Cratered Republicans will Climb Back in 2014
Call it “cratering.” That’s an apt description of the current predicament of Republicans in the Illinois legislature.
On. Nov. 6, partly as a result of a masterful Democratic remap, partly as a result of the statewide Obama sweep, and partly as a result of the $15 million spent by Democratic candidates, campaign committees and PACs, Republicans lost 12 legislative seats – seven in the House and five in the Senate. That puts them beyond inconsequential and irrelevant, and approaching invisible.
The media has described the Republican rout as a “bloodbath,” and some predict the party is doomed. But such obituaries are premature. There is some solace.
First, the Democratic sweep was not necessarily a Republican repudiation. It was more like “business as usual.” The Democrats hold a monumental 40-19 majority in the Senate and a 71-47 super-majority in the House.
But that’s not any great reversal of fortune. After the 2008 election, in which Barack Obama won Illinois by a plurality of 1,388,169 votes, the Democratic majorities were 37-22 and 70-48. So 2012 is like déjà vu – meaning 2008 all over.
As recently as 2004, Republicans had 27 senators and 53 representatives. As of 2002, they had a 31-28 senate majority. Over the 2006, 2008, 2010 and 2012 cycles, the Republicans lost a net of eight senators and six representatives.
In fact, House Republicans should remember 1990’s crater: In that election, Mike Madigan and the Democrats won a 72-46 super-majority. Since 1982, Democrats have controlled the House for 28 years and the Senate for 20.
Second, Republicans have only themselves to blame. In the 2010 governor primary, the more conservative candidate, Bill Brady, beat the more moderate – and arguably more electable – Kirk Dillard by 193 votes.
Brady is not a crackpot like 2012 Republican U.S. Senate losers in Missouri and Indiana, but his pro-gun, anti-abortion and anti-gay rights stances repelled just enough voters to enable the inept and enfeebled Governor Pat Quinn to win by 31,834 votes. In the 2010 U.S. Senate race, the pro-choice, anti-gun Mark Kirk (R), of whom Dillard is a clone, won by 59,220 votes.
Had a Republican been governor, he would have vetoed the Democratic remap, the veto would not have been overridden, and either a compromise would have been forged, or the remap would have gone to a commission. With Dillard as governor, Republicans might not have lost 12 legislative seats and four congressional seats.
Also, there’s the abdication factor. Of 2012’s 177 legislative contests – 118 for the House and 59 for the Senate – Republicans did not contest 58. That has two repercussions: (1) Instead of the Democrats spreading their $15 million over 177 seats, or an average of $85,000 per contest, they instead concentrated on 15-20 races, and spent up to $1 million per race. And (2) it gives Democrats a no-lose floor of about 36 senators and 65 representatives. In 2008, Republicans abdicated in 59 races.
The Republicans have conceded every black- and Hispanic-majority district, almost all of Cook County’s suburban districts, Will County, and most of Lake County east end districts. And Republicans are barely hanging on in DuPage County, once a party bastion.
Third, 2014 will not be 2012, and may resemble 2010, which was a bounceback Republican year. Overall, in both chambers, there are a total of 111 Democrats and 66 Republicans – the most lopsided Democratic majority (62 percent) since 1965. Even after the 1990 election, there were still 79 legislative Republicans.
Yet Republicans are depending on the Democrats to exhibit hubris, which is the arrogance borne of absolute power, and self-destruct. For the past decade, Democrats could pass any measure they pleased, but there were two critical checks: A governor’s veto needed 60 percent of each chamber’s vote (71 in the House and 36 in the Senate) to be overridden. And, in overtime sessions, which occur after the customary June adjournment, no bill passes without 60 percent.
No longer. Speaker Mike Madigan has his 71 Democrats, and Senate President John Cullerton has his 40 Democrats – four more than he needs. In effect, Quinn is a political eunuch. In the past, Springfield was run by the “Five Tops”: The speaker, Senate president, the two minority leaders, and the governor. They negotiated, brokered and enforced all the deals. The other 173 legislators (especially Democrats) voted as they were told (or, occasionally, allowed to vote otherwise), and enough Republicans were muscled to pass the necessary bill.
Now it’s the “Two Tops” – Madigan and Cullerton. The state is almost $200 billion in debt, including $96 billion in unfunded pension obligations; also, there are $8 billion in overdue bills. The $6.75 billion in pensions paid in fiscal 2013 have devoured all the revenue from the income tax hike. Quinn wants to borrow $8.75 billion to pay current debts, repayable over the next 14 years. The state is on the brink: Increase taxes, cut spending, or borrow more. Those are the choices.
