05/29/2013 03:39 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Nearly 25 Years of Illinois Politics Later, Little Seems to Have Changed


The more things change, the more they don't.

I started covering Illinois politics in earnest in 1989, just after the George H.W. Bush national election win. In the years that followed, former Republican Gov. Jim Thompson stepped aside, former Republican Gov. Jim Edgar won a nailbiter over Democrat Neil Hartigan and lasted a while, but since then Republicans victories at the top of the ticket have been sporadic.

Yes, there was the win for GOP Gov. George Ryan in 1998, and U.S. Sen. Mark Kirk's win a dozen years later in 2010, but the Republican Party in Illinois has had a rough go of it.

In all of that time, nearly 25 years, Republicans in Illinois repeatedly have been fighting over who they are, what they will stand for, and what they absolutely won't put up with.

The more things change, the more they don't.

The state party members will convene in Springfield this week to pick a new chairman after St. Charles resident Pat Brady was drummed out of office several weeks after voicing his personal support for gay marriage.

Back in the 1990s, Republicans fought regularly and passionately about abortion; about whether you could be a Republican and be in favor of abortion rights. That fight still isn't entirely over.

Part of the problem in Illinois is a regional one. The city versus suburbs versus downstate dilemma makes things difficult for Democrats and Republicans when they're together trying to pass laws and it can make things difficult for the parties often when they're dealing with things within their own ranks.

What flies in Chicago and the suburbs, just doesn't hunt in central or southern Illinois and that is partly the reason why the Republican Party remains riven over the social issues of abortion, immigration, gays and guns.

It's astonishing to me that Republicans in Illinois, and nationwide, still can't figure out who to let in their shrinking tent and whom to exclude.

Literally, the fight has been ongoing for more than a quarter century. Longer than before I started paying close attention. Illinois Democrats, meanwhile, have controlled the mapmaking, the politics and the process in Springfield since Ryan's route to prison gave us Democrat Rod Blagojevich. In that time, they've presided over an ever-growing state bill backlog and the nation's worst pension crisis.

If ever there was a time for Republicans to have a chance to capitalize and win back the hearts and minds of Illinoisans, this would seem to be it. But will they find a new chairman and enough unity to pull it off?

Saturday, I'd imagine the eight people who want what Comptroller Judy Baar Topinka correctly called the "worst job in the world" will make their pitches to the GOP state central committee. They'll talk about rallying the base, raising funds, reaching out and getting with the digital times and then one of them will win that thankless chairmanship.

But will the fighting over gays, guns, abortion and immigration ever end? Will more women, who pay attention to social issues and whether a candidate could be a good neighbor, become convinced Republicans are a good option again? And how will Latinos, who loved George H.W. Bush back in 1998, view the Republican Party?

Back in the day, Jim Thompson and Jim Edgar won repeatedly because they either were socially moderate or they didn't act like only they knew best. They didn't cram their views on controversial social issues down voters' throats. They understood, keenly, that victories come from addition, not subtraction.

There's nothing at all new there, but I'll repeat it: Growth and victories come from addition, not subtraction. Will a majority of the Republican state central committee ever recognize and reflect that?

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