More than just picking nominees for governor and other offices, Illinois Republicans’ choices this June 28 primary also will determine the GOP’s future and whether the state party’s gradual move to the right in recent years will accelerate.
“I think if we move too far to the right, we run the risk of being a permanent minority party in Illinois,” said former Gov. Jim Edgar, Illinois’ last two-term Republican governor, who served from 1991 to 1999. “Long term, and even short term, I don’t think that (far-right) positioning of the party is going to mean positive results for us because I just don’t think that’s where the vast majority of Illinoisans are today.”
Much of the party’s future direction will be determined by the GOP’s nominee for governor. The candidates are six men who say that they, to varying degrees, oppose abortion, additional gun regulation, tax-supported services for immigrants living in the country without legal permission and government “handouts.”
In the closing weeks of the primary campaign, the contest has evolved into largely a two-man race between state Sen. Darren Bailey of Xenia, a far-right conservative, and Aurora Mayor Richard Irvin, symbolizing the more moderate GOP establishment candidate.
When Democratic Gov. J.B. Pritzker and the Pritzker-backed Democratic Governors Association weighed in to the GOP primary with ads promoting Bailey as “too conservative for Illinois” in an effort to hobble Irvin’s better-funded candidacy, it’s a line Irvin might have wished he could have uttered publicly to claim that Bailey was too extreme to win a general election. But in today’s GOP, Irvin would find himself under attack for such criticism and, indeed, might embolden Bailey’s candidacy.
Irvin’s modified effort is to try to paint Bailey as unelectable against Pritzker, for reasons not directly stated.
To be sure, the electoral map of Illinois has changed greatly since Edgar was first elected 32 years ago. Back then, downstate was a swing area that is now heavily dominated by Republicans and the once-reliably Republican suburbs have become more Democratic due to cultural and demographic changes, with once-moderate GOP suburban voters becoming independents or even Democrats.
The trade-off of downstate Republican voters gained against those lost from the suburbs has been a net loser for the GOP as rural counties have lost population while the bulk of voters reside in the suburbs.
But there are questions about whether Illinois Republicans have evolved with the times and the state’s demographic changes, particularly as its gradual evolution to the right has been hastened by far-right Republicans who became disciples of former President Donald Trump.
Another sign of the rightward shift can be found in the Illinois General Assembly where among the GOP’s super-minority — 45 of 118 members in the House and 18 of 59 members in the Senate — none support abortion rights. Former state Rep. Tom Cross of Oswego, who was House GOP leader from 2002 to 2013, was pro-abortion rights and supported same-sex marriage.
Long before the Trump era of Republicanism, the Illinois GOP was beset by constant complaints from its conservative wing that chafed over party control by what was then its establishment moderate wing, led by a quarter century of Republican governors from Jim Thompson in 1977 to Edgar in 1991 and George Ryan for one term beginning in 1999.
After 14 years of the moderate-to-liberal Thompson that irked conservatives, Edgar reached a rapprochement with the conservative wing, led by the late activist and businessman Jack Roeser, who was named to Edgar’s transition team. But the peace didn’t last long. Four years later, Roeser mounted a primary challenge to Edgar but lost 75%-24%.
Ryan, who later went on to serve more than five years in federal prison for corruption, was actually a social conservative. As House speaker, Ryan led opposition to the Equal Rights Amendment, and in 1982, he was selected to balance the ticket as Thompson’s running mate. But in the race for governor, Ryan ran to the left of Democrat Glenn Poshard and, in office, vetoed legislation that would have banned public funding for poor women seeking an abortion for health reasons.
Sporadic signs of a burgeoning conservative movement revealed itself in the 1996 GOP U.S. Senate nomination of Al Salvi over Edgar’s lieutenant governor, moderate Bob Kustra with help from the Christian Coalition, which supported Salvi for his anti-abortion stance. Salvi went on to lose the open seat contest to Dick Durbin, 56% to 41%. Salvi’s wife is a current candidate for the GOP U.S. Senate nomination, viewed as more moderate than her rivals, in the contest to challenge first-term Democratic U.S. Sen. Tammy Duckworth.
In 1998, Peter Fitzgerald, among a group of conservative Republicans elected to the state Senate in 1992 known as the “Fab Five,” self-funded his narrow 52%-48% primary victory over moderate state Comptroller Loleta Didrickson and went on to defeat one-term incumbent Democratic U.S. Sen. Carol Moseley Braun by 100,000 votes. But Fitzgerald’s victory was attributed more to Moseley Braun’s controversies than as a conservative success.
Other than local and regional offices, conservative Republicans didn’t see major success until 2010 when then-state Sen. Bill Brady of Bloomington won the GOP primary for governor by 193 votes over the more moderate then-state Sen. Kirk Dillard of Hinsdale — only to narrowly lose to Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn by fewer than 32,000 votes out of more than 3.7 million ballots cast.
In 2014, Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner didn’t reveal himself to voters until after he had defeated Quinn with an electorate dissatisfied with the political ineffectiveness of the incumbent. But in office, Rauner was unable to deal ideologically with a Democratic legislature and went on to alienate conservatives by signing legislation that provided taxpayer-subsidized abortions for poor women.
Rauner had lost any semblance of a political base and was almost defeated for re-nomination by controversial conservative firebrand Jeanne Ives, a former state lawmaker from Wheaton. Running one of the most infamous political ads in state history — mocking transsexuals, abortion-seeking women, unionized Chicago teachers and immigrants who have entered the country illegally — Ives lost by 22,000 votes and a damaged Rauner went on to lose to J.B. Pritzker by more than 1.7 million votes.
