By Rick Pearson, Monique Garcia and Ray Long, Chicago Tribune reporters
November 8, 2012
A day after suffering devastating election losses up and down the state, Illinois Republicans could point to one bright spot: Barack Obama's name won't ever be on the ballot again.
In 2004 as a U.S. Senate candidate, in 2008 as a presidential contender and again on Tuesday running for re-election, the Democratic president's presence has spelled doom for a state GOP that's been in the political wilderness for a decade.
But it wasn't only the home-state coattails that led Democrats to seize greater control of the General Assembly and win five out of the six congressional seats that were in play. Republicans also were blasted by post-census political boundaries that Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan and Senate President John Cullerton orchestrated. And changing demographics and voting patterns didn't help matters either.
On Wednesday, a shell-shocked Illinois GOP assessed the damage and looked for remedies as some questioned party leadership, especially in the Legislature.
"Whatever we did didn't work," Illinois Republican Chairman Pat Brady said. "We're going to have to retool and re-evaluate and do things differently. I'm not sure what that means, but we can't let what happened in '12 happen in '14."
Overnight, the 11-8 Republican advantage in Illinois' congressional delegation was wiped out. Three freshmen GOP representatives were tossed from office while Democrats appeared poised to take a 12-6 edge in the delegation the state sends to Washington.
In Springfield, where Republicans have long been the minority party in the state Legislature, Democrats won a veto-proof supermajority in the state House and Senate. In the House, it's 71 Democrats and 47 Republicans. In the Senate, it's 40 Democrats and 19 Republicans.
With Democrats in control of the governor's office and the Legislature following the 2010 election, they gained the right to redraw the new congressional and General Assembly boundaries, keeping Republicans in the dark.
The maps eliminated the threat of potential Democratic primary challenges to Madigan's members by slinging boundaries around houses and down the middle of streets. In addition, Republicans found themselves doubled up against each other or, in one case, three to a district, to eliminate sitting GOP lawmakers. Still other Republicans were given vast swatches of unfamiliar turf to try to defend.
The Democratic gains came in the first election since the party approved an unpopular 67 percent increase in the personal income tax rate shortly after the 2010 election.
Changes could loom on the Republican side. Senate GOP Leader Christine Radogno, of Lemont, acknowledged Wednesday that state Sen. Kyle McCarter, a Republican from Downstate Lebanon, has been vocal about a challenge for her leadership spot. Radogno said McCarter should have focused more on helping his fellow Republicans instead of himself.
"I understand the disappointment, but what we really need to do is a thorough analysis and see what makes the most sense to move not only our caucus but our party and message of fiscal conservatism forward," Radogno said.
Republican Sen. Dan Duffy, of Lake Barrington, suggested an alternative to Radogno as leader: Sen. Darin LaHood, the Peoria-area lawmaker who is the son of Ray LaHood, Obama's transportation secretary. Sen. LaHood could not be reached for comment.
Though the 2012 election just ended, jockeying will start soon for the state's even bigger election in 2014.
All of Illinois' statewide offices will be on the ballot, including governor. Topping the ticket is the contest for the U.S. Senate seat held by veteran Democratic Sen. Dick Durbin. He has said that at this stage he's a candidate for re-election, but there's the possibility of a Cabinet post during Obama's second term that would throw the Senate race wide open.
The real power in Illinois lies in the office of governor, a position the GOP held for more than a quarter-century until scandal-plagued George Ryan opted not to seek re-election. Absent the governor's office, Republicans in Illinois have found themselves largely leaderless, and the moderation that had been the party's hallmark in winning statewide offices gradually eroded to favor conservative candidates.
"I think overall, Republicans are hurt by their positions on social issues, at least how we are perceived as a party," said former Republican Gov. Jim Edgar, who won two terms as a moderate. "Those who are successful statewide in Illinois have been able to project a different image, or make sure the conversation is about something else."
It was a collision of political egos in the battle for the Republican nomination for governor two years ago that helped lead to the Illinois GOP's current malaise. Conservative Downstate Sen. Bill Brady of Bloomington barely emerged from a seven-candidate pack as the GOP nominee for governor. His primary election mandate was the support of barely 1 in 5 Republican voters.
Brady faced Gov. Pat Quinn, who was elevated to the job after his running mate, Rod Blagojevich, was booted from the governor's chair after his December 2008 federal corruption arrest. But Brady could not take advantage of Quinn's poor job-approval ratings and went down to defeat. That allowed the Democrat-controlled General Assembly to approve and Quinn to sign the new political boundary maps, the full power of which was on display Tuesday.
The question remains whether Republicans this time around can find some way to avoid a multicandidate primary field for governor and unify around a candidate. The field of potential candidates already is large, however.
Illinois House Republican Leader Tom Cross, of Oswego, who also could face a challenge to his leadership spot, said the GOP needs to do more to encourage diverse support given the backing Obama gained from women, younger voters and minority voters.
"Is there a branding issue for the Republican Party?" Cross asked. "It appears there is, and we have to address it and we have to address it at the national level and the state level. We can't run from it."
Rep. Chapin Rose, a Republican from Mahomet in central Illinois who moved up to the Illinois Senate on Tuesday night, said the information from party leaders to help bring out the GOP base had disturbing discrepancies. Rose said he was knocking on doors to help a Lake County House colleague and found houses listed as "hard Republican" with Democratic yard signs, and vice versa.
Republican candidates in Illinois running for Congress and even in some lower contests found their localized races branded by Democrats as a symbol of the national GOP by trying to link them to some of the more controversial and socially extreme Republicans. With Democrats highlighting a perceived "war on women" by Republicans over reproductive rights and abortion and by pointing out the GOP's opposition to immigration reform, Obama's coattails stepped in.
Nationally, exit polls showed Obama captured a 55 percent to 44 percent advantage among women and a 71 percent to 27 percent edge among the growing number of Latino voters, while Romney captured nearly 60 percent of white voters.
In Illinois, the gender gap among women was even more pronounced, based on exit polling conducted for The Associated Press and the major TV networks. Fully 63 percent of female voters backed Obama to 35 percent for Romney. Among the estimated 12 percent of Illinois voters who are Latinos, 81 percent backed Obama compared with only 18 percent for Romney, the exit polls showed. The white vote was divided 52 percent for Romney and 46 percent for Obama.
For Democrats flush with power, there are pitfalls ahead. Madigan and Cullerton can now render the governor's veto power meaningless. Already, lawmakers and Quinn have clashed over casino expansion, with the governor using his veto despite Mayor Rahm Emanuel's support for the measure.
Quinn, who indicated Wednesday that he plans to run again, said he did "not at all" see a downside or a threat to his own power.
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