Under New Party Chair, IL Republicans Seek to Unite, Regroup and Rebuild
Former Gov. Edgar, US Rep. Kinzinger, State Rep. Demmer, GOP Chair Tracy speak out
Newly elected Illinois Republican State Chairman Don Tracy was walking to his Springfield office a few weeks ago when a friend driving by congratulated him on his astounding effectiveness.
“Hey Tracy,” he yelled. “You haven’t been on the job 30 days and you already got rid of [former House Speaker Mike] Madigan!”
“Sometimes,” said Tracy, “you’d rather be lucky than good.”
That said, Tracy harbors no illusions about the sad state of the Illinois Republican Party in terms of political power or bankroll.
Republicans control not one single statewide elected office. In the General Assembly, Republicans are super minorities in both the Illinois House and Senate. And in fund-raising, they are all but broke compared to Illinois Democrats who are swimming in cash.
“We are out-funded by the Democrats by something like 100 to 1. Last I heard, Madigan controlled almost $20 million and we have a little more than $200,000. So we’re poor as a church mouse compared to the Madigan millions. In Illinois, money flows to power,” said Tracy.
With Tracy’s election as party chair, the Center for Illinois Politics sought to get his strategy for rebuilding the party while also reaching out to Republican leaders, past and present, to find their prescriptions for how Republicans can get back in the game.
Tracy says he’ll focus on two major challenges: party unity and political fundraising
“Number one will be unity. A minority party always has more of a challenge in that regard, and we certainly have that challenge in Illinois. We have a lot of momentum coming out of the fall, but if we don’t unify as a party, almost nothing we do next year will matter,” Tracy said.
Republicans think they got a boost with the failure of Gov. J.B. Prtizker’s graduated income tax plan, the signature initiative of his administration. In addition, the GOP flipped a seat in the Illinois House when some predicted they might lose seats in the double digits. And they organized to defeat Illinois Supreme Court Justice Thomas Kilbride by painting him as an ally of Mike Madigan.
“That gives us the opportunity to elect a Republican Supreme Court Justice in what is now a Republican district. And that would potentially lead to a 4 to 3 Republican majority on the Supreme Court for the first time since the courts were reorganized in the 1960’s,” said Tracy.
But any hope of furthering those gains is endangered by the bitter divisions in the Illinois GOP between supporters of former President Donald Trump and Trump’s detractors, like Rep. Adam Kinzinger.
Rep. Kinzinger and Gov. Edgar weigh in
During Trump's term, Rep. Kinzinger emerged as a persistent critic of the former President, but turned into a full-blown opponent after the violent Capitol riots on January 6th.
“I’ve studied a lot of history and I know that undermining the very election system with false claims can lead to real damage,” said Kinzinger. “And January 6th was a big delineator. I looked at the rioting and said sometimes you have to take a stand even if you’re the only one doing it. And it’s time to take a stand and say what’s wrong is wrong and fight for an honest narrative of the Republican Party going forward.”
Rep. Kinzinger said he’s trying to present an alternative view of what the party should be and should stand for as opposed to Trump’s vision, driven by nationalism and populism.
“Hopefully, Illinois Republicans will realize that if candidates want to win in Illinois, it’s certainly going to be difficult. Illinois is not a Republican state. We will have to attract people that aren’t your typical Republican voters,” said Kinzinger. “Or maybe some were once Republican voters, but due to the Donald Trump tone and message, have left the party. And many of those are probably women, and particularly suburban residents. So I think it’s presenting an alternative vision and making people realize that the base can shift.”
Kinzinger is under fire from the Republican right for his vote to impeach former President Trump, and faces a primary challenge from strong Trump supporter Catalina Lauf. Lauf ran unsuccessfully for the 2020 Republican congressional nomination in Illinois’ 14th District. Kinzinger represents the 16th District.
Former Republican Governor Jim Edgar agrees that Illinois Republicans will face an extended time in the wilderness if they align wholesale with Trump.
“The Republicans have to be careful that they don’t go the way of the national party. In Illinois, if they do that, then they’ll just be a regional party. They’ll do well downstate. Occasionally, they’ll do well in the suburbs but not like they used to. The Illinois GOP needs to be closer to the center than the national party seems to be, particularly the Trump influence, in order to win statewide elections,” Edgar said.
Looking forward to 2022, Edgar said, “The gubernatorial race will be a huge test of whether the Republicans can get back in the game and be viable statewide. The key will be whether they can find a candidate perceived as moderate enough to win the general election. The trouble is if you find that candidate, you have to get them through the primary. The primary is much more conservative than when I was running.”
“A lot of what I call moderate Republicans who made up a big part of the party [when I was running 20 years ago], a lot of those people don’t consider themselves Republican and they don’t vote in Republican primaries, so that’s a challenge. The party’s going to have to say, we need somebody who can win. I’m not sure how you get those two sides together unless both say, we’d rather win than be a hundred percent right. That will be the big issue. The Senate race will be the sideshow. The gubernatorial race is what’s really important in Illinois politics.”
Rep. Tom Demmer, Assistant House Minority Leader, believes one way to bridge the divide is for the party to take a more disciplined approach to the issues it features.
“There are a million topics you can talk about and sometimes there’s the lightning rod question of the moment that can be distracting. As Republicans, we need to have a disciplined approach. We need to talk about the really big issues that matter to millions of Illinoisans every day,” said Demmer. “And that’s really the best approach we can take. We need to offer a positive message on the really important issues.”
As party chairman, Tracy said he’s strictly agnostic in the pro-Trump vs anti-Trump wars.
