by John F. Di Leo
As the road salt settles in the wake of Illinois primary election, both local and national commentators are in agreement on several general themes:
- Toni Preckwinkle’s victory for Cook County Board President proves that Illinois Democrats are committed to reform.
- The low turnout shows that Illinois voters aren’t really all that angry.
- Mark Kirk’s victory for the U.S. Senate proves that Illinois Republicans really are moderate after all.
All are of course incorrect.
Cook County Commitment
In fact, Toni Preckwinkle’s victory only proves that Illinois Democrats are committed to winning.
Does anyone honestly believe that they would have dumped Little Toddy the TaxMan if polls indicated that he was the strongest candidate? It’s Republicans for whom principle often trumps electability, not power-hungry Democrats.
The Democrats nominated Toni Preckwinkle because over half of their primary electorate believed that her “left-wing reformer” credentials would serve them better in the fall than Todd’s “left-wing status quo” credentials. And that’s true, as far as it goes…
But this isn’t going to be a left-wing year. While Preckwinkle is certainly the strongest candidate the Democrats had to choose from, Republican Roger Keats will give her a run for her money… okay, a run for her donors’ money. The former longtime suburban state senator is the strongest candidate the GOP has run for the office in a long time, and, fortuitously, he’s running in the best year in decades to challenge the Democratic brand.
Just a few years ago, a young conservative state rep from socialist Milwaukee County was elected to be their county executive (as counties go, Milwaukee is even more dependably Democrat than Cook), and yet, today, reelected and popular in that office, that young man is favored to be the next governor of Wisconsin.
Why not the same in Illinois? If Milwaukee, home of the Progressives, can elect a conservative county executive, so can Cook… especially in the year of Barack Obama’s $1.6 trillion deficit and national double-digit unemployment. This is no year for any Democrat to run for executive offices – be it village, state, national… or county.
The low primary turnout is assailed by pundits as proof of the inherent weakness of either the candidates or the public. Unfair, unreasonable, and untrue.
Midterm primaries aren’t usually all that busy, and we’re reflexively comparing this one with the unusually huge turnout of the 2008 general. Considering how that election turned out, can anyone blame the election skippers for regretting the concept and staying away from polling places again for awhile? If you suddenly got enthused enough to vote for the first time in 2008, and got the economy of 2009 as your reward, you’d do everything you could to avoid a repeat, wouldn’t you? It will take some time for a lot of the Obama voters to build up enough immunity to venture back into the water after that.
In fact, there are many reasons for a low turnout in a primary – from general satisfaction with the entire field of candidates… to general unfamiliarity with them… and most unforgivably, poor education by the media.
The main problem, however, is the obvious one. The February 2 primary date is just too early.
- It makes the general election season much too long and costly,
- It requires a campaign season that clashes with the Christmas holidays and the dead of winter, and
- Worst of all, it requires a filing date truly in the distant past.
Consider: Illinois candidates had to file their nominating petitions in October of 2009 for a general election taking place in November 2010. Candidates therefore had to decide to run, raise money, form their campaigns, raise money, collect signatures, raise money, all by October in the year of absolute unrestrained Democratic Party power. It looked like Republicans were in the wilderness, and even so, we got as many five or six candidates for nomination in many races.
How many challengers can afford to spend over a year running for an office? The February 2 primary is just one of the many incumbent protection plans in Illinois.
Now, imagine if that filing period had been in February, for a May primary. Leading up to the filing dates, candidates would then have known about Virginia, known about New Jersey, known about Massachusetts. They would have known that this would be a great year for Republicans. Might different people have been in some of these races? You bet! Different candidates would have meant different campaigns, and far more enthusiasm from the electorate as well.
We must force Springfield to move this primary out of winter, and well into spring, in future cycles. Between the Illinois climate and the fact of an unchangeable November general, the best time for a primary is May.
