Illinois Republicans are setting their sights on the bottom of the ticket to climb back to the top…
Fifteen years ago, Republicans had a %uFB01rm grip on power in Illinois, holding all six state constitutional of%uFB01ces and majorities in both houses of the legislature. But, as it has in many traditionally Republican parts of the country, that dominance has faded. Now no Republican serves in statewide of%uFB01ce, and Democrats are just short of a supermajority in the state House.
What the Grand Old Party needs to do, some in Illinois say, is get back to the old adage that all politics is local. Andy McKenna, the Illinois GOP chair, has an idea how to do it, but he wants to go one step further than Tip O’Neill: Success in politics isn’t just local anymore. It’s hyperlocal.
When Republicans look at their few remaining of%uFB01ceholders in Illinois, they see one thing in common. “They’ve had good campaigns and good money,” says state GOP spokesman Lance Trover. “But they’ve got great grassroots.” Now the party needs to spread those roots beyond a few isolated outposts. Tom Cross, the state House minority leader since 2002, has been trying to build a “farm team” of younger candidates but hasn’t been able to re-claim power. Rep. Aaron Schock was one of his recruits, and by far the biggest success (see page 38). But every November, a fresh batch of headlines enumerates Republican losses. So state leaders are moving beyond recruitment. For the %uFB01rst time they’re putting money and manpower into the smallest local races across the state.
They’re devoting precious resources to the races that sometimes even the local paper forgets to cover: county board chairs or town councils. Republicans are gunning for low-pro%uFB01le races where a minority party can eke out a win—and eventually help rebuild the team from the bottom up. “The county chairmen, we were talking grassroots, grassroots,” says Randy Pollard, who heads the committee of Republican county chairs. “We decided to put our money where our mouth is.”
Last year, Pollard asked each chairman to identify an important race where a little help would put the Republican candidate over the top. The county chairs examined the races and how each campaign planned to spend money, and, through a PAC funded by dues and a $10,000 donation from the state party, sent out checks. “If I can help a candidate do that last blitz of radio or a direct mail piece, if he can get that last kick, that’s what helps bring in the win,” says Pollard.
The program had already proved successful in a test run. In 2007, Brad Cole, the %uFB01rst-term mayor of Carbondale, faced a stiff reelection battle with Sheila Simon, daughter of the late Sen. Paul Simon. Simon beat Cole by almost 20 points in the open primary, and Democratic heavyweights like then-Sen. Barack Obama and Sen. Dick Durbin were campaigning on her behalf. The GOP countered with a careful use of resources, providing Cole with staff assistance and access to Voter Vault, the enhanced voter %uFB01le collected by the national Republican Party. Cole ramped up his voter contact and won by 14 points.
Cole says he is excited to see the program extended to other Republican candidates. “It’s building the farm team,” he says. “It’s just really developing the party, so we have the best candidates we can.” The state party says last year’s expansion of the program was successful, though who was helped—and how much money they got—is under wraps. The program targeted 46 downstate counties with about a 60 percent success rate, spokespeople say. Pollard offers estimates that are bit more detailed—Republicans won about 58 percent of targeted county board races, 71 percent of county clerk races and 53 percent of state’s attorney races, he says.
Those low-level gains won’t immediately take back control of the state but are important building blocks for long-term growth. County boards control huge municipal contracts that, carefully distributed, can earn a party a new set of supporters. A local politician’s campaign machinery can provide an infrastructure for statewide and national candidates. With few Republican of%uFB01ceholders in position to reach down from the top, a grassroots revival might be the only way to revamp the party from the bottom up. But can the party leadership tame an inherently chaotic process to productively spark the grassroots? And can they light that %uFB01re even in the bluest territory?
Whole portions of the country are slipping away from Republicans. In New England, the last Republican House member was defeated last year; New York is down to two Republicans in a delegation of 29. “The Republican brand is beginning to fail,” says Ivan Kenneally, a political science professor at Rochester Institute of Technology. “It’s hard for them to do anything that will be popular in a national way. Now they need to cater to local interests.”
The local Republican brand is in some ways healthier than the national. Democrats gained only 10 state Senate seats across the country last year—compared to 112 seats gained by Republicans when Ronald Reagan beat Jimmy Carter in 1980. All incumbent Republican state’s attorneys held their seats—even in solidly blue states like Oregon and Pennsylvania.
In recent years, it’s been Democrats who have successfully drilled down on local races. In 2004, Howard Dean, then the chairman of the Democratic National Committee, spent billions of dollars on his 50-state strategy, equipping deep red states with trained organizers. Though it was controversial at the time, the strategy is now credited with helping %uFB02ip last year’s electoral map. Democrats in Illinois have followed suit. In suburban DuPage County, a traditional Republican stronghold, a few Democrats organized a push to “Turn DuPage Blue,” making sure fewer Republicans ran unopposed. Three Democrats won seats on the county board last year, the most in 34 years.
