11/08/2012 11:48 pm ET Updated Jan 08, 2013

"Fire Madigan" Flops

How do you spell flop? "Fire Madigan."

"Fire Madigan" was 2012 campaign strategy and brainchild of Illinois Republican Party Chairman Pat Brady.

How did that "Fire Madigan" strategy work out, Pat?

Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan (D-Chicago) added seven seats to his House Democratic Majority, now giving the Illinois' most powerful Democrat a 71-member veto proof majority.

And those gains came principally from the suburbs, wins that even reached into deep red DuPage County.

Brady and other Republican leaders' warped obsession with the wily House speaker lead them to embrace a strategic blunder of damning political proportions, a strategy that sought to personally demonize Madigan as a means to bludgeon voters to turn out Illinois House Democrats.



Republicans' enduring frustration and fury with being outworked in general, outmaneuvered in the legislature and outwitted on the campaign trail in particular propelled the Illinois Republican Party to devote money and media resources to convince Illinois voters that Madigan was responsible for Illinois' pension problems, for Illinois budget deficits, for every conceivable problem with the exception of Hurricane Sandy.

They focused their campaign efforts against a man whose job approval is rated as either as good or unknown by 60 percent (22 percent /38 percent) Illinois voters, according to a Chicago Tribune poll released in mid-October. His job disapproval rating is 40 percent.

These numbers stand remarkably similar to where they were in the mid-90s when I worked on the speaker's staff. Any respectable pollster will tell you that unless a negative rating is north of 70 percent, predicating a negative message on a 40 percent negative rating is close to worthless.

Pat Brady did not invent the Madigan demonization strategy. Ex-House GOP Speaker Lee Daniels did. Eventually, even Daniels abandoned the strategy as useless at the end of the 20th century.

Brady dusted it off for the 21st.

Brady was so intoxicated by his "Save Illinois. Fire Madigan" slogan he even went into trinket merchandising business.

Brady rolled out in August a web store offering up bumper stickers, buttons, yard signs, magnets, hats, coffee mugs, golf balls, t-shirts (for both humans and dogs). All of Brady's tchotchke was emblazoned with the slogan.

"They'll be the hottest, trendiest thing in the state of Illinois in the next four years,"state GOP chairman Pat Brady said during the Republican National Convention in Tampa.

That strategy earned Brady the withering judgement of political strategist and opposition research expert Will Caskey, the principal at 3rd Coast Research.

"Illinois Republicans focus on Madigan because they have almost no talent when it comes to running modern, professional campaigns," said Caskey following election day.

Caskey attempted to explain the Madigan obsession through his campaign lens.

"Madigan is only there because a majority (now a supermajority) of the chamber is Democratic," said Caskey. "And that's really the reason why you see the "Fire Madigan" canards year after year. It's an attempt to rephrase "vote against Democrats."

But Caskey said that strategy ultimately needs to be tied to policy issues.

"The fact is that these attacks only work in polling when they're roped together with things voters actually dislike -- for example, 'So and so voted for Mike Madigan's giant income tax increase,'" said Caskey.

"That attack can work, but it's only effective because of the tax hike (or whatever), not Madigan per se. Any minimally competent professional should see those actual flash points as vulnerabilities, not one individual."

Still, Caskey's argument assumes a well-informed, intense public opinion about Madigan.

When 60 percent of Illinois voters either approve of Madigan's job performance or have no opinion about that performance, a campaign is targeting a near blank slate of voter knowledge. A broad swath of voters have no voter Pavlovian reflex about Madigan. Just Brady and House Republicans.

How should Illinois Republicans begin to regroup?

Fire Brady.