“It’s important to emphasize that whether you’re in the pro-Trump wing of the party, the anti-Trump wing of the party, or various other wings of the party, Republicans basically agree on 90 percent of the issues. And that is what we need to focus on. It’s important to remember that Kinzinger voted for Trump policies 90 percent plus. That said, as party chair, I can’t take positions on primaries. My job is to make sure we have fair and open primaries, but more importantly, that we are ready to support the candidates who win in the primaries.”
Kinzinger plans to use his national PAC to recruit anti-Trump GOP candidates both around the country and in Illinois.
“All I want to see are people that are going to tell the truth and not peddle fear and conspiracy. And on all the other issues, fine, we may disagree, but we must agree that we're going to be truthful, then politics will work again. And I certainly will be looking to have an impact in Illinois and around the country,” said Kinzinger.
Illinois Republicans' other priority: money
Former Gov. Bruce Rauner, a near billionaire, seemed like a solution to the party’s funding problems when he reached into his own deep pockets to fund a winning campaign in 2014. Out of a record $65.3 million spent on his run for governor, $27.6 million came from his personal fortune.
That solution backfired four years later, when Democrats chose the much wealthier J.B. Pritzker as their candidate for governor. He spent a record setting $171 million of his own money to defeat Rauner and win the governor’s seat.
In fund-raising, Rauner first appeared to be a blessing, but was eventually a curse
“Certainly the fact that Gov. Rauner was self-financing and in a position to self-finance discouraged others from contributing,” said Tracy. “I heard more than once, ‘I don’t need to contribute to the Illinois GOP because Rauner’s got more than enough to do it himself.’ There are a lot of competing forces for limited political contribution dollars so it doesn’t take much of an excuse for somebody not to write a check."
Edgar believes Rauner’s free-spending influence was eventually a negative
“He did take over the party. He bought it basically. And he didn’t really improve the infrastructure,” said Edgar. “He gave money to legislative candidates he wanted to help. But when he left, there wasn’t any infrastructure to keep that money coming. And it really put the Republican leadership in the IL House and Senate at a big disadvantage, because they didn't have to raise money for four years. Then they had to do it. And it was tough and it hurt them.”
Kent Redfield, professor emeritus at the University of Illinois-Springfield and an expert on campaign finance, sees the Republicans' past dependence on big money donors and their current absence as a major problem.
“In the fair tax campaign, absent almost $54 million dollars from Ken Griffin, they really wouldn’t have had a lot of money to run that campaign. They spent almost $63 million in total. One of the issues for Republicans going forward is what does their funding base look like, absent billionaires? Part of the Republicans ability to hold their own in 2014, 2016 and 2018 was the presence of Rauner, Griffin, and (packaging mogul) Richard Uihlein. But in 2018, other than to pump a couple of hundred thousand into four legislative races, Uihlein gave no money to Illinois GOP lawmakers,” Redfield said.
In the House and Senate, GOP legislative leaders are working to build a base of political volunteers and small donors. “We have to have better participation from small donors, from people willing to chip in, say, 50 dollars or 100 dollars because they believe in the message their local state rep or state senator or congressman is delivering,” said Rep. Demmer. “To have people engaged in that process is important. It helps build longer lasting relationships.”
While Democrats rely on the major contributions from labor unions, trial lawyers, and special interest groups, Republicans have failed to dominate donations from the business sector including Illinois corporations.
Even though their policy interests are more aligned with Republicans, the power imbalance in Illinois means corporations deliver donations to Democrats as well, hoping to use their influence toward more moderate policies.
“If it’s a Republican state, they tend to be on the Republican side. If it’s a Democratic state, they tend to be on the Democrat side so they don’t get hurt too bad,” said Tracy. “I’m hoping to convince businesses to get off the sidelines, that long-term, there is so much at stake here. And I do think the socialistic and left wing trend of the Democrat Party will hopefully awake business leaders to the prospect that our free market society is at risk at this time. Hopefully, that will motivate them not to just play defense and to give to the party in power but also play offense to make Illinois a two party state again.”
Prof. Redfield says Tracy and Illinois Republicans have a full plate of problems.
“How do I raise money? How do I get everybody on the same team? How do I avoid really divisive primary fights in terms of statewide office? How do I start to build a farm team? How do I deal with the changing population demographics? Downstate’s more Republican but it’s also lost population. In the suburbs, both Pritzker and Biden carried Lake, DuPage, Will, and Kane County. The traditional collar counties now lean slightly Democratic in terms of statewide races,” said Redfield.
Still, Tracy finds reasons for optimism laced with realism
“As a minority party, we have less margin for error for sure,” said Tracy. “We almost have to play perfect ball to win the game. But we have good momentum. Eventually dominant parties tend to overreach. And if you get enough turnovers, you can upset the party in power,” said Tracy.
One final biographical note. Don Tracy ran for state senate in 2002 as a Democrat. “I was basically an independent, but if you want to run for office, you have to pick. I thought downstate, in Sangamon County, I could be more independent as a Democrat. But I found out I was a conservative…was then, and now. In the old days, you could be a conservative and a Democrat. That’s not the case anymore. People who agreed with my views, my conservative values, wouldn’t support me because I was running as a Democrat. And Democrats wouldn’t support me because of my conservative views. You have to align your views and your values with the party and I was not aligned at the time. I was naive. Very naive.”
Tracy believes the “statute of limitations” has run out on what he clearly sees as a political misstep. He notes in 2010, he also ran unsuccessfully for lieutenant governor…as a Republican.
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