Precinct 333

Sunday, February 20, 2005

Can The Illinois GOP Recover?

Illinois used to be reliably Republican. When my father was transferred back to his home state in 1976, the state was in the midst of a gubernatorial race that would bring a Republican into office. Republicans would hold that office until 2003. And while Chicago Democrats might be able to tip control of the legislature to their party, many of the Democrats from around the state were of a conservative variety that were willing to work with Republicans.

The problem, though, was the conservative/moderate conflict within the party. As a kid we had Chuck Percy as senator -- one of the most liberal of GOP senators. His eventual loss happened not just because the Democrats ran a candidate who was among the most honorable and decent of men ever to hold public office (Paul Simon), but also because conservatives abandoned Percy. Conservative infighting and moderate strategizing gave Illinois two of the most conservative Senate candidates ever (Judy Koehler and Pat Salvi), but they had no name recognition and were stomped by better known Democrats. Finally, moderate George Ryan destroyed the credibility of the party with the rampant corruption he permitted in the course of his time as Secretary of State and Governor, as well as with his rejection of mainstream GOP principles. Last year's Senate debacle only served to highlight the depths to which the party had fallen.

Can the party be saved? That is up to Andrew McKenna Jr., the new head of the Illinois GOP.

McKenna, who is president of Schwarz [Paper Company], acknowledges that one of the party's first orders of business is to find strong candidates for the 2006 election. The key is to show voters that the party has changed, that it can offer viable political alternatives.

But some Republicans say they simply don't trust that things have changed.

"There's a bunch of people saying they want unification, saying that they're different," said conservative activist Jack Roeser. "That's what [former Gov.] George Ryan told us years ago, and look where it got us."

And the problem is that so many are tainted by their association with Ryan. The state's best known Republican is former Bears coach Mike Ditka, who refused to take the Senate nomination amidst the 2004 fiasco that resulted in the nomination of Alan Keyes as a replacement candidate. The Democrat incumbent is wounded, but who is there ready to take a crack at an incumbent governor, wounded or not?

And then there is the problem of a party more concerned with winning at the top than organizing from the bottom up.

Part of the fresh start means apologizing for ignoring the significance of the suburbs — and the people of Lake County.

From the Lincoln Day dinner podium, McKenna pleaded for local Republicans to set aside the state GOP's troubled past. Again and again, he told the skeptical audience that the future holds enormous promise. And the GOP needs everyone — especially people in the suburbs — to help recruit, raise money and rebuild the party's lineup of political candidates.

In the past, he said, the GOP overlooked the pull of grass-roots political organizing. When it was in power, it consolidated its political pull within the top state offices.

"That won't happen again," McKenna said.

After McKenna spoke, a small crowd gathered around him, curious about the party's solution for boosting the local economy and ideas for persuading local Democrats to vote Republican.

JoAnn Osmond began peppering McKenna with questions and complaints. For years, the local group has had trouble recruiting new volunteers. Longtime members, jaded by the Senate race, have dropped out. Internal squabbling has divided those who remain.

"Are you going to back us and help us unite everyone?" asked the state representative and county chairwoman for the Lake County Republican Federation.

McKenna replied: "I'm here now, aren't I?"

In younger days, I was one of those lake County Republicans. We got ignored until the fundraising letters went out, because we were reliably Republican and refused to allow Chicago to control our destiny. State GOP concern for county politics stated at the state representative level and went up. Maybe now they will pay attention to the county, and even the city and town, races as well. If they don't, the GOP is dead in Illinois.


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