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RIP, Illinois GOP

As of Tuesday, the state’s Democratic Party is in its most powerful position since 1840.

Bruce Rauner after his concession speech on Tuesday night   Erin Hooley/Chicago Tribune

The Illinois Republican Party was born on February 22, 1856, in Decatur, at a meeting attended by a dozen anti-slavery newspaper editors and a Springfield lawyer named Abraham Lincoln.

It died on November 6, 2018, with the assistance of another Republican president, Donald Trump.

Here’s a historical picture of how utterly defeated Illinois Republicans will find themselves next year: The state’s Democratic Party is now in its most powerful position since the 1840s, when it held all the statewide offices, both Senate seats, and had two-to-one advantages in both houses of the legislature. Back then, the Democrats didn’t even have a Republican Party to contend with — only the hapless, soon-to-expire Whigs.

Next year, Illinois will be one of five states, along with Rhode Island, Hawaii, California, and New Jersey, where Democrats control all statewide offices, as well as holding supermajorities in both houses of the legislature.

Rhode Island and Hawaii are essentially city-states, and so now is Illinois, governed entirely by its only metropolitan area.

The realignment of the Chicago suburbs from Republican to Democratic is all but complete. Peter Roskam and Randy Hultgren, the last remaining suburban Republican congressmen, were defeated on Tuesday. As the Daily Herald put it, “[p]erhaps nowhere in the country was Tuesday’s Democratic blue wave more devastating to Republicans than in suburban Chicago. In the suburbs, the midterm election flipped at least seven state House and Senate seats to the Democrats and turned 19 county board seats Democratic across six counties.”

The Lake County Board will now be controlled by Democrats for the first time in its history. And in DuPage County, the traditional bulwark of Illinois Republicanism, Democrats won seven seats on the county board, as well as the clerk’s office.

To understand how and why the Illinois Republican Party expired, you have to look at how and why it was founded.

Lincoln and those newspaper editors were trying to prevent the Southern states from pushing slavery on the entire nation.

Today’s Republican Party stands for policies that are popular in the South, but which urban Northerners can’t abide: curbs on abortion and immigration, unfettered gun rights, and a return to free-market health care.

In the eternal regional competition of American politics, the Democrats represent the North, and the Republicans the South. Illinois will always side with the North. That’s an integral part of the state’s identity, going all the way back to the Civil War. In Illinois, Democrats are now the Party of Lincoln, strongest in the sections of the state where he was most popular, and Republicans are the party of his Southern-compromising rival, Stephen A. Douglas.

In the midterms, Illinois Republicans tried to escape their party’s national image by presenting themselves as a check on the state’s powerful Democratic House Speaker, Michael Madigan.

But Madigan keeps a low profile, and is known mainly to Springfield insiders. To the average voter, he is nowhere near as menacing a political demon as the bombastic Trump, who was the running mate of every Republican on the ballot this year.

“The Trump effect killed us in DuPage County, and it cost us Roskam and Hultgren,” said Illinois Republican Party Chairman Pat Brady. “I heard it when I was out there knocking on doors. In DuPage especially, the focus of the anger was on the president.”

For his part, Madigan released a statement declaring that “the Rauner Republican playbook of attempting to make the entire 2018 election a referendum on Speaker Madigan, to distract from Republicans’ record, is a failure.” 

Hate him or hate him — there seems to be no in-between — Madigan is the most effective statewide partisan in American politics, and he won nearly every race in which he played. The Republicans’ superstar candidate, former Miss America and Harvard Law School graduate Erika Harold, who promised to be a check on Madigan as attorney general, was decisively defeated by state Sen. Kwame Raoul, an establishment Democrat who received a last-minute gift of $1 million from Madigan. Having regained a supermajority in the House, Democrats can now pass one of Gov.-elect JB Pritzker’s pet issues, a constitutional amendment for a graduated income tax.

There are still Republicans in Illinois, obviously. Their candidate for governor, Bruce Rauner, got 38 percent of the vote.

To regain any influence in the state, though, Republicans will have to entirely disassociate themselves from Trump, his Red State allies, and their ideological crusades.

Rauner didn’t do that, instead spending his term in office trying to push anti-union laws through the legislature. But it can be done. Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker, who runs an even bluer state than Illinois, was just re-elected to his second term. Baker signed a law allowing transgender individuals to use the bathroom that corresponds with their identity, and spoke out against confirming Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court. That may make him a Republican In Name Only, but he’s a Republican with an office, able to oppose raising taxes on millionaires.

One-party rule is unhealthy for any polity, no matter which party it is, and what that party stands for. Hopefully, the Republicans will learn to compete in Illinois again. But to do so, they’re going to have to return to the principles of their founder.

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