The 18 committeemen, plus dozens more GOP devotees, began what would become a marathon five-plus hour meeting with a remembrance of former Republican President George H.W. Bush, whose death had been announced 11 hours earlier.
But after the opening invocation and Pledge of Allegiance, the first sign the meeting might run much longer than it expected was the miniature speeches those in attendance began to give as one by one they stood up and introduced themselves. Much of the criticism was directed at state party chair and outgoing Cook County Comm. Tim Schneider.
“Tim Schneider has been a grossly ineffective state party leader,” said one woman as she alleged the Illinois GOP had withheld party support from viable Republican candidates.
The Daily Line agreed not to name speakers at the meeting unless those individuals agreed.
“There are just so many instances where there were great plans discussed and they were not implemented,” one GOP collar county chair said. “We need to stop bickering at the central committee and state level because, frankly when everybody else looks at the kind of things we fight about, I wonder that they aren’t all laughing at us.”
“I hope to hear that the Illinois GOP has now realized the error of its ways, and trying to be Democrat-lite to lure voters isn’t a winning strategy because when given the choice, Democrats will always vote for a real Democrat,” another woman said, who identified herself as a precinct committeeman.
A few who got up and spoke also complained that they had to hear about the meeting second-hand, as it was not posted on the state GOP’s website.
All the while, Schneider sat at the head of the room, taking in the criticism.
“We no longer have a governor to lead us, so it’s up to us and it’s up to me to lead this party forward,” Schneider said. “You’re never going to have to fire me. Because if I can’t do this job, I’m going to quit. But I’m not going to quit because we can win and we can achieve victory and we can do great things as an Illinois Republican Party.”
It was about then that outgoing State Rep. Jeanne Ives (R-Wheaton), who narrowly lost to incumbent Gov. Bruce Rauner in the March primary running far to the right of the governor, picked up her belongings and exited the room.
“I’ve got better things to do with my time to listen to that,” Ives told The Daily Line when asked why she was leaving the meeting only an hour in.
Ives has amassed support from the conservative wing of the Illinois GOP — a contingent of voters who felt betrayed by Rauner and see President Donald Trump as a better model for the Illinois Republican Party than more moderate Republicans like Schneider.
More than a few people present Saturday invoked Trump; one accused Illinois GOP leadership of not being a strong voice for Trump, while another said Trump has shown the party a path forward in electing someone who throws out the traditional election rulebook.
In May, conservatives staged a near-coup on Schneider, attempting to install Lake County GOP Chairman Mark Shaw to lead the party.
Instead, the sides reached a compromise, in which Shaw is now co-chair and in charge of “conservative and grassroots outreach” along with the Republican county chairmen’s association.
But for now, Schneider is still the head of the party, and knows it’s his job to put the two sides back together again after a major schism and even bigger loss. Schneider himself was swept up in the “Blue Wave,” he admits, as he lost his own re-election bid for Cook County Board last month in a seat he’s held since 2006.
Schneider said he did not mind the criticism.
“I thought it was an opportunity for folks to open up and let their feelings out,” Schneider told The Daily Line after the five-plus hour meeting Saturday. “I wasn’t offended by anything anyone said to me. As the chair of the Illinois Republican Party, I am the person they look to when someone goes wrong. I will take that responsibility.”
Schneider said he appreciated comments about “rebuilding” the party instead of “tearing it down,” but he knows it’s going to be a tough road, especially without Rauner’s money propping the party up anymore. But he said he believes a message can outwork money — specifically the money currently financing the Democratic Party from billionaire Gov.-elect JB Pritzker.
“There isn’t going to be that kind of money right now so what we’re going to be looking to do is have a better presence on our Facebook, more emails,” Schneider said. “We’re going to need to create a singular message…we need to speak from a singular songbook whether we’re a township trustee or a supervisor or a House member or a Senate member — all the way up and down the ticket. Speaking about the same bullet points that we are the party of families, fiscal responsibility and freedom.”
Schneider also acknowledged that Ives and her supporters aren’t going to go quietly. What will happen in two years if Schneider doesn’t follow through on plans to unite the party?
“First of all, we won’t win any seats if we don’t stop the in-fighting now,” Schneider said. “Somebody said we should just declare ourselves united. And I said, ‘that’s a smokescreen.’ Until you are united, you can’t declare that you’re united.”
Much has been said of the party’s future in the weeks following Election Day, including a post-mortem event at the City Club of Chicago midway through last month. One woman who stood up Saturday to give short remarks wondered aloud why Schneider was not there to represent the party; instead former Illinois GOP Chair Pat Brady sat on a panel with conservative talk radio host Dan Proft and Chicago Tribune editorial board member Kristen McQueary. Schneider said he wondered that, too.
Related: Illinois GOP autopsy after Blue Wave continues as focus shifts to Chicago mayoral race; After Rauner’s crushing defeat, what’s next for the Illinois Republican Party?; The Daily Line’s Aldercast: House GOP Deputy Floor Leader Tom Demmer on the Illinois Republican Party’s priorities and future
Those present sat through a numbers-heavy presentation on Republican wins and losses in 2018 — one that only certain people in the room seemed receptive to, especially in the hour before a buffet lunch. The main takeaway from the presentation was that Republicans actually did quite well bringing out their own voters. The problem for the GOP, the presenters said, was that the Democrats did much better.
Precisely 912,979 more Illinoisans voted on Nov. 6 than did when Rauner was first elected in 2014, the presenters said. Rauner only lost 61,232 votes compared with his vote total in 2014, but Pritzker gained 794,763 more votes than Gov. Pat Quinn received in 2014. It’s this gap, the presenters said, that the GOP should focus on.
One Republican complained to The Daily Line that the numbers were useless, as the person theorized the 2018 election had far more to do with the Democratic reaction to Trump in the White House than it did with Rauner’s four years in office.
After a lengthy executive session Saturday afternoon, one actionable step the party made public after the conclusion of meeting was to launch a Vision 2020 project, in which state central committeemen will travel their districts to speak with constituents in order to come up with party platform. The first phase of that vision has a late January deadline.
One issue that may not feature as prominently on that platform as in years past is longtime House Speaker Mike Madigan (D-Chicago). Though Rauner had made the alleged “corruption” of Madigan and other Democrats central to his message, Schneider admitted it’s a line that may have played itself out.
“We realize that in 2014 and 2016, the anti-Madigan message did extremely well,” he said. “It lost its luster in 2018. It clearly was overplayed. People have heard enough. They agree with the Republican Party that Madigan is the party, but give me something else now.”