State's Republicans expect gains -- but not until 2010

Adriana Colindres and Doug Finke

Bickering and disarray within the state’s Democratic Party are creating an opportunity for Illinois Republicans to regain their once-mighty political strength, and they hope to start that process in November, GOP stalwarts said Thursday.

But they’re really looking farther ahead, to the 2010 elections, when the marquee races will be for governor and other statewide constitutional offices.

A day after Democrats got together for Governor’s Day, members of the GOP congregated in Springfield to celebrate Republican Day at the Illinois State Fair. The day’s activities included a breakfast and meetings in the morning and an afternoon rally at the fairgrounds.

Republicans are clearly the state’s minority party. Democrats hold every statewide elected office, as well as control of the Illinois Senate and House.

But state Sen. Dan Rutherford, R-Chenoa, noted that after the 1994 election, Republicans dominated state government in the same way that Democrats do now.

“That pendulum eventually swung,” Rutherford said. “I think that the public has now heard the gong of the bell of the swing too far and (is) ready for a correction to come.”

Sen. Bill Brady, R-Bloomington, said Republicans have caused some of their own political troubles in the past several years. For example, he said, former GOP Gov. George Ryan was convicted on corruption charges, and the party put up a weak candidate, Alan Keyes, for an open U.S. Senate seat that Barack Obama eventually won.

“We’re not going to be able to make great progress in ’08. We can make progress and build toward what really matters, and that’s the 2010 elections,” Brady said.

Democrat Obama’s run for president this year presents some challenges to the GOP, Republicans said.

“There’s no getting away from that,” said Bob Kjellander of Springfield, who soon will step down as Illinois’ Republican national committeeman. “You will see a lot of potential new faces come forth for statewide office in 2010. 2008 is going to be difficult because you will have Obama at the top of the ticket.”

But Rep. Raymond Poe, R-Springfield, said he isn’t convinced Obama’s popularity will extend to Democratic candidates who are listed lower on the ballot.

Roy Hertel, Montgomery County GOP chairman, while acknowledging that Obama’s Illinois won’t help, added, “I still think there’s enough stuff going on in Illinois right now that we can elect some Republicans that may have not had a chance to be elected before.”

One of those people could be Steve Sauerberg, the GOP candidate for the U.S. Senate seat now held by Democrat Dick Durbin, said David Snider, a farmer in rural Tazewell County.

While Sauerberg faces an uphill battle, Snider said, “I don’t think it’s impossible.”

Republicans agreed their party stands to gain from what they termed the failure of all-Democratic control in state government.

“We’re looking forward to this election, where we can make some inroads and balance this thing up a little bit better,” said Rep. Rich Brauer, R-Petersburg.

Senate GOP Leader Frank Watson called Democrats “the party of arrogance.”

“There has to be a political price to pay for the manner in which they’ve governed this state," Watson said.

House Republican Leader Tom Cross added: “I think we have one question to ask voters in this state: Why on earth would anybody vote for a Democrat in the state of Illinois in November in 2008? The answer is they shouldn’t, and we will remind them of that, time and time again.”

Republicans aren’t likely to “win a bunch of seats” in the Nov. 4 election, Cross said. “Hanging on (to offices the GOP already holds) and looking at a couple of other spots to win would be a good year for us.”

At the Republicans’ fairgrounds rally, the featured speaker, U.S. Marine Col. Jack Jackson, credited the state of Illinois for sending “two of the finest men” to the White House — Abraham Lincoln and Ronald Reagan.

“I want to tell you something, though,” added Jackson, a John McCain supporter. “Don’t send me a third. I want the next one to come from Arizona.”

Throughout the day, Illinois Republicans sought to contrast themselves with the state’s Democrats by hammering on the theme of sticking together.

“The point is, we can win if we are unified,” said Demetra Demonte of Pekin, who next month begins as Republican national committeewoman.

Political writer Bernard Schoenburg contributed to this report. Adriana Colindres can be reached at 782-6292. Doug Finke can be reached at 788-1527.