By Jamey Dunn
After suffering serious losses in last week’s election, Illinois Republicans agree that they have lessons to learn from their defeats. However, what those lessons are depend on whom you talk to.
Many Republicans have taken notice that the demographics in Illinois and across the nation are not shifting in the party’s favor. “What I think we have seen in Illinois is kind of the realignment politically of this state, and it’s something that the Republicans have to really worry about because our base really was the suburbs. That’s really what got us the margin to offset Chicago. That’s not there anymore. In fact, it many not even be Republican anymore,” said former Gov. Jim Edgar, a Republican.
Edgar has been arguing for years that the party must reach out to Latinos. He notes that he and former President George W. Bush both enjoyed some support from Latino voters because they did not take hard lines on immigration policy. “Unfortunately the congressional Republicans took a different approach a few years ago, and I think cost us any support out of the Hispanic community. And I think [failed Republican presidential candidate] Gov. [Mitt] Romney demonstrated that he went the wrong way on that issue, and it hurt him on Election Day.”
Edgar said that some Republicans must change their thinking on immigration to survive politically. “Besides the politics of it, it’s just the right thing to do. We have 10 [million] to 12 million people here who have been here for years undocumented. We need to deal with that. We can’t deport them. And these people contribute.”
According to the Pew Research Center’s analysis of exit polls, Latinos made up 10 percent of the national electorate for last week’s election. That number is up from 9 percent in 2008 and 8 percent in 2004. This year, 71 percent of voting Latinos supported President Barack Obama.
“The Republican Party should be a party that appeals to Hispanics,” said John Tillman, chief operating officer of the Illinois Policy Institute. The institute describes itself as a nonpartisan think tank devoted to promoting “free market” ideas and policies. Tillman penned a an opinion piece, "Four Lessons from Election 2012," which can be found at the conservative blog Illinois Review. “I think Republicans are perceived to be hostile to immigrants. I don’t think its true because I’ve talked to enough to know it’s not true.”
Republicans and others seem to agree that the party needs to work on recruiting better candidates who can win in a general election. “It’s not enough to win the primary. You’ve got to win the general election, and you’ve got to find candidates who will be able. Not to sell out your principles, but that can appeal to more than just a bunch of white males. I think we have tendency as a party, we talk too much to each other, and a lot of our folks, they just watch Fox News and they listen to [conservative radio show host Rush] Limbaugh. I think they don’t have an accurate view of the world. So hopefully they have learned,” Edgar said.
Kent Redfield, professor emeritus of political science with the University of Illinois Springfield, said House Minority Leader Tom Cross and Senate Minority Leader Christine Radogno may need to be more hands-on when it comes to scouting candidates and backing them in the Republican primary election. While they may give some financial support, both leaders tend to stay out of the bulk of primary fights and do not typically step in to vocally back a candidate.
Tillman said Republicans need to look beyond familiar faces. “The [Illinois] Republican Party establishment is too focused on recruiting talent on who you know and what relationships you have. Republicans need to broaden their thinking and try to find talent from outside of the party establishment.”
Some say the party's problem is messaging. Sen. Kyle McCarter, who is considering challenging Radogno for her leadership seat, said his caucus should have taken a stronger stand on controversial issues such as budget cuts and pension reform. “As Republicans, we can’t just say, ‘No.’ We’ve got to put some detailed plans on the table that really show how we as a state can get out of this fiscal mess.”
Senate Republicans have come together to back a budget plan that they put down on paper, but McCarter said they should have introduced the plan as legislation. “I think it’s something that we should have done in this last session. We should have put that in bill form on the table,” he said. “Since I’ve been here, the leadership of the Republican Party has been much too risk-averse.”
While many blame the new legislative map drawn by Democrats as the primary factor for the sweeping Republican losses, McCarter said it’s more than that.
“I don’t think the map is a good enough excuse. There’s two other factors, and that’s money and message, and I think we came up short in both of those,” he said.
