Nowlan, Jim

Written in quill pen (not literally; it was 1965), my master’s thesis was about “Leaderless Politics: The Illinois Republican Party.” Not much has changed.

That was an era when party organization mattered. My thesis was that when Republicans lost control of the governorship, the party became leaderless. Not much has changed.

Back then, political patronage provided party leaders with influence over elections. My research showed that under GOP Gov. Bill Stratton (1953-60), 83 of the state’s 102 Republican county chairmen held state jobs. Guess who ran the party? Without a governor and jobs, the party was rudderless.

First, TV in the 1960s and now billionaire self-funders and donors have replaced political party organizations as the primary conduits to the voters. Patronage is mostly gone, by Supreme Court dictum.

Political parties have traditionally had three basic functions:

• Set forth a platform of values and policies for voters to consider.

• Recruit attractive candidates.

• Work to nominate the candidates in the primary and then get them elected, so they can implement the platform inside government.

The Illinois Republican Party does little of this anymore.

The role of party platforms has been underappreciated. Party leaders used to wrestle over platform planks at their conventions. The platforms, by a kind of osmosis and over time, provided helpful cues for voters. That is, the GOP favors small business, while the Dems are for the working stiffs. Most of that is gone today, and voters are adrift, captivated yet confused by a Tower of Babel issuing relentlessly from the internet.

The Illinois state GOP is a paper tiger. It has no money nor clout over county parties. The county parties are mostly toothless as well. There are exceptions. For example, county GOP chairs Jan Weber in Henry and Aren Hansen in Grundy have in recent years almost singlehandedly turned local offices from Dem to GOP. Mary Brookhart in McDonough County also has a strong county party; her team knows how to get out the vote.

The Illinois GOP is at present recruiting a new statewide party chair. Different from a number of states that have large, professional staff and paid chairs, the Illinois party has but one staffer (very sharp Derek Murphy) and a volunteer chair. With megabucks ex-Governor Bruce Rauner gone, the state party has barely two nickels to rub together.

The struggle for party control, as if it mattered, is apparently between a Trump-thumping faction versus an “establishment” faction, neither with a clear platform.

The old adage that “all politics is local” is no longer true. Successful local candidates in small town and rural Illinois tend to feel they must pay more than lip service to the Trump brand of nativist populism.

This effectively leaves lifestyle tolerant, pro-choice, balanced budget, free market, business-friendly folks like me outside the party, or so I feel.

What does the future hold for the Illinois GOP? I expect to see Trump 2024 signs soon replacing the thousands of the 2020 versions on lawns and farmyards across mid-America; however, insiders I talk with predict the Trump brand will fade rather quickly, as he likely becomes ensnarled in nasty tax and legal problems.

Over the past half century, Republican leaders have also seen their base slip away, literally. Since about 1970, two million or so whites have departed the state in net terms, replaced largely by Latinos and, to a lesser extent, Asian-Americans.

When I was a state legislator in 1970, 12 percent of Illinois residents were of a minority group; today, it is 36 percent. From 1977 to 2003, the Illinois GOP enjoyed a 26-year, unbroken string of Republican governors. In contrast, this year Joe Biden clobbered Trump in Illinois 57-40 percent, in what pundits call a firmly Blue state.

The big prize in 2022 will be the governor’s mansion, not that anyone lives there anymore. Gov. JB Pritzker is considered vulnerable, following his botched, disastrous campaign for increased taxes on high earners, and because of the unenviable role he has in trying to corral COVID-19.

In a district on the edges of metropolitan Chicago, GOP Congressman Adam Kinzinger has been critical of Trump while supportive of his policies. He appears to be positioning himself for a run for higher office — governor, close observers report.

I also find state Senators Jason Barickman of Bloomington and Sue Rezin of Morris attractive. Both are smart and capable, and might have some appeal in the suburbs. But they and other aspirants from the political ranks must nowadays almost expect outsider megabucks sorts to crash into the GOP’s party.

The race will be wide open, and the leaderless state GOP will be but a bystander.

Jim Nowlan voted for the new Illinois income tax in 1969, as a freshman House member. A former senior fellow at the University of Illinois Institute of Government and Public Affairs, Nowlan has worked for three unindicted Illinois governors.

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