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What Ever Happened to the Republican Party in Illinois?

What went wrong? At the end of the primary election last March, Illinois residents were in for a good ol' American Senate race.


What went wrong? At the end of the primary election last March, Illinois residents were in for a good ol' American Senate race. At least they thought they were.

Sure, there was whispering about Republican candidate Jack Ryan's sealed divorce papers. But nobody anticipated the whirlwind chaos those unsealed divorce papers would bestow upon the Illinois Republican Party.

Unless you've been living under a rock for the past few months, you know Jack Ryan's divorce papers revealed details of his attempts to pressure his ex-wife, actress Jeri Ryan, into engaging in marital relations in front of an audience.

Once the media got wind of the contents in Ryan's divorce papers, Illinois Republicans had to respond. But instead of supporting their candidate, some Republicans say the party crucified Ryan and his chances of completing the race.

"Why did the Republican Party react immediately by cutting off the head of their own nominee?" asks State Senator Steve Rauschenberger (R-Elgin). "That's a fundamental question that needs to be asked. Judy Baar Topinka [chair of the Illinois Republican Party] knew about this situation prior to the primary, and there were clear press reports and allegations that these things were in the [divorce] papers before the public airing of this whole thing. They chose not to do anything about it. It seems to me that the party leadership should have been aware that this would happen. Her staff kind of failed her. When you have lemons you make lemonade. But you don't shoot your own nominee, which is what she did. I mean, how can a candidate recover from that?"

But the Illinois Republican Party says Ryan's choice to leave the race had nothing to do with the reaction of his cohorts.

"Jack Ryan made the decision he was going to make, and it was a personal decision," explains John Hoffman, interim executive director of the Illinois Republican Party.

What is clear is that the scandalous and raunchy material in Ryan's divorce records created an instant division between Illinois Republicans, and the lack of party unity has not been kept behind closed doors.

"The state party chairman [Topinka] said he [Ryan] lied," exclaims Sen. Rauschenberger. "That's a death blow. That would have been used in every Obama commercial against Jack Ryan. To say we're concerned about the situation, and we want to take a closer look at the papers would have been a more measured reaction. I think Judy Baar Topinka emotionally reacted. She's a great lady, but she hasn't been party chairman that long, and I think she made a mistake."

Hoffman says the party dropped its focus on Ryan as soon as he dropped out of the race. "Since he made his announcement we've been focused on the November election," he explained. "We are looking to the future."

And the future is Alan Keyes.

After more than 5 weeks without a candidate, Illinois Republicans announced that Maryland resident and uber-conservative Alan Keyes would be Barack Obama's competition in the race for U.S. Senate.

But Keyes was not their first choice.

"A couple of days before [Former Chicago Bears Coach Mike] Ditka surfaced, I was contacted about joining the race," recalls Sen. Rauschenberger. "We spent three days on due diligence talking with the leadership of the Senate Campaign Committee and the Speaker's office. It was certainly interesting, but by the time they decided to ask me they were pretty far down the line. The most important thing to realize was the Republican Senate Campaign Committee could not commit to funding the Illinois race. One disadvantage I had was that I did not have the financial resources to get the campaign going. You had to have the resources to jump-start a campaign mid-way though the race. And that was not possible for me."

More than a handful of Republicans turned down offers to jump into the senate race. Some of the notables include the aforementioned Sen. Rauschenberger and Mike Ditka, former Govs. Jim Thompson and Jim Edgar, Sen. Peter Fitzgerald, former State Board of Education Chairman Ron Gidwitz and Sen. Kirk Dillard.

One could see why Mike Ditka might not want to jump into such a contentious race; he has no experience in politics. But why didn't any of the Republicans with experience take on the challenge?

"Money was the biggest problem for those experienced elected officials who turned the job down," explains Sen. Rauschenberger. "It is impossible to raise the kind of money needed to get the race going. The U.S. Senate Campaign Committee made a decision that it was in their best interest to invest in Louisiana, Georgia and South Carolina and not to invest in Illinois. And I don't blame them. They're just doing their job. They want to put their money in the states that are going to give them the best chance to win a Senate seat. Their job is not to bail out the party in Illinois. And I think they were irritated that the first reaction of the Illinois leadership was to submarine their own candidate."

Even the Illinois Republican Party agrees that money was an issue in the quest to find a candidate in this race.

"I think money was definitely a part of the personal decision a lot of the [prospective] candidates made when they chose not to run," says Hoffman. "After Ryan announced his decision, people put their names forward and realized that it was obviously a shorter time period than normal to run a race. So I think having to raise a large amount of money in a short amount of time was a factor."

The Illinois Republican Party says they have raised more money under Judy Baar Topinka's lead than ever before. So why couldn't they lend a hand to a potential candidate?

"There are restrictions on what the Illinois Republican Party can do, and they prevent us from making direct contributions to federal candidates," explains Hoffman. "We make it clear from the beginning that our programs would be promoting every candidate across the board. The Illinois Republican Party as an institution is really focused on the nuts and bolts of programs like voter ID registration and 'get out the vote' campaigns. I hope it was understood that we would be pushing the kind of programs that would be a benefit to them [U.S. Senate candidates] as well as other candidates up and down the ticket."

