rauner is that he funded everything for Republicans while he was governor, but didn’t do anything to strengthen the party for the long term. Now that he’s put away his checkbook, the GOP fundraising apparatus is weak because many of the business leaders who formerly played that role are no longer involved. To top it off, Trump has invested no time or money toward reclaiming Illinois.
Durkin sees a solution in making sure voters understand Democrats are at the root of the Commonwealth Edison scandal and other current corruption prosecutions coming out of Chicago.
“They created it, and they’re going to own it,” Durkin vowed. “The Democratic Party, they are the definition of a RICO organization.”
But making that rhetoric stick takes money, and Durkin said he has about $3 million to spend on his candidates going into the stretch drive of the campaign compared to $20 million for Madigan and House Democrats.
Edgar said Republicans need to reclaim the governor’s office to gain a foothold that would allow them to sustain the party organization and restore the brand of Republicanism that once played well in Illinois.
That was within Rauner’s reach when he won the office in 2014, Edgar believes.
“If he’d have handled that job, he could have been re-elected,” said Edgar.
The former governor argues the state party has moved too far to the right.
“That’s particularly dangerous in Illinois,” Edgar said.
Most Republicans credit state party chairman Tim Schneider, a former Cook County commissioner chosen for the party leadership post by Rauner, of doing a decent job of holding the party together at a difficult time.
But the state party showed only $107,112 on hand at the end of June, which doesn’t put it in a position to do much more than strafe Democrats with a daily barrage of press releases on ethics. Schneider’s reward for taking the party position was to be dumped from the County Board, leaving only one GOP commissioner.
Edgar thinks a moderate Republican would have a chance to win the governor’s office in 2022 — if Illinois voters are unhappy at that point with Gov. J.B. Pritzker.
“It’s got to be the right candidate,” he says.
Cronin said the recent death of former Illinois Gov. James R. Thompson provided Republicans a “good reminder of where we used to be and how we offered an alternative.”
For now, though, they’re the party of Trump, who seems to want nothing to do with them.
Former Gov. Bruce Rauner
President Donald Trump
Former Illinois Gov. Jim Edgar