Illinois Republicans have a big decision to make, and soon
By Doug Ibendahl
May 1, 2011

If you read Republican News Watch with any frequency, you know I’m a firm believer that Republicans deserve straight talk. So here’s some more.

Without some big changes soon, 2012 is going to be a very, very bad year for Illinois Republicans.

No doubt you’ve heard the mantra that “Republicans must do better in Cook County.”

I think some people just like stating the obvious – even if they have no intention of actually doing anything about the problem.

In reality of course the GOP needs to do a lot better in all 102 counties. But here are some quick facts about Cook County and its dominate city.

George W. Bush lost all 50 Chicago Wards – twice – in 2000 and 2004. In most of those wards the loss was by huge margins. John McCain of course also lost all 50 to Chicago resident Barack Obama – in most cases by even bigger margins.

And as of this year, there’s not a single Republican on the Chicago City Council. There had been one surviving Republican Alderman for years – Brian Doherty. But he gave that up to run for State Senate as a Republican – and lost this past November. (Alderman and Mayor are technically non-partisan races in Chicago – but party identification still plays a big role.)

There were two Republicans running for Chicago Alderman in February. Both lost.

And the State, Cook, and Chicago Republican Party organizations were M.I.A. when it came to even trying to field a serious Republican candidate for Chicago Mayor.

Republicans now lack even the slightest toehold in Chicago government. GOP influence has officially been squelched completely in the City of Chicago.

But it wasn’t always this way. Republican Jack O’Malley was elected countywide in Cook in 1992 as State’s Attorney. He was the last countywide GOP public official. Democrat Dick Devine ousted him in 1996.

And you might be surprised to learn that George H.W. Bush won 8 Chicago Wards in 1988. Ronald Reagan won 14 in 1984.

Our party really started dying in the 1990’s. In fact no GOP presidential nominee has won Illinois since George H.W. Bush in 1988. It hasn’t even been close since then.

And if any of my downstate friends are saying, “it’s all Chicago’s fault” – I say not so fast.

Note for example that Barack Obama won Illinois by an incredibly shameful 25 points in 2008. Obama garnered 1,388,169 more votes than McCain statewide in Illinois. Obama received a total of 3,419,348 votes. (To put that in better perspective, Bill Brady received 1,713,385 votes statewide in November.)

And before anyone tries to pin all the blame on Chicago – note that Obama won 46 of Illinois’ 102 counties in 2008. In other words, there’s a lot of blame to go around.

Obama’s popularity has certainly fallen since 2008. But anyone who says Obama’s home state is truly “in play” going in to 2012 is either living in a fantasy world – or is just not an honest person.

On top of all this, 2012 will the first election under the new district maps – maps Mike Madigan and the Illinois Democrats are drawing all by themselves, thanks to GOP failure.

Bottom line, 2012 is not going to be 2010, a year when many Republican wins came easily nationwide. Even Illinois showed some progress for Republicans last year – but the big story in November was that the gains were considerably less than they should have been in our state. Big opportunities were squandered.

Now we’re moving into a completely different environment for 2012.

And if you think the Illinois Republican Party is going to be some aggressive machine going after Obama – forget it. It’s never been that, and that won’t change by next November.

The undisputed, absolute head of the Illinois Republican Party is now Mark Kirk (Pat Brady is just a figurehead, recruited and put into party leadership by Mark Kirk’s people.)

You haven’t and you never will see Mark Kirk seriously taking on Obama. Kirk is about Kirk and he sees many of Obama’s voters as his voters. He’ll do nothing to turn them off. In fact outside of preaching to the choir at some GOP event – when was the last time you heard any Republican official from Illinois taking on Obama? Despite what some of them may say to a fellow Republican in private – the reality is they’ve all surrendered the state to Obama and they don’t want to risk any of their own precious political capital to change the paradigm.

That’s why you just see Pat Brady going through the motions with the State Party. That’s why you see nothing but the silly online petition drives for this or that (that’s mostly to harvest emails for fundraising purposes), and things like the hawking of cheap apparel mocking Blagojevich or Madigan in a juvenile way. There’s no serious building effort. Last year was about Mark Kirk and now that he’s safely in for six years, Pat Brady’s marching orders are to depress conservative energy.

All Republicans are expected to suffer because a very self-centered man – Mark Kirk – doesn’t want to make any waves. He has nothing to worry about until 2016 and he doesn’t want any pesky Republicans, and certainly not any conservatives, getting crazy ideas about building something resembling a Pro-Platform GOP in Illinois.

That’s why Pat Brady’s not overseeing a Republican Party – he’s running the Mark Kirk Party.