“Really a lot of people, I think, saw what the base of the party had turned into,” former state GOP chairman Pat Brady said of the Rauner-Ives contest. “I’m not saying that negatively, but just where they were and they weren’t necessarily with Rauner. But the party’s probably gone even more rightward with Trump.”
Trump’s coalition of discontented voters — the far right along with those who are anti-establishment, eschew growing multiculturalism and who consider Democratic progressivism with disdain — represent a growing faction to challenge the state’s GOP establishment.
“Trump really is not a conservative in the sense that I consider conservatism — the Ronald Reagan type conservative,” said Brady, who has long opposed the former president’s control over the GOP and is backing businessman Gary Rabine of Bull Valley in the 2022 GOP primary for governor. “Trump’s nowhere near that. It’s just a different party now.”
Ron Gidwitz, an unsuccessful 2006 GOP primary candidate for governor who is among Republican establishment figures backing Irvin for governor, was a Trump fundraiser and was Trump’s appointee as U.S. ambassador to Belgium.
But in a state where Trump lost two presidential elections by 17 percentage points in 2016 and 2020, Gidwitz said attachment to the former president is not a successful statewide general election strategy.
“There are a lot of disaffected people that have congregated under his umbrella,” Gidwitz, a Chicago businessman, said of Trump’s supporters. “But the question gets to be, long term, does that work? It’s one thing to get elected in a primary. It’s another thing to get elected in a general election.”
Gidwitz echoes an establishment lament over the years — the desire among some on the far right to prefer purity of ideology over electability, satisfied in the end to portray themselves as political martyrs for a greater cause.
“It doesn’t do you any good to nominate somebody because they are ideologically perfect to your way of thinking, whatever that is, but not electable. What’s the point?” Gidwitz asked.
“I mean, there are people that like to do that. And, as a consequence, we haven’t elected very many moderate Republicans in the last few years, either in Illinois or other places. We get the government that we get,” he said. “There ought to be a pragmatism but I’m not sure it exists. I would hope it would exist.”
Of the six-candidate field for the GOP governor nomination and the right to take on Pritzker, Bailey has done the most to try to appeal to the former president in openly seeking his endorsement. A 2020 Trump delegate, Bailey already has received the backing of former Trump chief strategist Steve Bannon and former Trump campaign adviser Steve Cortes.
Representing a solid Republican rural area of the state, Bailey has sought support from Trump voters as well as religious conservatives and activists opposed to abortion while decrying Chicago Democrats for imposing progressive city values on the rest of the state.
Of the other candidates, Rabine hosted a 2020 campaign fundraiser at the golf course he owns featuring Donald Trump Jr. and has the endorsement of Charlie Kirk, a Trump loyalist who is the founder of the conservative youth group Turning Point USA. Venture capitalist Jesse Sullivan of Petersburg, former state Sen. Paul Schimpf of Waterloo and Hazel Crest attorney Max Solomon have all said they voted for Trump in 2020.
Irvin, however, has spent the campaign seeking to avoid talking about Trump, including whether he voted for him 2020, deflecting questions about his voting history as a Pritzker-fed distraction even though he sought to accuse rivals of being anti-Trump. WTTW also reported that Irvin, in 2018 text messages, called Trump an “idiot” and “bigoted racist.” Irvin has said he didn’t remember sending the texts.
Trump is weighing a late endorsement of Bailey in the GOP governor’s race, a Trump aide told the Tribune, also noting the former president’s desire to back winning candidates.
Trump already has made one pick in the GOP primary, backing controversial first-term U.S. Rep. Mary Miller of Oakland over five-term U.S. Rep. Rodney Davis of Taylorville in a downstate matchup created by new redistricting maps. Trump is scheduled to hold a June 25 rally for Miller at the Adams County Fairgrounds outside Quincy. Bailey has endorsed Miller and campaigned with her.
Roger Claar, the former mayor of Bolingbrook who hosted a September 2016 Trump fundraiser, supports Irvin but contended the state of the nation’s economy, with inflation surging and high gas prices under Democratic President Joe Biden, may make allegiance to Trump more popular in attracting people to vote Republican in June.
“I honestly think that his support has grown. I do. The economy is probably the driving force,” said Claar, a member of the Republican State Central Committee. “I can tell you, there’s a lot of people talking about Trump. I don’t like his mean tweets, but I like his gas prices.”
Claar also maintained it was Democratic progressive policies, such as restrictions on guns and support for abortion, “taking the far left approach, which is forcing Republicans to take a more conservative approach” on social issues.
Still, Claar acknowledges the GOP has failed to keep up with issues such as diversity, particularly in the once-Republican rich suburbs, such as DuPage County.
“Some Republican leaders are just afraid” to reach out to ethnic and racial minority groups that have traditionally backed Democrats. “And part of that is economic development too. You bring in a lot of workers, you’re also bringing in Democratic voters. DuPage Republicans just let that all slide by resting on their laurels.”
The state GOP platform, last updated in 2020, still calls for enacting a constitutional amendment to define marriage as between one man and one woman. In contrast, the U.S. Supreme Court nationally legalized same-sex marriages in 2015, while Illinois did so in 2014 and recognized civil unions in 2011.
It was an issue that cost Pat Brady his chairmanship of the Illinois GOP when he voiced support of same-sex marriage legislation. At a raucous April 2013 meeting of the Republican State Central Committee in Tinley Park, where protesting social conservatives were held at bay by police, Brady was given his walking papers from the post he held for nearly four years.
“I said at the time and I still believe that the party is on the wrong side of history on that. It will continue to be, unless they change that (in the platform),” Brady said. “But those are the kind of things that hurt Republicans in the long run, particularly with young people.”
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