Times Get Tough for Illinois GOP Print
Commentary/Politics - Illinois Politics
Tuesday, 12 November 2002 18:00
From the totally pro-life Jim Ryan, to the tough-talking, pro-life, pro-gun prosecutor Joe Birkett, to the “Let’s attack Iraq today!” U.S. Senate candidate Jim Durkin, the right wing got its head handed to it last week in Illinois. It might be no coincidence that the only Republican to survive Tuesday’s slaughter was state Treasurer Judy Baar Topinka, a nonthreatening, mostly pro-choice pragmatist.

On the surface, where most voters get their impressions anyway, Democratic governor-elect Rod Blagojevich’s ideology is really not too far from our last two Republican governors.

In the 1998 campaign, George Ryan stressed his moderation on abortion, gays, and guns to contrast himself with the conservative Democrat Glenn Poshard. Sound familiar?

Former Governor Jim Edgar won the National Abortion Rights Action League endorsement in 1990 and spent eight years avoiding hot-button social issues like the plague. And, unlike Jim Ryan, both George Ryan and Jim Edgar openly courted the African-American vote – a strong signal to voters of a candidate’s personal tolerance.

So, yeah, the voters were undoubtedly ready for a change, and they weren’t much interested in Republican excuses for their inaction and tolerance of corruption. Without question, the party’s establishment wing lethally damaged the state GOP in voters’ minds.

And there’s no doubt that Jim Ryan, Joe Birkett, and Jim Durkin weren’t great candidates and were outmatched in almost every way by their well-funded, highly organized Democratic opponents.

But a case can be made that because the Republicans’ most visible candidates were so socially conservative the party could never quite keep itself in the game.

The right’s best hope is that Blagojevich and the completely Democratic General Assembly move way too far left in a burst of triumph, creating a voter backlash that could open the door to a more conservative candidate in four years. But no one can seriously argue today that conservative ideology performed well last week.

• Speaking of the conservatives, Treasurer Topinka’s large majority on Tuesday could set up some fascinating maneuvering pretty soon. Topinka is absolutely beloved by the Republican rank-and-file, but U.S. Senator Peter Fitzgerald and his allies would love to control the state party and use it to advance his re-election bid in two years.

The moderates, like Topinka and U.S. House Speaker Denny Hastert, want to keep the party away from the right wing to avoid any future debacles. (See above.) Topinka and Fitzgerald aren’t exactly buddies. They were seat-mates in the state Senate, but Fitzgerald publicly slammed her for making a controversial deal with some politically connected hotel owners. Trust me on this: Judy can hold a grudge. And Hastert and Fitzgerald have openly feuded in Washington and are not on good terms.

It’s possible that a deal could be cut that might stave off an open feud. Under this scenario, conservative activist Gary MacDougal would be allowed to retain the state Republican Party chairmanship, but, as is currently the case, the moderate pragmatists would control the staff and the purse strings.

• Is DuPage County washed up as the center of Republican power? Its favorite sons, Jim Ryan and Joe Birkett, lost for governor and attorney general. Another, Lee Daniels, has been forced to give up his job as House Republican leader, and neither of his potential replacements is from DuPage. And the DuPage County Republican godfather, “Pate” Philip, might retire as Senate president come January.

Only one of Pate’s wannabe successors is a DuPage guy, Senator Kirk Dillard of Hinsdale. Senator Steve Rauschenberger of Elgin is a Cook County GOP committeeman. Senator Frank Watson of Greenville is a downstater. If Pate retires and Dillard loses, the county will have lost just about everything.

Not to mention that with the Democrats in power, control of the patronage-rich Illinois Toll Highway Authority will probably pass to suburban Cook and Lake counties. Pate’s brother currently chairs the authority. He’ll be gone soon.

Oh, and then there’s the FBI investigation of leader Daniels. The federales have never investigated DuPage before. That total lack of oversight has led to an incestuous, corrupt system overripe for indictment.

And to add insult to injury, Jesse White carried the county by almost 28,000 votes – becoming the first African-American in Illinois history to win DuPage. The times are truly changing out there.

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