Could Illinois' next Republican chairman also come from the suburbs?

Of the three candidates for state Republican Party chairman, Lake Forest's Mark Shaw is the only one from the North or Northwest suburbs.

But Shaw's residency in the population-heavy region won't help him when the party's 18 state central committee members are scheduled to meet Saturday to elect a new leader.

That's because the votes of the committee members - each representing one of the state's congressional districts - are weighted based on the number of people who voted in the March 2020 Republican primary. Rural districts tend to have more Republican voters - and thus a higher weighted vote.

Of the state's 18 districts, the 15th District, represented by Republican Mary Miller of downstate Oakland, had the most GOP voters in that election. The 18th District, represented by Republican Darin LaHood of downstate Dunlap, had the second-highest total. Third place went to the 14th District, represented by Democrat Lauren Underwood of Naperville.

Northeastern Illinois is overwhelmingly blue, with every Chicago-area congressional seat except one - Republican U.S. Rep. Adam Kinzinger's 16th - now held by a Democrat. That would have been unfathomable a generation ago, when the suburbs were solidly Republican.

But the demographics, Shaw noted, have changed.

Who's running?

Shaw, a lawyer who serves as Lake County's GOP chairman and the state party's co-chairman, is up against Kendall County Board Chairman Scott Gryder of Oswego and former Illinois Gaming Board Chairman Don Tracy of Springfield.

The chair is being vacated by Bartlett's Tim Schneider, who announced his intention to resign in December.

The three candidates are set to be interviewed Saturday by the Illinois Republican State Central Committee in Bolingbrook, and a vote is expected to follow. The gathering initially was slated for Jan. 30, but it was postponed because of a snowstorm.

Shaw challenged Schneider for the party's top spot in 2018 but eventually accepted the title of party co-chairman with a focus on conservative and grass-roots outreach. He also was named president of the Republican County Chairmen's Association of Illinois.

Gryder is president and senior counsel of commercial services at Near North Title Group.

Tracy was appointed to lead the Illinois Gaming Board by then-Gov. Bruce Rauner in 2015 but resigned in 2019. An attorney, he unsuccessfully ran for lieutenant governor in 2010.

Shaw believes he stands out from the other contenders because he's lived all over the state, among other reasons.

"I was born in central Illinois, raised in southern Illinois, and started my family and professional career in northern Illinois," said Shaw, a Taylorville native whose family moved around a bit in his youth. "I believe these unique life experiences provide me with a better understanding of the diverse nature of the state of Illinois and its residents."

Shaw's controversies

Shaw hopes those life experiences will give him an edge when the party committee members meet Saturday. But Shaw has taken heat from some Republicans for his record as Lake County GOP chairman.

During his four-year tenure, the once solidly Republican county has turned overwhelmingly Democratic. All of the congressional representatives serving parts of Lake County are Democrats, and most of the state lawmakers serving the county are, too.

Additionally, Democrats seized majority control of the county board for the first time in 2018 and bolstered that majority in November.

Republican incumbents lost two countywide offices to Democrats in November, leaving just one post in Republican hands.

Shaw said the Republican Party must recognize how the demographic changes that have occurred in the collar counties have led to this political shift.

"If we don't try to talk to those people ... and find out what's important to them, we're never going to get their votes," Shaw said.

Shaw also noted that Democratic Party organizers have been doing a much better job of getting folks to vote early than Republicans. The way people vote has changed, he said, and the GOP has to adjust.

"The Democrats understood a long time ago that the election lasts six weeks, not six hours," Shaw said.

The Lake County GOP has faced some public relations problems under Shaw's leadership, too.

In 2017, protesters picketed a Lake County Republican fundraiser that featured a gun raffle less than two weeks after 58 people were killed in a mass shooting in Las Vegas. Several Republicans, including the county board chairman at the time, called the event inappropriate.

In 2019, Shaw dismissed concerns about a meme posted on the county group's Facebook page that mocked then-presidential candidate and U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren's claims of Native American heritage.

Shaw's association with former state senator and failed 14th Congressional District candidate Jim Oberweis of Sugar Grove has raised eyebrows as well.

Oberweis lost in November but still is contesting the election results.

Shaw is representing Oberweis in the ex-candidate's bid to have the U.S. House void the election results and either conduct a recount by hand or hold a special election. Either option is unlikely, considering the House is controlled by Democrats.

Shaw insists he and Oberweis are contesting the results to shine a spotlight on "inconsistencies and errors in the election process."

An investigation will either reveal proof of pervasive voting-related problems or show that fraud isn't as big an issue as some Republicans believe, Shaw said.

All seven counties in the 14th District certified the results. One Republican county clerk in the district called the tactic a waste of time.

"It's not fun to lose, but sometimes you have to face up to it," Kane County's Jack Cunningham said last month.

Whoever is elected party chairman Saturday will serve until spring 2022. At that time, a regularly scheduled election will be held for a full four-year term.

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Don Tracy, Springfield Republican
Scott Gryder, Oswego Republican
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