By Jamey Dunn
After suffering crushing electoral defeats on Tuesday that left Democrats with veto-proof majorities in both chambers of the General Assembly, Illinois Republicans are left trying to sort out the causes for their big losses.
The new legislative map drawn by Democrats, along with voters turning out to support President Barack Obama in his home state, did not do Illinois Republicans any favors. But many agree that the party faces more challenges that cannot all be attributed to the new map.
“Obviously, the Democrat map performed as the Democrats intended,” said Patty Schuh, a spokeswoman for Senate Minority Leader Christine Radogno. “They designed the map to ensure victory, and under the process in place in Illinois, that’s how it works.” Schuh noted that in recent decades, the party that draws the map has always picked up seats in the first race under new legislative districts. She called Tuesday’s results a continuation of that trend.
However, Schuh said that Radogno does think the party needs to take a hard look at itself and the way it does business. “The Republican Party and its elected officials need to examine everything. We really need to step back and learn lessons from this election cycle.”
Republican state Treasurer Dan Rutherford also said that the map played a role. “But that’s not the only reason. The other reason is that the Republican brand is damaged.”
Dan Proft, a talk show host with WLS radio, agreed. “We don’t have a brand. The brand doesn’t exist, and to the extent it does exist in people’s minds, it’s not a brand that a lot of people are buying.” Proft, who made his own failed bid for the Republican nomination in the 2010 governor's race, said that some of the Illinois Republicans who were defeated on Tuesday were solid candidates but “lost under the weight of the Illinois Republican Party’s brand.” He said the party has fallen into a campaigning rut that has lasted more than a decade. “Republicans have quite literally run the same campaigns in the same way with the same messaging for the better part of the last 15 years.”
Rutherford said that litmus tests on social issues are hurting the party brand. Rutherford, who was the only Senate Republican who voted in favor of Illinois’ civil unions law and describes himself as pro-life, said that Republicans should not have to conform their beliefs on social issues to be considered good members of the party. “There are good-quality Republicans that are pro-choice.” Rutherford said it is Republican fiscal policies that resonate. “Where we will earn the right to once again govern is by defining ourselves with regard to taxes, debt and spending.”
Sen. Kyle McCarter, a Lebanon Republican, said that taking the emphasis off social issues was a mistake the party made in this cycle. “We should take another lesson, and that is that running from positions on social issues didn’t work, either,” he said. “Our Republican leadership in the Senate instructed a number of our candidates to not get close to, and not take a stand on, social issues. People want to know where you stand. They don’t necessarily need to agree with you on every, issue, but they need to trust you.” McCarter said he is considering challenging Radogno for the Senate minority leader position.
Another problem facing Republicans is changing demographics. Minority groups, which tend to vote Democratic, are growing. Nationwide, Republicans struggled to connect with female voters. “Part of the generic Republican problem is that the electorate is changing,” said Kent Redfield, a professor emeritus of political science at the University of Illinois Springfield. He added, “African-American and Hispanic voters make up a larger percentage of the electorate in Illinois than they do nationally.”
Rutherford attributed his 2010 win in the race for his current office to his efforts at targeting minority voters. “I think a great part of success is just showing up, and then two things when you are there are: Don’t be a scary Republican; and two, being sensitive to the fact that they care about the same things that I care about,” he said. “They want a safe neighborhood. They want to have a job and they want reasonable taxes. And I think that’s the common denominator.
Proft said the party’s lack of support from Latino voters stems from something bigger than any single issue, such as immigration. He said it comes from a perception that the party does not care about the Latino community. “What the Latino voters seem to be saying is that: ‘Republicans don’t like me. They’re not interested in me, so I’m not interested in them.’”
Redfield said that unless there is a change of course, things could only get worse for Republicans. “If the demographic changes continue through this decade that we saw last decade, then the map is probably going to get more difficult than what we’ve seen this year.” He said it is all but impossible for the party to take back the majority in either chamber in 2014. “If they pick up 10 seats in either chamber, they are still short of the majority.”
He said the losses might also make it more difficult to raise campaign funds. “People want to give money to winners, and they want to give money to people who have access to power.”
Redfield said the party would need to invest in 2014 to protect incumbents who had closer-than-expected races this time around. “It’s just a very difficult task to figure out where they’re going to spend their money and how much defense do they need to play. And whatever defense they play means less money for playing offense.”