But all is not lost. Instead of Republicans just sitting around whining about Chicago or Mike Madigan or whatever like Pat Brady is resigned to do – we can actually act like Republicans and do something to help ourselves. We can stand up and decide our own destiny like true Republicans are supposed to do.

We can start by giving the Illinois Republican Party back to Republicans. We can pass Senate Bill 35. (The Illinois Senate passed the bill by unanimous vote on April 8th. House passage now needed.)

That reform simply reverses a bad law jammed on Republicans by the bosses back in the late 1980’s. And guess what – that’s exactly when the Illinois Republican Party nosedived. Illinois has been a Blue State ever since the party was taken away from Republican voters and given to the Jim Thompsons, the Dallas Ingemunsons, the Bill Cellinis, the Bob Kjellanders, the George Ryans – and now the Mark Kirks.

Ever since direct elections were taken away by a bad law, the entire system’s been corrupted by destructive incentives.

Take Chicago for example. All 50 Republican Ward Committeemen are up for election in next year’s March Primary. The circulation period for gathering petition signatures will begin late this summer. It’s the same for all offices up next year in all parts of the state.

If SB35 hasn’t passed by then – here’s what’s going to happen. It’s the same thing that’s been happening every cycle since real elections for the State Central Committee were stolen away.

The incumbent State Central Committeemen are going to recruit and assist candidates for GOP Ward Committeemen solely for the purposes of harvesting votes for State Central Committeeman down the road. Under the system our party currently follows – once that vote is harvested at the county convention – the Ward Committeeman does nothing for another four years. Too many of those lower level party officials aren’t recruited for the right reasons.

Now I’m not saying this happens in all 50 cases. There are some good GOP Ward Committeemen out there doing the right job for the right reasons. But the examples are too rare.

Plus this problem of bad incentives is not confined to Chicago. Many of the same destructive games are played in downstate counties over the recruitment of Precinct Committeemen. Many good Republicans run for the right reasons. But other times that’s not the case. And some officials discourage good Republicans from even running for Precinct Committeemen in the first place – specifically because they want to keep the power to pick the State Central Committeeman locked-up in the hands of a few.

Our current system for picking the State Central Committee has destroyed the Illinois Republican Party statewide. Yes, that’s how bad it is. When an artificial system was substituted for common sense democracy and real elections in the late 1980’s, it turned the Illinois GOP into a jury-rigged mess.

When Republican voters were taken out of the equation and accountability was removed – the door was opened for the selfish players to game the system. And that’s exactly what happened.

Think about all the time and destructive energy that’s currently expended to rig the State Central Committeeman selection process. Think about all the rigged party conventions – both county and state. Think about all the rigging that’s done to get the “right” people into the lower level party spots, just to lock up “votes.” Think about all the times Republican voters have been lied to. Think about a State Party that just recently passed a phony bylaw change behind closed doors that not only fails to do what our officials claim it does – it actually makes the situation worse.

When SB35 passes, most of the bad incentives for these destructive, selfish games go away overnight.

Just the knowledge that they will have to face Republican voters in a real election on a date certain will make even the current committee of 19 marginally better stewards right away. Now they’ll have to listen to Republicans instead of just a few failed bosses.

Some of them may even start doing their jobs.

It’s time to get it done folks. For crying out loud, the Republican Party in Illinois is home to thousands upon thousands of accomplished business people and professionals who deal with corporate governance issues every single day at their places of employment.

Given the incredible pool of business talent represented in our Republican Party, it’s remarkable that over two decades have passed where a tiny handful of greedy bosses have been allowed to keep our Republican Party crippled – via one of the worst systems of corporate governance imaginable.

Illinois Republicans have a big decision to make – and it has to be made by the end of this legislative session in Springfield. That’s scheduled for the end of this month.

If SB35 hasn’t passed by then and the petition period starts this summer for next year’s elections – Republicans will have no one to blame but themselves for next year’s disaster at the polls. If our Illinois GOP is going to keep playing dishonest games – then continued failure is guaranteed.

If you’re not on the side of Republican voters – then you’re on the side of Barack Obama and the Democrats. It really is that simple.

Doug Ibendahl is a Chicago Attorney and a former General Counsel of the Illinois Republican Party.

Editor’s Note: If you haven’t already done so, show that you’re on the side of building a winning Republican Party by joining the growing list of SB35 supporters HERE. You’ll be in very good company with a diverse group of fellow Republicans like Jack Ryan, Peter Fitzgerald, Demetra Demonte, Bill Brady, Jason Plummer, Kirk Dillard, Joe Walsh, Bobby Schilling, Randy Hultgren, Christine Radogno, Pat O’Malley, Steve Rauschenberger, and Mike Fortner – to name just a few.

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