Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Republicans look to the future

By Jamey Dunn

Republicans in Illinois did not make the gains in state government they had hoped for in this month’s general election, but they did pick up some legislative seats. A past Republican statewide winner and one current one say moderation is a key to expanding on those gains in the future.

Former Republican Gov. Jim Edgar said that while Republicans did pick up seats in both the Illinois Senate and House, he thinks the key to Republican influence in the state is holding the governor’s office.

“It wasn’t a complete disaster. I mean they did pick up legislative seats. They picked up [U.S.] Congressional seats — though unfortunately those could all disappear in the redistricting. They picked up two constitutional officers. The Republicans did show they’re viable,” Edgar said. “You just need the governorship to kind of be on equal footing, I think, with the Democrats.”

He said he thought Republican gubernatorial candidate Bill Brady ran a good campaign, while Gov. Pat Quinn’s campaign lacked organization and focus. But in the end, Edgar said, Brady was just too conservative on some issues — particularly social issues, such as abortion and gay rights — to be elected. Edgar counted that as one of the biggest lessons of the election for his party. “You can’t move too far to the right, no matter what some of my conservative Republican friends think. They might win a primary, but that doesn’t mean you’re going to win the general election.”

Treasurer-elect Dan Rutherford agreed that even if candidates try to focus on other topics, such as the economy, which they find more pressing, the hot-button topics always come into play. “Social issues become a definer for us, good or bad.” Rutherford has some suggestions for Republicans, which he said helped him win his race.

First, he said, candidates need to tone down their rhetoric. While the Tea Party has gained attention nationwide for its fiery messages often fueled by voter frustration, Rutherford said that model does not resonate with enough voters in Illinois. “I think that there was enough acid in the environment that approaching the public debate in a reasoned way, I think, resonated.”

Rutherford — who handled much of his own social networking effort during the campaign including writing about some aspects of his personal life on the micro-blogging site Twitter — said showing some of his personal side helped him connect with voters. “We Republicans have got to show our personality.”

He said Republicans also need to reach out to sectors of the population they may not typically think of as their voter base. Rutherford said he focused campaign efforts on the Asian and Latino communities. He described those groups as “business minded.” He noted that some ethnic communities typically don’t get attention from state politicians, so they were willing to listen to his message. Rutherford said he thinks voters are interested in electing members of the business community to help solve the state’s fiscal crisis.

House Republican Leader Tom Cross agrees. “[Voters] want people with business backgrounds. They like the business prototype candidate.”

Cross said that while he was not able to take control of the Illinois House, which he had said was possible before the election earlier this month, he sees the potential for his party to take more seats in the future, especially downstate. He said he thinks residents outside of Chicago are more connected to state government because they are not distracted by Chicago politics, which can often overshadow state issues in the media.

He said demographics are shifting and downstate is becoming more Republican. He also said he thinks that an anti-Chicago, anti-Democrat sentiment is growing outside of the city.

However, Edgar said since Democrats will draw the new legislative map, and Democratic President Barack Obama, a former Illinois politician, will likely be running for reelection and bringing Democratic voters to the polls, 2012 could be a hard year for Republicans in the state. Cross acknowledged that a map drawn by Democrats will be a challenge but pointed out that Republicans have been running with a Democratic map for years. “It just kind of points out the system we have. It shouldn’t be an all or nothing.”

The legislature had been deadlocked on budget issues in the lead-up to the general election. Failure to find solutions could damage incumbents from both parties in the next election cycle. Senate Minority Leader Christine Radogno said she thinks Democrats and Republicans have a good relationship in her chamber, and she hopes they can work together. However, no action was taken or compromised reached when the Senate held a session to discuss borrowing to make this fiscal year’s pension payment earlier this month.

Cross is less than optimistic that Republicans and Democrats will come together to work out solutions in the House because he says his party has been shut out of the process. While House Speaker Mike Madigan has accused Cross of being an obstructionist and called Republicans the “party of no,” Cross said he is simply looking for some compromises from the majority party, such as budgeting reforms and efforts to create a better business climate in the state.

“Because of the resistance to change and the resistance to address some [reform] issues, I am not going to have a discussion about taxes,” Cross said. “We also understand and recognize the situation the state is in, and we aren’t not interested in it getting any worse.”

Edgar said substantive talks between party leaders would raise his hopes that Illinois politicians will start to solve the state’s budget crisis. “I am going to encourage Democrats and Republicans to sit down and try to get along. That’s what I want to see happen. … If that happens, I’m much more optimistic that they’ll figure out some compromise.”

Veto session starts Tuesday. See my "State of the State" column in the November Illinois Issues (page 6) for a preview of some of the big legislative issues on the table.

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