On August 15th, the Republicans held their annual meeting at the State Fair in Springfield. With former Governor Bruce Rauner now making an exit from politics, the state GOP lost its financial lifeline. It was estimated that Ruaner was responsible for two-thirds of the GOP coffers. According to their most recent financial disclosures, the GOP in Illinois has only $88,000 in cash on hand.
Tim Schneider, party chief of the Illinois Republicans, was installed shortly after Rauner’s 2014 victory. At that recent meeting, he aimed not to sugarcoat the losses of 2018 and vowed to rebuild the party through a unified message and a new small donor base. He vowed to “provide solutions for the pressing issues of our time” and present a “positive vision” for 2020. Of course, with only $88,000 on hand going up against a Democratic machine led by one of the richest people in America- current Democrat governor J.B. Pritzker- that task will be hard.
When talking about Illinois, we are naturally talking about Chicago which is a corrupt Democrat-run metropolis. Corruption is more or less accepted as a way of life. The sick and tired of Chicago left the city long ago and fled to the suburbs of Lake county and others. But after the midterms in 2018, Republicans lost two US Representatives from those suburbs- Randy Hultgren and Pete Roskam. For the first time in its history, the Lake county Board will be controlled by Democrats. In suburban DuPage county, Democrats won seven seats on their Board in 2018 as well as the County Clerk’s position.
If there is a silver lining in Illinois and a hope for unification, it revolves around two issues for the GOP. The first is abortion. The GOP chair- Schneider- stated that Pritzker is trying to make Illinois “the California of the Midwest” with a far left agenda. Pritzker signed legislation making abortion a “fundamental right” of women’s reproductive health. Schneider declared that Illinois Republicans stand in opposition to abortion “for any reason until the moment of birth.”
The second issue is a pet project of Pritzker and the Democrats that control the state legislature- eliminating the state’s flat income tax in favor of a graduated income tax. A ballot question in 2020 will ask voters to amend the state constitution to do just that. Republicans are counting on huge turnout based on the referendum question. At that annual meeting, several groups were present that oppose the measure and they seem well-funded. Democrats are so sure of its passage that they already have draft legislation ready to go.
Besides the 2018 midterms which saw the GOP take heavy losses up and down the ballot in Illinois, the party, besides being financially hamstrung, are finding it difficult to find a viable Senate candidate to take on Dick Durbin in 2020. Mark Curran was defeated for Lake county sheriff in 2018 while activist Peggy Hubbard, who is black, has been quite vocal in her criticism of the Illinois GOP’s refusal to fight to win. There is also Tom Tarter, a political unknown, and perennial candidate Robert Marshall who last ran as a Democrat.
It is not as if there are not qualified Republicans out there in Illinois. Most of them, however, hail from either downstate, or the central section and are relative unknowns, especially in the population hub of Chicago. And there is a divide between those Republicans and the ones that hail from the Chicago area with the central/downstate Republicans being more conservative than their Chicago area counterparts.
In order to avoid the appearance of disunity, the party agreed to appoint Mark Shaw, a staunch Lake county conservative, as co-chair of the state party. He also took over leadership of the Republican county chairmen’s association. At that annual meeting after Schneider gave his speech vowing to rebuild the GOP brand in Illinois, Shaw got his turn to speak. He led a full-throated defense of President Trump and that reelecting the President should be the biggest priority of the GOP. Schneider then also praised Trump. This is stark contrast to the 2018 meeting at the state fair when, before his defeat, Bruce Rauner roundly criticized Trump.
Trump obviously has no chance of winning Illinois. Although he remains popular with rural downstate voters, the northeast area surrounding Chicago is firmly opposed to another four years of Trump. Even suburban Republicans have expressed reservations about Trump which will likely lead to voter apathy unless the state GOP can rally Republicans to the polls over the income tax question. Even then, there are questions whether they will pull the lever for Trump.
And it is not like the Democrats are going to play nice and safe. At that state fair, Nancy Pelosi addressed a group of Democrats celebrating the two Congressional seats they picked up in 2018 and to rally support for Betsy Dirksen Londrigan who will have a rematch in 2020 against Rep. Rodney Davis in the 13th District in the southwestern part of the state. Londrigan lost in 2018 by 2,058 votes.
Finally, whether you are a Republican for or against Trump in Illinois, there is one thing that unites them. There have been rumors that the sentence of Rod Blagojevich could be commuted, or that President Trump may actually grant a pardon. Rep. Darren LaHood had a 15-minutes telephone call with Trump urging him not to do it.
Realistically, no one has their hopes up in Illinois come 2020. The best the GOP can do at this point is to fight at the local level for gains and keep whatever seats they have in the House. And as Illinois slowly becomes the California of the Midwest, perhaps their only strategy will be a big “We Told You So” when all is said and done.