Daily Herald opinion: Illinois Republicans need a more centrist message, unity to regain relevancy

In other circumstances, the resignation last week of state Republican Party Chairman Don Tracy would seem an opportunity to reset the GOP on a course toward relevancy in Illinois. But both the circumstances of Tracy’s departure and the reaction to it suggest cause for concern.

Downstate Sen. Darren Bailey, who mustered barely more than 40% of the vote in his 2022 bid to unseat Gov. J.B. Pritzker, called Tracy’s resignation a “cleansing” of the party, an unfortunate term that both resonates with chilling historical implications and suggests the very notion of a purity test that has been at the heart of Republicans’ struggles in Illinois.

Tracy implied those struggles in his prepared statement explaining the reasons for quitting his post.

“I have had to spend far too much time dealing with intraparty power struggles, and local intraparty animosities that continued after primaries and county chair elections,” Tracy wrote.

Republican state Sen. Dan McConchie of Hawthorn Woods lamented that “you have a circular firing squad that seems to be the Republican Party these days.”

That imagery suggests a range of factors is to blame for the GOP’s present weakness. Yet, it cannot be denied that a certain strain of the Illinois Republican Party rests the party’s hopes for the future on its own peculiar definition of grassroots “real Republicans” focused on sowing suspicions of government accountability and animosity toward anything but their own strict, personally defined social values.

It is a strain that has somehow failed to see what has happened to the Republican Party in the Chicago suburbs. A decade ago, the best that Democrats could muster as candidates for positions from county clerk to congressman in counties like DuPage, Kane and Lake and many pockets of Northwest Cook County were hopeless tokens offered up in the simple pretense of giving voters a “choice.“ Today, Democrats are not only competitive but hold key county government posts in all those counties, majorities on their county boards, most suburban state legislative positions and every one of the seven collar-county congressional seats.

Of 17 Illinois congressional districts, just three are represented by Republicans.

If the GOP message has indeed been what former state representative and gubernatorial candidate Jeanne Ives of Wheaton calls opposition to Democrats’ “policy prescriptions that have destroyed ... the working-class opportunities in this state,” the party’s candidates and leaders have done a feeble job of impressing it on Illinois voters.

The impending November elections offer a chance for GOP electoral redemption, but only the most irrepressible Pollyanna expects such an outcome. Even if Donald Trump mounts a formidable national campaign, recent Illinois experience does not put much stock in the likelihood that his coattails will sweep Republican candidates to victories here.

What could? Two things that are much needed in our state.

One is a resurgence of the centrist positions that led Republicans to their prior dominance in the suburbs and thus provided balance between Democratic control in Chicago and GOP influence downstate. The other is true unity that recognizes the Republican Party is capable of a broad range of nuance that doesn’t necessarily dispel its commitment to personal freedoms, economic fairness and limited government.

Without both of these elements, the party is doomed to a constant state of “opposition” to entrenched Democratic leadership and the state will be doomed to unchecked one-party control. Illinois needs two strong parties vying to balance the varied interests of our diverse population, and it’s not like the Republicans are void of options. Suburban lawmakers like Senators John Curran of Downers Grove and Don DeWitte of St. Charles and Representatives Seth Lewis of Bartlett and Brad Stephens of Rosemont, among others, have demonstrated clear interest in governance beyond mere obstruction.

But of late, the efforts of a cantankerous segment of Republicans to redefine the entire party has served only to cripple its influence.

Crowing about “cleansing” and “real Republicanism” in the wake of Tracy’s departure does not bode well for a change in that status. So, perhaps the greatest challenge facing his successor is to get members of the firing squad to put down their weapons and realize they are on the same team.

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