CHICAGO – Stinging from a walloping at the polls, Illinois Republicans are focusing on the 2014 governor’s race as their best chance to emerge from the political cellar, while acknowledging that a recovery means doing things much differently.
The governor’s race is shaping up as a must-win for the GOP, after Democrats on Tuesday won veto-proof super majorities in the state House and Senate and a majority of the state’s congressional delegation, in addition to controlling all but two statewide offices.
That reality has Republicans re-evaluating everything from their image and campaign strategies to the diversity of their candidates and their policy priorities, such as their line against immigration reforms.
“[Winning the governor’s race] is our quickest trip back to relevancy,” said Illinois Republican Party Chairman Pat Brady. “We’ve got to get over this caricature of us as being a bunch of angry people standing in the way of everything.”
What happened Tuesday – described by top Republicans as everything from getting “schooled” to having their “brains bashed in” – was painful evidence that the party’s current strategies need to change, GOP leaders said.
Illinois Republicans lost five of the six most hotly contested seats in Congress, including three won by freshmen in 2010, when the tea party movement helped the GOP win back the U.S. House. When the new session begins, Republicans will hold just six of Illinois’ 18 House seats, compared with 11 of 19 in 2010.
The dismal showing prompted inevitable questions about whether Brady and the party’s legislative leaders should be replaced. But Brady said he serves at the pleasure of the party’s central committee and has no plans to resign.
He said the party already has begun a “top to bottom review” of what happened and why.
Republicans started at a disadvantage because Democrats dominated the once-a-decade drawing of boundaries for new congressional and legislative maps. The process also reduced the number of congressional seats from 19 to 18 because Illinois didn’t grow as fast as other states.
The new maps, which carved out territory friendly to Democrats, will ultimately affect how Republicans campaign in Illinois for the next decade.
“You’re going to have candidates who are more centrist and know how to communicate and appeal to moderates,” said U.S. Rep. Aaron Schock, a Peoria Republican who won re-election and has been mentioned as a possible gubernatorial candidate.
Brady doesn’t blame the maps, noting they were finalized months before Election Day.
“It’s clear to me that if we’re going to win, and not be in the minority, we need to be more inclusive, more diverse, and more open,” he said.
Former Republican Gov. Jim Edgar was blunt in his criticism of the GOP performance. He said even in Illinois, where the tea party has not had as great an influence as in other states, a minority that is more extreme than most Republicans has had an impact.
“We need candidates who understand it’s not just about winning primaries; you also have to win the general election,” he said. “It’s a two-step dance, and we’re having a little trouble with that second step.”
Edgar agreed that winning the governorship back was the GOP’s “best chance to get back to a more viable two-party system. ... If Republicans can regain the governor’s office that changes everything overnight.”
U.S. Rep. Adam Kinzinger, a Manteno Republican first elected with strong tea party support in 2010, said the GOP should have invested less this fall in television advertising and more in matching the Democrats’ get-out-the-vote efforts, particularly to women, minorities and young voters.
He said immigration is among the top issues that Republicans need to focus on to better reach out to minorities, especially Latinos. An exit poll conducted for The Associated Press showed more than 70 percent of Illinois voters say illegal immigrants working in the U.S. should be given a chance to apply for legal status.
“It will take a bit of message change ... softening our rhetoric on immigration and talk about how to reform the system,” he said.
Illinois has produced some of the top leaders in the fight for immigration reform, but they’ve all been Democrats. U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin has repeatedly floated legislation to help young illegal immigrants while Rep. Luis Gutierrez has held nationwide listening tours about deportations and worked with Rep. Jan Schakowsky to stop them.
Another challenge for Illinois Republicans is a lack of diversity.
There are no Republican women or minorities in Illinois’ newly-elected congressional delegation, now that seven-term Republican Rep. Judy Biggert lost to former Rep. Bill Foster, a Democrat. The slate of candidates who ran for governor in Illinois in 2010 were all white men, as are all the candidates who’ve so far been talked about for 2014.
Among those whose names have been mentioned are the 2010 nominee, in addition to Schock, are state Sen. Bill Brady; state Sen. Kirk Dillard, who ran for the nomination in 2010; and state Treasurer Dan Rutherford.
“I’d love to be able to have female congressmen or minority congressmen ... but we don’t right now and that’s not going to stop us,” Kinzinger said.
Brady stressed that the party cannot have another primary in 2014 like it did in 2010, when seven candidates vied for the bid, dividing support and diverting focus from defeating the Democratic nominee, Gov. Pat Quinn.
He said he already is speaking with donors, grassroots volunteers and activists about the need to reach some kind of consensus on a Republican candidate who can win a general election. The candidate must be someone who represents more inclusive views, can articulate a message that is “positive, not scary,” and can raise money, Brady said.
Brady said that while the situation for Republicans isn’t good right now, it can be turned around.
“You get up, you dust yourself off, figure out what went wrong and get to work on it,” Brady said. “That’s politics.”