When news spread that state comptroller Judy Baar Topinka passed away, I heard from a number of devoted Democrats that she was one of the few, if not the only, Republican they’d ever voted for. Tributes are pouring in from across the aisles; Rich Miller has a list as long as your arm. It’s quite remarkable, even if you’re familiar with her, given that she spent the bulk of her career in the workmanlike bureaucratic positions of treasurer and comptroller.
Topinka’s crossover appeal was clear. She was a full-throated defender of gay rights, going well back into the 1990s. She supported abortion rights, though with the kind of restrictions common from centrist Democrats and some Republicans. She was a fiscal conservative, but—unlike Blagojevich—refused to rule out a tax hike during her gubernatorial run in 2006. Even as comptroller, she warned that letting the recent tax hike sunset on schedule would cause the state to have a “heart attack.”
And she was running against Rod Blagojevich, who’d not only lost the faith of many Democrats, but alienated ones like Eric Zorn still further with a well-funded, brutally negative campaign against Topinka:
The millions he spent flinging offal at Topinka and sowing general revulsion has paid off, as it was nearly bound to in a Democratic state. He’s still unpopular–just 40 percent of the public views him favorably, according to our recent poll–but he’s succeeded in making her even more unpopular and racking up a 15-point lead in our poll.
Barack Obama writes of the audacity of hope. Rod Blagojevich practices the audacity of cynicism. I almost fell for it. Will you?
Yet she got drubbed. Blago took 50 percent of the vote, Topinka 39 percent, and Green Party candidate Rich Whitney 10 percent. What happened?
First, the state GOP was a Superfund site. Topinka was the only Republican to win statewide office in 2002, a year that the party lost control of the state government for the first time in 30 years. According to Topinka, the state Republican party had $9,000 in the bank when she took over as state chair.
Then it got worse. In 2004, with Topinka still at the helm, GOP golden boy Jack Ryan—a former investment banker with a MBA and JD from Harvard, a multimillionaire who quit finance to teach in Bronzeville—flamed out when his divorce records were unsealed.
After the loss of their young superstar, who had been polling respectably behind Barack Obama in their Senate race, the party’s conservative wing replaced Ryan with his opposite, the hardcore social conservative and carpetbagging loose cannon Alan Keyes. In a devastating and compellingly detailed account of the state GOP’s decline, Trib reporters Rick Pearson and John Chase report Topinka has having said “the media is going to make us out to be a laughingstock.”
Which was true. Keyes lost 70-27 to Obama. Topinka stepped down as GOP chair. She’d restored fiscal order to the state party but couldn’t heal the ideological rifts that led to the Keyes debacle. That was the shaky foundation on which she ran two years later:
If anything, Topinka’s candidacy has been something of an accident, much as when she took over to chair the state GOP at a time of intense infighting. In each case, she took the job, not quite kicking and screaming—but almost. Topinka had hoped former Gov. Jim Edgar would seek his old office, and she agreed to run only when he wouldn’t. Each time, she said she accepted out of a sense of duty.
In contrast to Topinka’s perceived weakness as a social moderate in a bitterly divided party, she actually did well in central Illinois. What doomed Topinka were actually the collar counties, which at the time seemed like a bad omen for Illinois Republicans:
Despite the significant Blagojevich surge in the Suburban 30 – it is the 5 collars where the true 2006 GOP political disaster smothered Topinka and the rest of the statewide ticket. Compared to 2002 – Blagojevich upped his collar vote percentage by over 3% and has been mentioned earlier cut his Republican foe’s collar winning margin by over 110,000 votes. Conversely, Topinka’s collar vote percentage dipped by almost 12% compared to Ryan’s 2002 totals…. [T]he basic fact that an Illinois GOP gubernatorial candidate received less than 50% of the vote in the once bedrock Republican collars is a staggering statistic that should elate Democrats and frighten Republicans.
Obviously that didn’t come to pass. The GOP repaired its problems in the Chicagoland area, making inroads deep into its heart when Bruce Rauner won a North Side ward outright.
Greg Hinz argues that the party “generally went south as suburban women in the 1990s and 2000s moved toward the Democrats and scandals tarnished its image.” And there’s likely truth to both—though Topinka was running against an already-tarnished politician whose indictment surprised few.
Running alongside those problems was the structural collapse of the party that Pearson and Chase detail. First, the bipartisan pinstripe-patronage machine steered by Richard Ogilvie and Jim Thompson ground to a halt:
[A]s governor, Thompson invented a new form of patronage that eventually helped make the party more reliant on big-time political fundraisers.
Known as “pinstripe patronage,” the practice involved the awarding of no-bid taxpayer-funded contracts to politically connected attorneys, bond lawyers, consultants and other governmental specialists.
Thompson still had ample jobs at his disposal at the state level. But in 1990, just as he was preparing to leave office, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a stunning rejection of the way Thompson used his office to control more than 60,000 jobs in state government.
“I think this will strike a severe blow at whatever is left of political parties in America,” Thompson said at the time.
Second, at the local level, the reputation for competent fiscal conservatism the party maintained through governors like Thompson and Edgar—in essence, the image at the root of Bruce Rauner’s campaign—began to fray at the local level in the party’s suburban strongholds:
Suburban Republicans had always portrayed themselves as fiscal conservatives who fought to keep taxes low, but that image also was challenged by a rapid escalation in property taxes and growth in the GOP-run bureaucracy in DuPage.
While Philip and others looked the other way, Lake County and suburban Cook County turned increasingly Democratic as voters tired of being taken for granted by unresponsive Republican leaders, who raised taxes and cut services.
What had been the GOP’s suburban strength, an active political base, was aging while Democrats, who relied on the patronage of jobs and contacts to get things done, began making suburban inroads, working those communities much like they did precincts in the city.
Jim Ryan beat Blago 63-34 in DuPage County in 2002. Bill Brady beat Pat Quinn 54-39 there in 2010. Bruce Rauner beat Pat Quinn 61-37. Topinka beat Blago 51-39, with Rich Whitney breaking double-digits. It was the only collar county she won a majority of the vote in, while losing both Lake and Will Counties. (Update: As Thomas Bowen pointed out to me, Topinka also only raised $11 million, a total dwarfed by Blago’s haul. Of course, Blago’s fundraising prowess was also part of his downfall.)
Topinka’s loss to Blagojevich was devastating—a double-digit defeat by an unpopular governor running an off-putting campaign while being nipped at by the feds. But it came at the absolute low point of the modern Illinois GOP, which had lost its foundation and was at war over its ideological nature. Eight years later it rebounded; Bruce Rauner’s money not only bought it the media firepower that Topinka completely lacked, it aided him in building the kind of organization that Topinka’s GOP didn’t have the money, the momentum, and even the internal unity for.
But even in ignominious defeat, Topinka left a legacy with her party, holding fast to her centrist beliefs and dogged focus on the state’s fiscal issues—and ultimately drawing a historic and political line from Republicans like Jim Edgar, her first boss as treasurer, to the party’s current fiscally-obsessed, socially moderate standard-bearer.