Redfield said McCarter has demonstrated that he can bring at least one of the two to the table. “Clearly, McCarter is ready to go. He got conservative money funneled through him [in the 2012 election cycle],” Redfield said. Turning to potentially more conservative leadership might help Senate Republicans find campaign money in the short-term, but it could also make it more difficult to reach those growing demographics that Republicans are currently falling flat with. “It is maybe not the best self-awareness in terms of where the party needs to go to rebuild.”
Dan Proft, a talk show host with WLS radio in Chicago, said that Illinois Republicans do not have a clear platform on many issues that are most important to voters, such as education. “Blame Democrats, and we’re for the opposite of what they’re for. Well that’s not good enough, clearly,” he said. “What’s the Republican Party vision on K-12? Education is important. What is your vision, and how does that compare with the Democrats in charge?”
While he said that Republicans should not refuse to cooperate for the sake of obstruction, Proft, who made a failed bid for the Republican gubernatorial nomination in 2010, said that the current legislative leaders should have gotten better deals on some of the bipartisan plans they agreed to. “They take bread crumbs and really become co-conspirators in bad public policy,” he said. “The approach is not to be the junior partners to the Chicago Democrats.”
Tillman agreed. “The Republican caucuses have been too focused on trying to make bad Democrat policies marginally better rather than having a clear brand-distinguishing alternative vision that they promote vigorously.” He was critical of Republican legislative leaders for their compromises with Democrats. “In terms of the Republican caucuses, with the Democrats having a supermajority, if leaders continue the pattern of seeking a seat at the table rather than providing a clear party-in-exile alternative, the rank and file members, investors and grassroots activists must demand changes. Regardless, the status quo is untenable,” Tillman wrote in his opinion piece.
But Radogno defended her ability to compromise, especially on the recently approved Medicaid reform package. The set of laws is expected to reduce the state’s Medicaid liability by more than $1.5 billion. The deal included $1-a-pack cigarette tax increase and a provision that allowed Cook County to grow its Medicaid program in anticipation of the expansion that will kick in under the Affordable Care Act. Those two components of the plan were in stand-alone bills, and Republicans were able to vote against them without sinking the entire compromise.
“For Sen. Radogno, I think if the Democratic majority put forth a good idea, then she will be willing to support a good idea,” said Radogno spokeswoman Patty Schuh. She said Republicans were able to back Medicaid cuts and reforms that they have been proposing for years. And now, she said, Radogno and others will keep the pressure on Gov. Pat Quinn to ensure that those ideas are implemented.
However, Schuh said proposals to increase taxes, borrow or make spending decisions that would make it difficult to allow the income tax increase to sunset as planned would continue to be nonstarters with Republican leadership in the Senate.
Schuh said that the 19 Republicans who are left in the Senate should not spend their terms sitting on their hands to make a political point. “The one thing to remember is, obviously, our numbers are low, but remember in so many legislative districts in the state of Illinois, 46, 47, 48, 49 percent of the people believe in the message of low taxes, less spending and reining in big government, and those people deserve to be represented.”
Edgar said those who point to the compromises made by legislative leadership as a cause of Republican losses last week are dead wrong. “Most people don’t really know who did what in the legislature. They know the final product,” he said. “If anything, I think the Republicans would be far better off to look like they are willing to reach across the aisle. I think that’s what people want. People don’t want more polarization. If the right wing still thinks that, they didn’t learn anything from this election. They haven’t been out there talking to ordinary folks.”
He added: “I don’t think you can blame Cross and Radogno. The problem is, they had terrible districts and they didn’t have the money. People give to who has power, and we didn’t have the power.”
But Edgar does see a possible bright spot in the future for the party. “The governor’s race in Illinois in two years is huge for the Republican Party. If we can win the governor’s office back, then we have a viable two party system in Illinois,” he said. “But we’ve got to make sure that we have a candidate who not only appeals to Republicans but who also appeals to independents and thoughtful Democrats because you’ve got to have those. There [are] not enough Republicans in the state to get elected dog catcher. You’ve got to go out and get people who don’t view themselves as Republican. That means that you’re going to have to make sure the candidate appeals to the center.”
Edgar warned that Republicans should not look at Quinn’s low public approval ratings and assume they have the governor’s race in the bag. “I think we have an opportunity, but it’s only an opportunity -- no guarantee. We’ve got to get our act together.”