While much of the post-election attention has gone to the condition of the national Republican Party and the reasons for its losses, in at least one state, the party may be considering a shake-up.
In a state that typically awards its electoral votes to Democrats, Illinois’ US congressional delegation was headed by Republicans, who held an 11-8 advantage. After Election Day 2012, Democrats will hold the edge 12-6, with the consolidation of one district through the 2010 census and the defeat of Republican incumbents Joe Walsh, Robert Dold, and Bobby Schilling.
In the national party, the GOP held on to its majority in the US House of Representatives, but failed to recapture the US Senate. In the Illinois House of Representatives, however, Democrats gained seven seats and now control the lower chamber 71-47. In the State Senate, Republicans dropped from 24 seats out of 59 to just 19 starting in 2013.
The Illinois GOP has its own branding problem independent from the national party after the last Republican governor, George Ryan, declined to run for re-election in 2002 in the face of an investigation for fraud that eventually landed him in federal prison. Even after Ryan’s conviction, the Republican State Senate caucus grew as high as 31 seats, but then stagnated at 23-24, and finally dropped to 19 after the 2012 elections. Whereas the national GOP is openly questioning whether to alter its stances to appeal to women and minorities, in Illinois, a genuine shake-up might be brewing over the party leadership.
The current Republican Senate leader, Christine Radogno, has served in her current position since 2009 and it is during her tenure that the Republican Senate caucus has stagnated and dropped. A potential challenger to Radogno is State Senator Kyle McCarter, a businessman from Lebanon.
McCarter, a graduate of Oral Roberts University, is a well-known social and fiscal conservative and has been in the Illinois Senate since 2009. Commenting on the losses the party has incurred during Radogno’s tenure as Senate leader, McCarter said, “If we were a competitive college sports team with a record like this, somebody would have been fired.” Offering himself as an alternative, McCarter added:
“If members of the caucus want me to lead, I will. . . . Just blaming the (reapportionment) map and blaming Democrats is not enough. . . .
“We can’t just say ‘No.’ We’ve got to put some detailed plans on the table that really show how we as a state can get out of this fiscal mess. . . . Since I’ve been here, the leadership of the Republican Party has been much too risk-averse.”
Defending her leadership, Radogno said:
“I’m not sure what we need now is an in-your-face, confrontational, white, downstate male. I love our downstate guys. I have a great relationship with them, and I’m not playing a gender card. . . .
“What I’m saying, as a practical matter, is that we need to change our image. Fairly or not, we’re perceived – and these aren’t my words, I’ve read it reported this way – as being the party of angry white men, and it’s not true by the way. The fact of the matter is perception is reality, and we need to deal with it.”
Radogno’s characterization of McCarter as “confrontational” may stem from an instance on the Senate floor in 2011 in which McCarter was allegedly punched by Democrat Mike Jacobs. McCarter had questioned whether Jacobs’ sponsorship of smart-grid legislation represented a conflict of interest since Jacobs’ father was a lobbyist for the utilities industry.
The looming battle between Radogno and McCarter also has a sectarian bent to it. As an elongated state, Illinois is subdivided as upstate with Chicago and downstate with nearly everyone else. Radogno’s district covers parts of Cook, DuPage, and Will counties. McCarter’s district is downstate. Both represent the two geographical poles of the Illinois GOP.
Radogno’s reference to McCarter as “confrontational, white,” and “downstate” is a sign of the enmity that exists between both sides, but it also betrays a lack of self-awareness. It is not the “confrontational, white” and “downstate” Republicans who have been presiding over the Illinois Republican Party.
The bright side for McCarter and Radogno is that by having such a small caucus, each only needs ten votes to become leader. So far, Radogno has the verbal support of Illinois House Minority Leader and fellow Republican Tom Cross. Although he does not have a vote in the Senate, it may be an indicator that the rest of the party will stick with Radogno as leader.
Regardless of the outcome of the leadership battle, the Democrats will have a veto-proof majority, so whoever leads the Senate Republicans will be in a precarious position. However, Illinois may be showing that there is at least some movement on how to move forward after the outcome of the November elections.