SPRINGFIELD – Leading Illinois Republicans acknowledged the stark political reality their party faces in the state at a joint breakfast of the state central committee and county chairmen’s association Thursday, but said the state’s “aggressive progressive” swing to the left this year offers them an opportunity to rebound.
“We all know what happened in 2018, and I don’t want to sugarcoat anything and tell you that it was such a great year because it wasn’t,” state Republican Party Chair Tim Schneider said in his opening remarks.
His party holds a superminority in each house of the Illinois General Assembly and no statewide elected positions, and it lost two congressional seats to Democrats in the “Blue Wave” election of 2018 which saw Democrats reclaim the U.S. House of Representatives.
“The northern half of the state didn’t react very well to what was going on in the nation and we had a rough year,” Schneider said. “… That’s our current reality, but it doesn’t and it won’t be our future.”
The meeting partially filled a small room at the Wyndham hotel in Springfield, and the vast majority of the state’s 102 counties were not represented in a roll call that kicked off the event.
Those in attendance heard their leaders discuss the role of U.S. President Donald Trump and a graduated income tax ballot proposal in upcoming elections. In media interviews, those same leaders downplayed the sentiments of some in their party who have said Chicago and downstate Illinois should be separated into two states.
The unifying theme of the speakers was that the progressive tilt Illinois politicians have taken legislatively will force the pendulum of party politics back toward the right.
Senate Republican Leader Bill Brady, of Bloomington, said the Democrats’ choice to invite Democratic U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to give the keynote address at their county chairs’ association brunch Wednesday shows the party is “losing touch with independent and moderate voters.”
“We will regain our position by reconnecting with independent and moderate voters who don't agree with the extreme nature and extreme policies of the Nancy Pelosis of the Democratic Party,” Brady said.
Despite Brady’s effort to hold Pelosi against Illinois Democrats when it comes to wooing moderate voters, he said state Republicans were not focusing on their party’s leader in President Trump.
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“I’m not really focused on what that national agenda is,” Brady said. “… He's got his work cut out for him here. But I think the fact that the Democratic Party is leaning so far to the left, we have an opportunity to communicate to moderates and independents, alongside of whatever the president says.”
In 2018, Democrats added three seats to their state Senate supermajority while picking up seven seats in the state House to achieve a supermajority there as well. The victories helped Democratic Gov. J.B. Pritzker achieve several major legislative victories, including extending reproductive health rights, legalizing recreational marijuana, expanding gambling options and passing a $45 billion, bipartisan capital infrastructure plan which included several new taxes.
House Minority Leader Jim Durkin, of Western Springs, said that in 2020 he expects to take back some of the gains Democrats made in the state House last year.
“All is not lost,” Durkin said. “We lost many races by less than 2 points, some of them by 200 votes. We hit the perfect storm that the Democrats brought up to the suburban area of Chicago. They’re not going to replicate it again.”
Durkin predicted success in 2020 elections in the suburbs and collar counties, as well as the Metro East area which comprises the Eastern suburbs of St. Louis.
In the Chicago suburbs, Durkin said after the meeting, the Republicans will also work to separate the election from Trump, focusing on Pritzker and state House Speaker Mike Madigan.
That effort will also focus on opposition to a graduated income tax ballot measure that would amend the state’s constitution, which Durkin called “the killer of all killers.” He said the measure, which would pave the way for an income tax structure which allows the state to impose higher income taxes on larger margins of income, would eventually turn into a “middle class tax hike.”
Durkin also touched on the sentiments of some of his party’s members that have been openly feuding with GOP leadership and touting the idea of separating Illinois into two states – downstate and Chicago.
“They’ve got interesting ideas, and I’ll just say if it works back in the district, good for them,” he said. “But we know that that’s not a possibility.”
When asked if the idea was damaging to the state, Durkin said “if there was ever a chance that it could happen,” it would be damaging, but “this is just political rhetoric.”
“I think they’re playing the game of re-elections in an area where it sounds good,” he said.
Schneider dismissed the idea of separation as official state GOP policy.
“I don’t believe that’s a policy of ours moving forward,” he said before his public remarks. “We all know that Chicago and Cook County are likely going to be part of Illinois for the foreseeable future.”