Illinois was a “red state” for decades — having voted for a Republican president eight of the ten presidential elections leading up to 1992. In 1998 Illinois voters chose both a Republican governor (George Ryan) and a Republican U.S. Senator (Peter Fitzgerald). The GOP held a majority in the state Senate for the ten years leading up to the 2002 elections, when they lost both the Senate and the Governor’s race for the first time since 1976.
Since then, it’s been a different story. Democrats have dominated both houses in the General Assembly and most statewide offices for the past 14 years.
The tale of the Illinois Republican Party isn’t very different from many other states — the ebb and flow of public support for one party over another is often in flux. The difference here, some would argue, is how the Illinois GOP leaders have responded to the challenge.
We recently talked with a Republican Party activist in neighboring Missouri, where the situation was even worse for Republicans. There, Democrats had control for sixty years. Voters would occasionally elect a Republican governor or U.S. Senator, but the GOP could never win control of the state House or state Senate.
In the early 2000s, key Republicans said “we’ve had enough.” Some of the Republican leaders knew that Missouri is a conservative state at its core. “You lose Kansas City and St. Louis, but overall it’s a very conservative state.”
Here is more of what our Missouri friend had to say — and it doesn’t sound complicated.
Republicans can win the majority with candidates who will bend on a few key issues and thus can win the seats. They’ll be with the Republican majorities on key issues like “right to work,” which was a big issue in the last election.
There were 12 seats that Republicans shouldn’t hold — they’re 60+ percent Democrat seats — and those Republicans voted with labor — and the GOP leadership in the legislature knew they were going to vote with the Democrats on labor friendly legislation.
“Right to work” legislation passed in the regular session but didn’t have enough votes to override the governor’s veto.
Everyone knows that it’s easier for Republicans to win tough races in a midterm year as opposed to a presidential cycle. So fifteen years ago a group of Republicans decided to create a company — and it’s organized like a company — that has four full time staff which works year-round to recruit candidates, develop message and study which districts to target.
For viable campaigns that are able to raise money — this “company” can take on the responsibility of some of the negative campaigning. This way, the GOP candidates don’t come across as nasty people.
Republicans now hold 118 out of 163 seats in the state house, and 25 of 34 in the state senate.
Of course a big difference here is that Missouri has term limits. The Missouri Constitution was amended in 1992 to allow no more than 16 years in office — 8 years in the state house, 8 years in the state senate.
That helps a great deal since open seats are easier to win — the benefits of incumbency exist at the state legislative level just as they do at the congressional level. When term limits passed 25 years ago things improved as more seats opened up sooner.
If Illinois is as conservative at its core as Missouri is, the same game plan could be executed there. It won’t happen without political will and organization, however. And you’re not going to be successful for a couple of cycles — it’s hard — you have to set up money and quality staff.
In Missouri this “company” involves itself in about fifty races every election cycle. In additional to the usual polling, mail, and other outreach efforts, a lot of door to door is required by the candidates, their staffs, and their volunteers. It’s not uncommon for 10,000 doors to be knocked on during a two-year cycle.
The leadership has to want to win because it takes a lot of work, money, and execution to reach enough voters to change “D” seats into “R” seats. And Governor Rauner can’t do it alone. It works best if one person or one political office doesn’t control all facets of the operation. It must be a team effort, with many people helping to shape and execute the plan.
Image credit: Missouri State Capitol Building, photo by KTrimble / Wikipedia.