Illinois GOP Infighting Only Helps the Democrats Print
Commentary/Politics - Illinois Politics
Tuesday, 17 June 2003 18:00
House Republican leader Tom Cross and Senate Republican leader Frank Watson weren’t exactly on the same page during the spring legislative session. As a result, there is serious tension between the two Republican caucuses.

Representative Cross was repeatedly criticized this year by Republicans close to Watson for toadying up to his buddy, Governor Rod Blagojevich. Senator Watson was slammed by Repubs close to Cross for abdicating all the burdens of actual governance and forcing Cross to do all the heavy lifting so that Republican legislators could bring something home to their districts.

Which man had the better strategy depends on where you sit. If you’re a red-meat Republican who wanted to see someone stand up to the Democratic governor, then you thought Frank Watson did the right thing. But if you’re a Republican House member who chafed under the iron fist of deposed House GOP leader Lee Daniels and wanted to get something for your district, then you cheered Tom Cross.

Both men essentially “won.” Watson got the high-profile battles he wanted, and Cross brought home the bacon.

Both men also united their caucuses, but in vastly different ways.

Watson maneuvered his members into voting against most of the governor’s budget proposals. The Republican caucus’ self-perceived position of being the “last real Republicans” united the Senate GOPs. When a handful broke ranks, they were subjected to a mean cold shoulder. Interestingly enough, ostracizing the small handful of “traitors” brought the rest of the caucus even closer together.

Over in the House, rank-and-file Republicans were free to vote anyway they wanted on just about every piece of legislation. Cross asked that his members keep their powder dry on a few things, like the O’Hare airport-expansion bill, until he could negotiate a better outcome. But, overall, the Republicans were united by the freedom to choose their own way – something they had been denied since Lee Daniels became the leader in 1983.

A few House Repubs continued to grumble, mostly the handful of members who are still close to Daniels. But other than firing up the occasional conservative freshman, who had no idea what it was like when Daniels ran the show, the Daniels faction had little if any impact this year.

Senator Watson played the game like the Senate was closely divided and vulnerable to a Republican takeover next year, or, at least, with the possibility that the Republicans could close the gap enough to seize control by 2006 or 2008. By holding his members off important bills, he forced some Democrats to take a few pretty bad votes to pass their party’s legislation. Those votes will definitely show up in 2004 campaign ads.

Representative Cross was in a much different spot. He has only 52 seats out of 118. House Speaker Michael Madigan could probably have passed anything he wanted without Cross’ help.

Plus, Cross went into the session hoping to use his close personal friendship with Governor Blagojevich as insurance against Madigan completely shutting him out of the process. Cross was appalled when the governor’s original budget proposal short-changed suburban schools, but his cooperation with the governor and Madigan on the guv’s tax and fee hikes restored the school funding and extracted a few more goodies for his members.

There are potential dangers for both strategies.

If Watson continues to strong-arm his members into voting against Democratic proposals that help their districts (as he did on the governor’s pension-bond bill and several of the budget votes), he could eventually reach the point that enough Republican Senators are so alienated they rebel. This is what eventually happened to Lee Daniels – but it probably won’t take that long to boil over in the more independent-minded Senate.

Cross, on the other hand, might have a tougher time than Watson raising campaign cash from big-money Republicans, many of whom are of the red-meat variety and demand a robust opposition voice. All politics require an enemy, so Cross’ perceived embracing of the other side’s ideas won’t help. And his cooperation on things such as the Democratic governor’s revenue generators won’t please the money boys, either.

But the biggest problem is that the House and Senate Republican leadership teams are pretty bitter about the way the other side handled itself during the spring session. If not checked soon, this unhealthy rivalry and outright backstabbing could seriously damage both caucuses when the election rolls around next year. The only people who really win with this sort of intra-party bickering are the Democrats.

Rich Miller also publishes Capitol Fax, a daily political newsletter. He can be reached at (http://www.capitolfax.com).
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