What to Know About the Modern IL GOP

Where we are as an Illinois Republican Party is not the result of the disastrous 2002 elections. It dates back to the 1970s, when the national party was sent packing and mal-motivated members of the Illinois Republican Party began to cash in.

In the early 1970s President Nixon did extensive damage to his party concerning both public trust and Republican philosophy. He combined Watergate foolishness with the big-spending institutionalization of his liberal predecessor’s “Great Society.” In 1974 Democrats gained a lot of seats in the U.S. Congress, and in 1976 Jimmy Carter won the Presidency. Illinois Republicans fared a little better as “Big Jim” Thompson was elected Governor, chiefly due to his reputation as a tough federal prosecutor.

The out-of-power national Republicans rediscovered their principles during the late 1970s. No such rediscovering was required here in Illinois, as Illinois GOPers found out that they very much enjoyed being able to share control of the Springfield tax dollar spigot with Democrats.

Nationally, the 1980 Republican Presidential nominee Ronald Reagan defeated incumbent Jimmy Carter. Illinois Gov Thompson, already in his second term, saw his political allies and heirs begin to entrench.

An interesting fork in the road occurred in 1982 during the Illinois Republican primary for Lieutenant Governor to fill the vacancy created by the resignation of Lt. Gov. O’Neil. Then Speaker of the Illinois House, George Ryan (yes, that George Ryan) faced off against state Senator Don Totten.

Since it was believed they were alike ideologically, Totten told me that the main issue was whether the Governor should be able to choose his own Lt. Governor. Thompson preferred Ryan. In retrospect it’s not difficult to see why.

Had Don Totten been elected things might have turned out much different. After Thompson retired to the high priced lobbyist law firm world of Chicago, Totten might then have been elected Governor instead of Jim Edgar and GRyan.

Totten had been one of the early Reagan supporters, having worked with him in 1976 and then managed several states during the 1980 campaign.

Totten’s work in the state house and senate established him as one of the strongest and clearest voices for the true principles of the Republican Party in Illinois. Don was among the small group of legislators that formed what became the American Legislative Exchange Council, a national clearinghouse for legislation based on Republican principles.

One of Don’s proposals revealed his ability to use humor while making a good policy point. It was to have members of the General Assembly eligible for full pension benefits after their first term, and then that pension would decrease proportionally after each successive term they served.

Because Totten lost that 1982 primary to GRyan, big-spending Republicans thrived. Instead of Reagan/Totten Republicans, Nixon/Thompson Republicans continue rule over the Illinois GOP.

Since the Thompson Republicans had come to power four years before Reagan, the Gipper wasn’t their role model. Instead it was Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley. Illinois Republicans patterned their behavior after the corrupt machine politics of the Chicago Democrats. Brass knuckles, big spending, and insider dealing clout drowned out any call for the limited government and personal responsibility ideas outlined in their platform.

There wasn’t an Illinois Republican elected statewide that really believed the principles of the Republican Party until Peter Fitzgerald won in 1998. Peter’s contribution to the Illinois GOP turned out to be laudable, though limited. His independent fight against corruption in the Illinois Republican Party and his nomination of U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald will be his legacy. It’s a shame he didn’t use his ample ability and senatorial bully pulpit to Party-build and spread true Republican Party principles across the state.

The good news is that a Totten/Reagan-like Republican is going to win the primary for the U.S. Senate on March 16th. That man immediately reaches an important fork in the road. It’s Reagan v. Carter 1980 and Totten v. GRyan 1982 all over again. Let’s hope he chooses the right fork—taking the party down the path it should’ve followed 25 years ago. The Illinois GOP has a chance to begin a new chapter in its history.