DuPage lies within the “collar counties,” the state’s political battleground of suburbs that surrounds the deep blue fortress of Chicago and Cook County. “DuPage County used to be one of the most Republican counties,” says conservative consultant Maurice Bonamigo, who has of%uFB01ces in Chicago and across the country. “It’s changed now. The Democrats are challenging. They’re doing exactly what Republicans are failing to do in Cook County.”
Like most cities, Chicago is not friendly to Republicans. “You’d think we have a budget of hundreds of thousands of dollars, just by the name—Chicago Republican Party,” says Tom Swiss, who is a political director for the city’s opposition party. “But our of%uFB01ce is donated by the county chairman. We’re all volunteers.”
To rebuild across the state, Republicans will need to close the gap in Chicago and its suburbs. Swiss has crunched the numbers, and he believes that in a statewide campaign, a Republican candidate needs a strong showing in the collar counties to win—as well as 23 percent of the Chicago vote and 40 percent of the total Cook County vote. The %uFB01rst President Bush was the last Republican to win the Cook County suburbs—and the last to win the state. From 1976 to 1998, Republican governors won seven straight elections in Illinois—and won the Cook County suburbs by at least 109,000 votes every time. They won the collar counties by at least 147,000 votes. But in 2004, George W. Bush’s margin of victory in the collar counties was less than %uFB01ve points, down 20 points from his father’s win in 1988. Obama won all of the collar counties last year, a %uFB01rst for a Democratic presidential candidate.
Now the collar counties have been all but written off by Republicans. Randy Pollard says they were part of a “special effort” last year, with money set aside in a separate fund but supplied with similar levels of help as other counties. Swiss says beyond access to Voter Vault, the Cook County Republicans got little help. “The state party at this point is not particularly strong,” he says. “We have not received any directives, any help, any information. They said, ‘Why should we treat Cook County any different than any other county?’ I thought that was really bizarre.”
Swiss knows the power of the hyperlocal campaigns. For the 2006 campaign, he analyzed Chicago voting records and picked out wards with a higher concentration of Republicans. Then he dispatched high school and college students to canvas train stations and bus stations in those wards. Judy Barr Topinka, the Republican gubernatorial nominee, declined their help, Swiss says. Tony Peraica, running for Cook County board president, did not. While neither Republican won their race, Swiss’s student mobilization demonstrates the power of good targeting.
Peraica was looking to become the %uFB01rst Republican to lead the county board in 40 years. Peraica’s 2006 opponent was Todd Stroger, a political neophyte who jumped into the race after his father, the longtime incumbent, suffered a stroke. Peraica portrayed Stroger as pawn of moneyed interests and a bene%uFB01 ciary of nepotism.
Polls showed he had a lead going into the home stretch. Two weeks before the election, Peraica led by 8 points. Then Stroger, with a strong infusion of what Peraica calls “illegal money,” got on the air in the expensive Chicago media market. He beat Peraica by 6 points on Election Day. What is interesting is that Peraica won every one of the wards worked by Swiss and his team. Topinka, the gubernatorial candidate who declined help, lost them all. According to Swiss’s numbers, Topinka could have won the governorship by matching Peraica’s Cook County success.
“On Election Day, we were able to cover every polling place throughout a 1,000 square-mile county,” Peraica says of Swiss’s help. “Without that, our campaign wouldn’t have been able to accomplish what we did.” Even losing in a close race was a tantalizing success in the political wilderness.
After the fall of former Democratic Gov. Rod Blagojevich, this should theoretically be a good year for Illinois Republicans, but few new leaders have emerged. There’s some hope of %uFB01ghting back in Cook County. The state party is trying to deliver Michael Steele to headline a local fundraiser; Paul Vallas, the former CEO of Chicago public schools and currently the superintendent of New Orlean’s Recovery School District, has talked of running for county board president or even governor. (Vallas lost to Blagojevich in 2002—in the Democratic primary.) Tony Peraica, too, is discussing another run.
Any success—for Illinois Republicans or for their national counterparts—will require a devotion to the hyperlocal, even in unfriendly territory. In places like Cook County, the money needs to %uFB02ow. “It didn’t happen in ‘06,” Peraica says. “Now I’m hoping we can learn from our mistakes.”Boyce Upholt is web editor for Politics magazine.
Illinois Republicans are setting their sights on the bottom of the ticket to climb back to the top…