Tammy Duckworth is running for reelection to the U.S. Senate next year. So far, she has two Republican opponents. Neither has held office, so you probably haven’t heard of them. Allison Salinas, from Pekin, organized an “open graduation” at the Illinois State Capitol for students whose commencements were canceled due to COVID-19. Peggy Hubbard, from Belleville, describes herself as a “pro-God, pro-life, pro-Trump, pro-veteran, pro–first responder conservative.” Governor J.B. Pritzker’s leading challenger, Darren Bailey, is a bit better known. Last May, the state senator from Xenia was ordered to leave the Capitol for refusing to wear a mask, then led an anti-lockdown protest at Buckingham Fountain.
Illinois Republicans have been drawing most of their candidates for the state’s two most important offices from the right-wing periphery of Trumpers, COVID deniers, Second Amendment absolutists, and All Lives Matter sloganeers. (Also in the governor’s race is paving and roofing contractor Gary Rabine, who refuses to definitively say Trump lost the election.) In the Land of Lincoln, the once-dominant party of Lincoln — 25 years ago, Republicans controlled the full legislature and every constitutional office — has been reduced to a fringe outfit. Consider these facts:
■ Illinois is one of only six states where Democrats hold supermajorities in both houses of the legislature, all the statewide offices, and both Senate seats.
■ This century, Republicans have taken just five of the 38 statewide elections — a winning percentage of 13.2.
■ The last Republican Senate candidate to win more than 50 percent of the vote was Peter Fitzgerald — in 1998.
■ Going into the 2020 election, Illinois Republicans had $3.6 million, compared with $26.9 million for the Democrats. “We’re as poor as a church mouse,” says the party’s new chair, Don Tracy.
■ Republicans hold five of Illinois’s 18 U.S. congressional seats, their lowest total since the Civil War.
Republicans have become a permanent minority party here and have no chance of running the state anytime soon. Here’s why.
Illinois is a blue state
In the 1990s, Illinois voted for moderates of both parties. Bill Clinton won our electoral votes in 1992. Two years later, Republican governor Jim Edgar was reelected in a 101-county landslide. In the red-versus-blue era of the 21st century, though, political polarization has turned most states monolithically Democratic or Republican. Ticket splitting is at an all-time low. Cities and states that are winning in the modern economy vote Democratic, while those left behind vote Republican. With a major city that attracts the college-educated, Illinois votes more like a coastal state.
Republicans have lost the suburbs
Look at a map of Clinton’s 1992 victory. He swept southern Illinois and lost suburban Chicago. Joe Biden beat Donald Trump by winning big in the suburbs despite losing big downstate. Suburbia once saw itself as a counterweight to Chicago’s Democratic machine; now its voters align with the city on social issues. The trend of urban areas voting Democratic and rural areas Republican has been a bad deal for the Illinois GOP: DuPage County, once the premier Republican county in the state, has 180 times more voters than Gallatin County, formerly the most Democratic.
Republicans don’t have Mike Madigan to kick around anymore
In 2020, Republicans’ biggest wins were defeating the so-called Fair Tax and the retention of Democratic Supreme Court justice Thomas Kilbride. In both elections, the party ran against the former House speaker, seen as the embodiment of Democratic corruption. “I chaired the campaign that ousted Kilbride, but our real opponent was Mike Madigan,” says Jim Nowlan, a former Republican state representative, newspaper columnist, and coauthor of Fixing Illinois, who lives in Princeton. “We saw Kilbride as a Madigan toady, and it worked, because most voters knew and detested Madigan. The Republicans will try to keep that alive.”
Bruce Rauner moved to Florida
The ex-governor donated $36.8 million to the Illinois Republican Party between 2014 and 2018. Then he lost the governorship, left the state, and stopped writing checks. Ken Griffin, the conservative movement’s new sugar daddy, realized that funding Republican candidates here is futile and spent his money to defeat the Fair Tax, rather than to build the party.
Trump has divided the party
U.S. representative Adam Kinzinger, a Republican from Channahon, voted to impeach the former president for inciting the storming of the U.S. Capitol, then started the Country First PAC to “reject the politics of fear and all who practice it.” That’s a popular stance in Kinzinger’s exurban district, but the farther south you travel, the more popular Trump remains. Both southern Illinois representatives, Mary Miller and Mike Bost, voted against certifying Joe Biden’s Electoral College win. Bailey, the ultraconservative candidate for governor, called Kinzinger a Democrat and suggested he resign. Says John Jackson of the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University: “Kinzinger has statewide ambitions, but strikes me as a much stronger general election candidate than a candidate in the Republican primary” — which is dominated by pro-Trump voters. That’s a conundrum for the entire party. “The kinds of Republicans that always won in Illinois — Jim Edgar, George Ryan, Mark Kirk — were not Trump people,” Jackson says.
Republican national committeeman Richard Porter sees a glimmer for the party in the rejection of Pritzker’s Fair Tax. Republicans, he believes, can bond again with suburban voters on economic issues. “The game is won in the suburbs,” he says. “They slipped away from us in ’18 and ’20. Can they swing back in ’22? We need to connect with suburban voters where they are. They tend not to be cultural conservatives, but they believe in providing government at a reasonable price.” It’ll help too, he says, if Democrats “overplay their hand by promoting ultraliberal policies.”
In recent decades, Republicans have won statewide elections only when running against weak or unpopular Democrats: Peter Fitzgerald vs. scandal-plagued Carol Moseley Braun; Mark Kirk vs. Alexi Giannoulias, whose campaign was tainted by allegations against his family’s bank; and Bruce Rauner vs. Pat Quinn, who raised corporate and individual taxes during his single full term as governor. Now they have to hope Pritzker shoots himself in the foot so badly that not even his billions can bail him out. (In March, he preemptively dropped $35 million in his campaign coffers without even committing to a reelection bid.) That’s what it has come to for Illinois’s second party: Republicans don’t win elections here anymore; Democrats lose them.