But, for Madigan and Cullerton, there is no sense of urgency. Like that character from the old Mad Magazine: “What, me worry?” Make no mistake: The “Two Tops” priority during 2013-14 is self-preservation, not problem-solving. Their goal is to keep their majority, which means raising $10 million from special interests, and delaying politically dangerous tax-hike and spending-cut votes, or ascribing the blame to somebody else (like Quinn). It will be remembered that Madigan refused to pass any tax hike unless some Republicans “signed on,” which made it a bi-partisan tax increase. He can’t use that excuse now.
But Illinoisans are notoriously averse to the “Blame Game.” When Rod Blagojevich was impeached, voter outrage was non-existent. Blame the Democrats for foisting him on Illinois? Not a chance. Corruption in Springfield? When Democratic state representative Derrick Smith was indicted for bribe-taking, and expelled, were his constituents appalled? Not at all. He was re-elected. When Quinn and the Democrats passed an income tax hike, voter outrage was non-existent. So what? Republicans can only groan in amazement. After Governor Dick Ogilvie (R) strong-armed the Republican legislature to enact a state income tax in 1969, Democrats rode a wave of anger and won the legislature in 1970 and ousted Ogilvie in 1972.
Mitt Romney’s notorious “47 percent” comment is applicable to Illinois. A huge swath of the Democrats’ core constituencies, not just minorities, are dependent upon government programs, subsidies and payments. They don’t want to reduce taxes, and are not hostile to borrowing. They just want their money – now. And upscale Democrats, many of whom vote on social issues, don’t mind (or can avoid) paying higher taxes.
Going into 2014, Cullerton has a built-in firewall: Only 19 of 59 senators’ terms expire in 2014, of which 12 are Democrats. Because legislative districts must be redrawn every decade, following the census, senators’ terms are staggered: One–third have 4-4-2, another third 4-2-4, and a final third 2-4-4. That means 19 senators are up in 2014, while 38 are up in both 2016 and 2018, and 19 in 2020. That also means Democrats can’t lose the Senate in 2014, and probably not thereafter.
In 2014, the only vulnerable Democrats are 2012 winners Mike Jacobs, of the Rock Island/Moline area (54.7 percent), Andy Manar, of Decatur, Cullerton’s former chief-of-staff (55.3 percent), and maybe Lake County’s Terry Link.
In 2010, Republicans gained two senate seats and six House seats.
Fourth: It is not true the Democrats had a “better message.” State Senator Ira Silverstein (D-8) explained that the deluge of 2012 TV ads was as intense Downstate as it was in Cook County — only the focus was on legislative candidates. In the Chicago media market, the negative ads of congressional candidates (Walsh, Duckworth, Dold, Foster, etc.) predominated; Downstate, where TV is cheap, said Silverstein, Republicans blasted Democrats as tax-hikers, and Democrats attacked Republicans for cutting state and federal programs. “Voters just tuned out,” he said. There was no message.
And fifth, the 2012 Obama vote, not the so-called “Obama landslide,” did trickle down to legislative races. Obama’s Illinois vote declined noticeably. In 2008, Obama beat John McCain (R) 3,479,348-2,031,170 (61.8 percent), in a 5.6 million turnout, a margin of 1,388,169. In 2012, according to unofficial tabulations, Obama won 2,916,811-2,090,116 (57 percent), in a 5.1 million turnout, a margin of 826,695.
Obama’s vote was down by roughly 560,000 votes, but Romney only equaled the dismal McCain vote, and underperformed George Bush’s 2004 showing by 250,000. Democrats in Illinois are not ascendant; Republicans are just absent.
If the Republicans couldn’t beat a flawed governor and president, then their brand is toxic. Over 500,000 2008 Obama voters refused to back Romney, and pro-Obama voters backed every Democrat on the ballot. Voting Republican is no longer an alternative to Democratic failure.
In DuPage County, Obama’s declined from 228,698 (2008) to 197,411; in Lake County, from 177,242 to 151,552; in Will County, from 192,659 to 127,522, in McHenry County from 72,288 to 59,691, and in Cook County from 1,629,024 to 1,417,269. Downstate, which McCain lost by 75,067 votes, Romney won by 136,363 votes.
But hope springs eternal. Maybe Quinn will be on the ballot in 2014.
Russ Stewart is a political analyst for the Chicago Daily Observer
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