As a member of the family that owns the Cubs, Todd Ricketts helped bring a championship to the most perennially losing franchise in pro sports.
Now, Ricketts wants to do the same for another perennial loser: the Illinois Republican Party. He’s thinking of running for governor against J.B. Pritzker in 2022.
To truly appreciate how hapless our state’s Republicans are, it helps to put their performance in baseball terms. In the 21st Century, Republicans have won 6 of the 39 statewide elections in Illinois. That’s a .154 average — way below the Mendoza Line. In 2018, when the Baltimore Orioles’ Chris Davis registered the lowest batting average ever for a full season, he hit .168. I’m not a sabermetrician, but it’s safe to say the Illinois Republicans have a negative WARP (Wins Above Replacement Party).
In elections for the state House, Republicans did better this year, with a .381 average. But they still control the lowest percentage of House seats since 1856, their very first election as a party.
Is there any hope for the Illinois Republican Party, or will it spend the 21st Century as the Cubs spent the 20th?
Statewide, conservatives did have two significant wins in November: defeating the Fair Tax, and stopping the retention of Democratic Supreme Court Justice Thomas Kilbride. But in neither of those elections did voters have to plunk for a Republican. They just had to vote “no” on an initiative favored by Democrats. Both efforts were funded by billionaire Ken Griffin, CEO of the Citadel investment firm. Back in 2018, Griffin poured $22.5 million into the rathole that was former Gov. Bruce Rauner’s re-election campaign. Then he realized that the best way to advance his conservative principles was by supporting non-partisan initiatives, not Republicans.
Griffin did do the Republicans one favor in denying Pritzker the Fair Tax. In order to balance the state’s budget, the governor will now be forced to raise taxes on all Illinoisans, not just those earning more than $250,000 a year. That’s going to hurt his popularity going into 2022.
But will it hurt Pritzker so much that voters will turn to Todd Ricketts? Probably not. According to a New Yorker profile by Alex Kotlowitz, Ricketts is a huge fan of both President Donald Trump, who just lost Illinois by 17 points (Ricketts was finance chair for the Trump Victory Committee), and former Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, who’s, well, from Wisconsin.
I asked Ricketts’s spokesman how Trump inspired Ricketts, and in return I received a twenty-page document titled “Trump Administration Accomplishments.” It’s clear from the list that Ricketts believes Trump has delivered for conservatives, including his crackdown on immigration and his emphasis on law and order…“Todd believes that President Trump represents an agenda that advances freedom for all Americans and expands opportunity for people at every level of the socioeconomic ladder,” Ricketts’s spokesman told me.
That’s… not what most Illinoisans believe. Republican U.S. Rep. Adam Kinzinger of Channahon, Illinois, another potential candidate for governor, has been attacking Trump for refusing to accept his defeat in November. Kinzinger recently quote-tweeted a Trump election conspiracy with the message “Time to delete your account.”
“We have two different directions to go as Republicans,” Kinzinger told POLITICO. “And I’m on the direction of, let’s get back to our roots and explain what conservatism is, so we can actually win the generation we’re gonna need to stay relevant.”
Moderate, hawkish, fiscally responsible, and exurban, Kinzinger would have been the perfect Republican candidate for 1990. Back then, the GOP was in the midst of a 26-year run in the governor’s office, featuring Jim Thompson, Jim Edgar, and George Ryan, all as middle-of-the-road as the yellow stripes on U.S. 51.
Over the past 30 years, though, the Illinois Republican Party’s heartland had shifted from the Chicago suburbs to Southern Illinois. Just look at these maps of the 1998 governor’s race, when Glenn Poshard was the Democratic candidate, and the 2018 race, when it was J.B. Pritzker.
The culture of Southern Illinois has traditionally been defined by the twin fervors of labor militancy and religious fundamentalism. When mining and industrial unions were powerful there, Southern Illinois was a Democratic stronghold. Now that the factories have closed (and the mines are non-union) the region’s religious leanings have driven it towards the Republican Party. As a result, the rest of the state sees a party that represents Illibama, not Illinois.
This week, former Cook County Board member Tim Schneider resigned as chairman of the Illinois Republican Party. According to the Tribune, Schneider “was facing opposition from more conservative hard-liners within the state GOP hierarchy.”
As Illinois becomes more liberal, its Republican Party is becoming more conservative. That .153 average could go even lower.