My friends, you should have been there in Iowa to see it.
Picture a cross between a large county fair and a political convention. Picture tens of thousands of rank and file Republicans showing up on a hot, humid August day despite temperatures well into the nineties. Picture live entertainment, good food, and people enjoying the opportunity to talk face to face with presidential candidates.
For me the road to Ames was 700 miles round-trip, but well worth it. It was, simply, the most impressive grassroots political event I’ve ever attended.
The Republican Party of Iowa said the attendance was 33,000. Note that this was an event in a state that’s a fraction of the size of Illinois. Iowa’s population is 2.9 million; Illinois’ is 12.8 million.
It was a sight you won’t see here any time soon. Illinois rank and file Republicans won’t get a chance to have a one on one conversation with a presidential candidate unless they write a check and attend a high dollar campaign event.
The Ames Straw Poll dates back to 1979 and its significance is debated every time it’s held. Even how it is run is the subject of controversy. For example, wealthy campaigns have a distinct advantage (as the Romney campaign had this year).
Those discussions, however, are for others. The straw poll is what it is, a gauge of Iowa opinion on one Saturday. What was significant for me was the contrast between the Iowa and Illinois GOP.
Again, I’m telling you, you should’ve seen it. I’m willing to bet that most Illinois Republicans have absolutely no idea what’s possible – and thus no idea what bad shape the Illinois Republican Party is really in.
The Iowa GOP, like all state party organizations, has its intramural struggles, its wins and losses, and its ongoing struggles to adapt so it can effectively connect with a busy population. But from the looks of what they put on this past Saturday, it’s obvious there’s a level of competence and professionalism in their operation that Illinois hasn’t seen in decades.
Some of us have chronicled the history of the IL GOP’s ills which date back to the Governor Thompson years. That’s when small-minded top-down control became the rule. Edgar and Ryan continued that iron fist tradition in spades. When Ryan’s corruption woes weakened him, the Topinka and Hastert goons were happy to step in and take over.
We have also done more than anyone to also show the ridiculousness of our party’s State Central Committee. That group continues to be immune to shame, and no doubt are only holding onto their posts at this late date so they can get invitations to the good parties at next year’s Republican National Convention. They certainly have no idea how to run a state party and have no interest in finding any.
I have written as well about the AWOL legislative leadership when it pertains to party matters. The vast majority of our elected officials seem to think they have no responsibility to the party that lets them use its ballot line on Election Day. Add that to the long list of things they’re wrong about.
The Thompson-Edgar-Ryan-Topinka-Hastert/State Central Committee/Republican Politician brain trust is the reason the IL GOP is the joke that it is today. That bunch couldn’t put on a straw poll like the Iowa GOP did to save their lives.
The reason isn’t just a competence problem, it’s a cultural problem.
Here, the state party is all about little people who are trying to hold important offices. You will never attend an Illinois GOP event where a big deal isn’t made through introductions, etc., about our supposedly terrific Republican leadership. In Ames last Saturday, the state party and Iowa elected officials were practically invisible.
Here, those with responsibility occasionally mumble things that might sound like words from the party’s platform. When they do any actual work at all, however, it’s aimed at getting reelected or reappointed rather than on behalf of Republican principles.
It was clear in Ames that the Iowa GOP is interested in advancing the cause. You don’t attract that kind of attendance and garner that kind of national media attention if it’s all about personal aggrandizement or petty politics.
In Illinois, the party and legislative leaders fear grassroots participation. They wall off anyone they consider to be “outsiders” for fear of losing control. It’s all about them and the little pathetic titles they hold.
Despite whatever problems it may have, the Iowa Republican Party understands the basics: if you don’t have ideas and professionalism, you’ll never produce energy.
I wish you could’ve been there to see it. If you had, you’d understand why we stubbornly hold up a standard while holding our leaders’ feet to the fire.
We’ve got a long way to go in this state if the IL GOP is ever going to become something real – a grassroots energized party that stands for something. But we can’t get there with this current batch of leaders.
The sooner we see a true Republican Renaissance in this state, the sooner we can begin traveling down that long road to achieving a vibrant and relevant Illinois Republican Party. If you could’ve seen what I did this past Saturday in Ames you’d understand why I think it’ll be worth it.