If we don’t want to lock ourselves out of a role in the presidential selection, fine – we can handle that choice with February caucuses, as do many other states, including our neighbors Iowa and Minnesota. A party caucus could hardly make worse choices than the Illinois presidential primaries have these last few cycles.
The Statewide Conservatism Question
Mark Kirk’s victory in the Senate primary was expected. Few dreamers really thought that Pat Hughes could defeat him. Still, the lesson of that primary is that 43% of the Republican primary electorate essentially voted for None of the Above against Mark Kirk.
Nothing against Hughes, Arrington, Thomas, or Lowery – but it’s undeniable that these first-time statewide candidates were not the first-tier opposition that should have challenged Kirk for the privilege of running for U.S. Senate.
If 43% of Illinois’ GOP primary voters were willing to vote for these relative unknowns, imagine how broad the support would have been if a “name” conservative – a respected State Senator or Congressman, for example – had made the run. Matt Murphy, for example, who came so close in the Lieutenant Governor’s race, had once considered the Senate run. This February 2 primary – in concert with the success of the Combine in dissuading top tier conservatives for this office – will leave residual damage lasting for decades. Conservatives should have had a real choice in this election.
Look at the governor’s race. Conservatives Brady, Andrzewski, and Proft certainly didn’t get a single liberal vote, and together, they totaled 42%. Since at least a third of the supporters of McKenna, Dillard, and Ryan supported their candidates because they thought of their man as being conservative too, it’s reasonable to put the total of conservative voters in this primary at well over sixty percent. Had they had a single conservative Senate candidate to rally around, he would have taken it in a landslide.
Kirk’s challenge will be to resist his natural tendency to tack left, both in the campaign and in office. He should win this seat – thanks to the Democrats’ nomination of Alexi Gianoullias, and the national climate in general. But while nobody expects Kirk to be a Helms in the Senate, Kirk has promised to be a fiscally conservative moderate whom Illinois Republicans will be proud of. Exactly what he means by that, and what the voters mean by it, may turn out to be different things.
But the biggest news is the governor’s race. Assuming the final Wednesday numbers hold, and Brady/Plummer constitutes the GOP ticket, this will be earthshaking for Illinois politics.
What most pundits don’t realize, because they don’t analyze Republican philosophy as conservatives do, is that this will be a true first in Illinois history. The Illinois GOP has not nominated a conservative for governor since the beginning of the conservative movement in the 1950s. The combine likes to claim that conservatives can’t win, when in fact, conservatives have never been tried. Ogilvie, Thompson, Edgar, Ryan, Ryan, Topinka…
Until now, every time a conservative has attempted a gubernatorial run – Baer in 1990, O’Malley in 2002, etc. – he’s lost in the primary. So the Illinois electorate has never had the chance to elect a Tommy Thompson like Wisconsin, a John Engler like Michigan. This 2010 election is our chance to show not only that we can govern, but also that we can win.
In 2010, conservatives Sen. Bill Brady and Jason Plummer will most likely defeat the unlucky tax-hiking Democrat team of the Pocket-Picking Populist, Pat Quinn, and his runningmate, Scott Lee Cohen, the Fighting Pawnbroker.
Final verdict? The Republican primary electorate of Illinois is indeed largely devoted to true conservatism and party platform principles. They may split their votes and lose the nomination sometimes, but there can be no doubting any more where their hearts lie: Illinois Republicans are not moderate; they are, for the most part, conservative.
And they might – just might – be on the verge of converting enough of their neighbors to turn this state from “swing, leans Dem” into at least the “swing, leans GOP” column. And that’s what will put us on track to returning both our state and our country to dynamic, prosperous, and Constitutional government again.
Copyright 2010 John F. Di Leo
John F. Di Leo is a Chicago-based Customs broker and international trade compliance trainer, and is a past county chairman of the Milwaukee County GOP. Permission is hereby granted to forward this article freely, as long as the IR URL and byline are included.