The Illinois GOP’s fortunes changed when then-candidate Bruce Rauner entered the political scene five years ago — Rauner was a different kind of candidate: both a successful businessman with no government experience and a self-funder, which allowed the state’s Republican party to focus its fundraising efforts elsewhere.
And in the time since Rauner was elected in 2014, Republicans have been able to reclaim power in state government, even breaking Democrats’ supermajority in the Illinois House in 2016. But a predicted Democratic “Blue Wave” threatens that progress, and has forced Illinois Republicans to grapple with both their identity and how best to remain a check on Democratic power in the state.
With credit ratings agencies breathing down Illinois’ neck threatening to downgrade state bonds to junk status last summer, 15 House Republicans finally broke ranks with Gov. Bruce Rauner, voting for a bill to increase the state’s income tax in order to end the 736-day budget impasse. After Rauner’s expected veto, 10 House Republicans ultimately approved the tax hike within a full budget package.
In the weeks and months that followed, a wave of more moderate Republicans with years in the legislature announced their resignations or retirements — though some Democrats also headed for the exits.
Springfield could look quite different come January if Democrat JB Pritzker prevails over Rauner. That could forcing Illinois Republicans to readjust to their new reality. One of those Republicans is State Rep. Tom Demmer (R-Dixon), who has served in the House since 2013. This summer, he was tapped to become the deputy floor leader within his caucus.
Demmer told The Daily Line he believes the key to expanding the Republican party’s umbrella in Illinois is reaching out to communities the state GOP may have written off as solid Democratic voters, especially Chicago.
“I think there’s a real opportunity for Republicans to make a bigger play in the city of Chicago,” Demmer said. “It’s a city that’s been under Democratic control for decades and Democrats traditionally win the lion’s share of votes in those areas in statewide elections and Congressional elections, but I think there is an opportunity for Republicans to talk about looking at some of the challenges facing the city of Chicago right now…there’s really one party that’s responsible for those decisions. When you look at the amount of debt that the city carries, the underfunding of pension obligations at the city level, when you look at some of the pressures that they see that are not dissimilar to the financial pressures the state sees, you say, ‘Well, who’s been running the city of Chicago for decades?’ Nearly unanimously, it’s Democrats.”
- Identity crisis? — The nomination and eventual election of President Donald Trump in 2016 caused existing fault lines within the GOP to break into full-blown chasms, at least on a national level. Some of the dischord has trickled down into Illinois, which traditionally enjoys some measure of independence from national politics due to the strength and size of state government. But the near-win of ultraconservative State Rep. Jeanne Ives (R-Wheaton) over Gov. Bruce Rauner in the March primary also rocked the Illinois GOP. Does Demmer think the party is facing an identity crisis? “I think both parties have struggled with what their identity is,” Demmer said. But he also said rapid changes in public opinion has presented the GOP with opportunities to expand its identity. “Republicans have been very strong in the last several years on pushing for criminal justice reforms, areas that hadn’t been a priority for Republicans for several years,” Demmer said. “So as we start to embrace new thinking or new policy positions within the Republican party, that gives us the opportunity to talk to new people in a different way. I think in order to be successful, you start to bring some of those people into the fold and say, ‘We can be an ally and we can fight alongside you in accomplishing some of the things we both are pushing for.’”
- Rauner’s money — Though Democrat JB Pritzker’s millions have set campaign finance records in both Illinois and nationally, Gov. Bruce Rauner’s self-funding shocked Illinois when he first ran for governor. Rauner’s infusion of money to the Illinois Republican Party allowed the state GOP to achieve parity for spending in down ballot races, while not having to worry about supporting the top of the ticket. Whether Rauner loses on Nov. 6 or his self-imposed eight years in office run out after his second term in 2022, eventually, the Republican’s cash will stop propping up the party. But Demmer says the Illinois GOP has done enough to transform itself as an operation in order to keep achieving milestones even without the financial support of Rauner and his allies. “When you talk about fundraising, it’s never a good idea to put all your eggs in one basket,” he said. “But we’ve seen in addition to the resources that Gov. Rauner’s invested in the Illinois Republican Party, a lot of it’s in sort of developing some of the back-end systems, the data collection systems…all Republican candidates, no matter what level they’re at benefit from those kinds of investments. Reorganizing the party structure, getting more professionalism and more people involved in that, I think those are positive things that everybody benefits from. You can kind of build upon that, I think. It’s not necessarily that that goes away. The investments and gains that we’ve made, they don’t go away at the same time. Those are long-lasting investments.”
- The Madigan question — Gov. Bruce Rauner will leave a lasting impact on Illinois politics for many reasons, but calling public awareness to longtime House Speaker Mike Madigan through television advertisement and constant name-checking has changed the conversation about the 13th Ward boss, and even caused some members of his own party to put distance between themselves and him. Does Demmer consider it a “win” that Republicans have activated voters against Madigan? “I think it’s a win any time you can illustrate to people how state government actually works,” he said. “I’ve talked to colleagues in legislatures in other states across the country and they’re shocked. I mean, they’re absolutely shocked when we talk about the reality of how a bill becomes a law in Illinois. it looks nothing like Schoolhouse Rock. It looks nothing like what your civics book would have taught you. It really is a system that’s been designed to concentrate power into one person’s hands. The people of Illinois need to know that.” Asked if it’s fair to tie his Democratic colleagues to Madigan at every turn, or if it limits coalition-building across the aisle, Demmer said: “the question is when are Democrats going to stop tying themselves to him at every turn?” Demmer urged his Democratic colleagues to consider an alternate vote for House Speaker, or to balk at approving Madigan’s House rules because he alleges it stacks the deck “even against themselves.”