Though money can be attributed to some of the problems Republicans had in getting a replacement for Ryan, it was not the sole factor. Jim Oberweis, dairy magnate and second place winner for the Republicans in the primary, was willing and able to put his own money into the race if he were asked to run. And although he applied to be considered for the job, along with Gen. John Borling, Chirinjeev Kathuria and John Cox, Oberweis was not chosen to represent the Republicans. Why was the man with the money to run overlooked?

Sen. Rauschenberger has a simple answer.

"I think the concerns about his controversial immigration ads were the problem," he says. "That would have been the entire media focus on the race, and they [the Republicans] did not want to fight that battle in the race."

All of this confusion has left many people wondering if the Republicans even have a base of up-and-coming political hopefuls.

"That's a great question to ask Jim Thompson and Jim Edgar," quips Rauschenberger. "One of the real problems is that we don't have a farm system. Republicans have the reputation of eating their own young. Gov. Ryan had a good ol' boys system and was focused on promoting himself into office. None of them [former Republican governors] developed prot?g?s for the party. All they really did was self-promote. It's been a long-time frustration for younger Republicans like myself that the leadership is all about personal gain and not about building the Republican Party in Illinois."

But the Illinois GOP is hoping to change all of that.

"The state party certainly wants to help encourage the growth of new candidates," says Hoffman. "For example, the party has been trying to help promote Erica Herald, the former Miss America from 2003. She was a delegate for Illinois at the convention and actually spoke to the full convention. She is the type of person we'd like to see get more involved in the party."

In the meantime, the Illinois Republicans have Alan Keyes as their guy in the ring. Keyes is known for his far right stance on the issues and preachy delivery. Most recently, Keyes proclaimed homosexuality as a hedonistic practice, thereby sparking national controversy with a reference to Vice President Dick Cheney's openly gay daughter. And once again, the polar beliefs in the Illinois Republican Party reared their heads when Topinka called Keyes' statements "idiotic".

"I think she overreacted," says Rauschenberger. "What he said is that he believes the practice of homosexuality is a selfish hedonistic practice. They [reporters] then said Cheney's daughter is openly homosexual. And he said that what he said applied to everyone who was homosexual. Would I have done it differently than Keyes? I would hope so. But how do you blame a candidate for being consistent with the press? I don't think it's idiotic for being consistent with the press. I would not have characterized things the way he did, and I do not agree with him 100 percent. But that doesn't mean that when someone says something I don't agree with I would call him idiotic."

Scandals like this, both large and small, seem to continuously haunt Illinois Republicans. From former Gov. George Ryan's license-for-bribes scandal to former Gov. Jim Thompson's involvement as audit committee chairman on the contentious Hollinger International board, Illinois Republicans don't have a squeaky-clean reputation.

"Obviously it's no secret that our former governor has faced legal problems," admits Hoffman. "There have been difficulties in the party; it's not something anyone is going to deny. But I think the way the Senate race went was based on personal decisions. It was an independent issue, and it's obviously something nobody expected."

Rauschenberger agrees.

"We are all trying to figure out what the indictment of George Ryan and Thompson's role on the Hollinger board means," he says. "But I don't think there's a need to make excuses for why the Republicans did not have a real backup for the Senate race."

After November's election, Illinois Republicans will more than likely be focused on rebuilding their party base. And it very well may be based on conservatism, even though many Illinoisans have said the presence of Alan Keyes makes the party appear to be too far to the right.

"I'm not nervous about that," says Rauschenberger. "Most people self-identify as being politically conservative. The problem is not that we're too conservative. The Republican Party is growing in over 40 states. The problem is that we have a party that has just been saying 'elect us because it's our turn.' 'It's my turn' was [Gov.] Ryan's slogan. That's the type of leadership we've had. We have to have a message for the people that says more than elect us because it's our turn.

"The future of the Republican Party in Illinois depends on reestablishing a sense of direction and something to offer the voters of Illinois," he goes on to say. "We have been bankrupt of new ideas for the last two decades. In Illinois the vision needs to be good jobs at good salaries, fighting corruption wherever it is, whether it's at O'Hare, in city hall, in Stroger's administration or in Springfield. The voters don't want us to re-plow the fields of the equal rights amendment or Roe v. Wade. People want a better place to live and raise their children. And until the party rediscovers their role in leadership, the people will not respond. We need to address the needs of Illinois' broken education system and create a transportation system that takes advantage of Illinois as the crossroads of the country. I'm not distracted by the liberal/conservative issue. Those are all sideshows. The real question is does the party have a vision for the state and can they communicate it to the people of Illinois?"

The Illinois Republican Party says it does, and there are already signs of progress.

"The Republican Party is a big tent party that has a lot of views," explains Hoffman. "And we have done a lot to show minorities that we are the party of passionate conservatism and that we are the party of job opportunities. This year we had the most diverse delegation at the convention that we have ever had. As I said before, Erica Herald was there, and did you know she's African-American?"

Published: October 01, 2004
Issue: November 2004