Wheaton native Dan Proft has emerged as a key behind-the-scenes player in Illinois politics as the head of Liberty Principles PAC, a political action committee funneling millions of dollars to Republicans in races across the suburbs and state.
Proft, a conservative radio host and 2010 candidate for governor in the Republican primary, has about $4 million in cash on hand to spend on campaigns, according to the most campaign finance filings with the Illinois State Board of Elections.
In recent weeks, that has meant more than $250,000 spent in radio and television ads supporting Park Ridge Republican Mel Thillens' campaign for 28th state Senate, more than $175,000 for ads supporting Republican Heidi Holan of Glendale Heights in her campaign for 46th House, and more than $225,000 on ads in support of Dawn Abernathy of Mundelein in her campaign for 59th state House, among others.
Proft recently created a group of newspapers, including the Lake County Gazette and DuPage Policy Journal, that's the subject of a recent complaint filed with the Federal Election Commission. He holds DuPage County Republicans responsible for loss of influence at the polls, and offers some support of Donald Trump's bid for president.
Here's a conversation with Proft, edited for length.
Q. Millions of dollars of Gov. Bruce Rauner's money were going into your PAC during the primary and then out to candidates. Is this still happening?
A. He is not the largest donor to my PAC. It existed two years before he was elected. So as much as I respect what the governor's trying to do, the idea here is to build infrastructure and a political culture that extends beyond a specific politician. Is his commitment a game changer to Republican fortunes in this state? Absolutely. Because he and his allies have basically leveled the playing field.
Q. Campaign finance filings for Liberty Principles show your committee has roughly $4 million on hand. Where's that money headed?
A. There are a good dozen races where the PAC is up with television spots as well as in mailboxes and communications online. I think there are real opportunities for substantial pickups throughout Cook and the collar counties.
If the Republican party is not the party of the suburbs, we will never be the majority party in the state again. We have got to reestablish our leadership in the suburbs. And there's every opportunity to do that in races with good candidates that are willing to advance thoughtful reforms on salient issues like property taxes, and generate a better economic climate.
Q. What, if anything, should be done to heal the rift within the party, locally and nationally?
A. At the local level I think there is more party unity than there has been in some time. I think it's Rauner, the direction he has provided on policy, his turnaround agenda. The next steps are in part going to be predicated on the balance of power after Nov. 8. If Trump loses, frankly, I don't see much change. (Nationally), the hope is even if Trump is unsuccessful, then the party leadership will have gotten the message from Trump's success.
Q. Do you see the DuPage GOP stronghold as eroding?
A. Clearly, Dupage is less competitive than it was when I was growing up. It's self-inflicted wounds. It's our own bad actors and bad actions. It's cycle after cycle of bad candidates in bad races and bad political leadership and being junior partners to the Democrats and some people think DuPage should be run like a mini Cook County.
Think about this: In 1998, George Ryan got 72 percent of the vote in DuPage County. And in 2010, Bill Brady got 52 percent. For the second most populous county, most Republican county, that is an unbelievable amount of attrition in a relatively short period of time.
When demographics change, you incorporate new people into the party. We didn't do that, partly because we told people to wait your turn. It was an outdated system that pushed talent away and bred corruption and incompetence.
Q. The newspaper chain you recently started has been the subject of a recent Federal Election Commission complaint by former College of Dupage Trustee Kim Savage, who claims they are illegally coordinating with candidates. What is your response to that?
A. It's a private company that's publishing the newspapers and distributing them. (As to the future of the papers,) it's a fledgling for-profit entrepreneurial venture. Yes, we've added a bunch of titles. We're continuing to publish and distribute and solicit and obtain subscriptions. ... The idea would be that they continue past the election far into the future, and fill a void we think exists, translating public policy and political issues to the community.
Q. You've been critical of Donald Trump. Are you voting for him?
A. I have a low opinion of him. But I know what I'm going to get with Hillary Clinton. I don't want more of that, so I will (vote for Trump). And there's a possibility with the Republican Congress that there could be some advance in the direction of conservative causes, particularly as it relates to decisions that will last beyond the next president and many presidents like Supreme Court nominees.
Q. What do GOP candidates need to do to balance the Trump effect?
A. You can't control the Trump campaign so don't worry about it. Worry about establishing your own brand, about holding all of these Democratic in districts Bruce Rauner won in 2014 accountable. You also have to give people a belief of two things, one, that they're in control of their own destiny. And two, that things can improve in this state.
Q.U.S. Sen. Mark Kirk is in a different position than a lot of other Republicans running for re-election. Do you think he has been right to be so overt in blasting Trump?
A. I think Kirk's problem has nothing to do with Donald Trump. I think Kirk's problem is he declared war on the conservative base of the party. When you basically tell conservatives if they disagree with you on the marriage issue then you're a bigot, and if they disagree with you on the junk science behind climate change ... that they're Luddites ... and down the line of issues, at some point you reach critical mass.
Q. As a Republican, but also a student of politics, is there anything you admire about Madigan?
A. Madigan is talked about like he's some kind of mythological figure, he's 10 feet tall and he breathes fire. He's a diminutive property tax appeals attorney. The city of Chicago and Cook County have thousands of guys like Mike Madigan. What's the big deal? We haven't lost races we should have won because of Mike Madigan. We have lost races we should have won because of the surrender-first approach of the Republican party. Because we have had terrible leadership in the caucuses ... and we've had some bad candidates at the statewide level, too.