Illinois Conservatives Say Rift in State GOP Hurts Bush

By Robert B. Bluey | July 7, 2008 | 8:30 PM EDT

( - Conservatives in Illinois say the state Republican Party is disenfranchising its rank-and-file base of voters by ignoring conservative ideals and thereby threatening President Bush's chances to pick up the state's 21 electoral votes in the 2004 election.

The criticism intensified recently with the Dec. 18 indictment of former Republican Gov. George Ryan. Many people have blamed the scandal-plagued Ryan, who served as Bush's Illinois campaign chairman in 2000, for Bush's double-digit loss there to Al Gore.

The Bush campaign, working in conjunction with state and national Republicans, wants to reverse course in 2004. Prior to Bill Clinton's victories in 1992 and 1996, Republican presidential candidates won Illinois in six consecutive general elections.

But grassroots organizers like Doug Ibendahl, state coordinator and co-founder of Republican Young Professionals, told that they are concerned the Illinois Republican Party and the Bush campaign's liaison to Illinois are making it difficult to energize the conservative base.

"Bush could win Illinois," Ibendahl said. "The only way he could lose is if the old corrupt guard here brings him down, and if the Bush brand gets dragged down by these horrible problems we have in Illinois."

Opinion is mixed on the potential impact of Ryan's Dec. 18 indictment, which stems from his role as governor and secretary of state. Ryan became the 66th person charged in the five-year investigation; his campaign committee and 59 people have been convicted.

Illinois Republicans, who had on lock on the governor's office for 26 years until this year, suffered embarrassing defeats across the state in 2002.

Even though the party is trying to reinvent itself, conservatives said it still has the makings of Ryan's followers, starting at the top with Judy Baar Topinka, the state party chairman. Topinka is a moderate Republican with socially liberal views.

But much of the ire is directed at Republican National Committeeman Bob Kjellander, who serves as Bush's regional chairman for Illinois, Michigan and Wisconsin. Kjellander was in charge of five Midwest states in 2000, all of which Bush lost.

Starting their own revolution

A group of conservative stalwarts has made it a top priority to "reform" the state Republican Party, starting with the ouster of Topinka and Kjellander. The Illinois Center Right Coalition is leading the effort with the help of prominent Washington insider Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform.

Norquist said the Bush campaign is taking the ideas of conservatives seriously. He said there are groups similar to the Illinois Center Right Coalition in 36 states, and a representative from the campaign has promised to attend meetings.

But Illinois, Norquist said, presents its own set of challenges. He said what George Ryan did to the Republican Party there is analogous to the harm former governor Gray Davis caused the Democratic Party in California. Besides, he said, the party has traditionally shunned conservative values.

"One of the reasons why Illinois has been weakening for Republicans is that the Republican Party there is still pre-Reagan," Norquist said. "It's not an anti-tax party, it's not a small government party. It's a we-were-born-north-of-the-Mason-Dixon-line-so-we're-Republicans party. It is a party without ideological foundation from the establishment's perspective. It never had the Goldwater revolution that other states had."

But even critics of the party's leadership said Bush could be competitive in 2004. For former state Sen. Pat O'Malley, the solution is simple: dump Topinka and Kjellander.

"If the president wants to take Illinois, and he looks at the reality of the situation, he has to change the generals, because the generals are not going to get the job done," O'Malley said. "The people of Illinois, the rank-and-file Republicans, don't have any confidence in them."

O'Malley ran as a conservative in last year's Republican gubernatorial primary, which he lost to then-Attorney General Jim Ryan. O'Malley said he encountered hostility from the state party establishment. For example, he said he had trouble getting into the state fair to campaign.

This year, Ibendahl said he has encountered a similar attitude. Among other things, Ibendahl said he was unable to get Bush campaign bumper stickers from the state GOP. But Ibendahl said he and other grassroots activists are more concerned by the party's lack of conservative principles and some questionable actions on the part of party officials.

Kjellander's firm, Springfield Consulting Group, was paid $809,133 for lobbying work he did on a pension bond deal proposed by Democrat Gov. Rod Blagojevich's administration. Kjellander said it was business as usual, but critics want him to resign.

"It just doesn't pass the smell test when the top Republican official from Illinois at the national level is making nearly $1 million off of a Democrat governor's borrow-and-spend program that his own Republican Senate fought tooth and nail against," said Joe Wiegand, executive director of the Family Taxpayers Network.

Wiegand, who is running for a seat in the state House of Representatives, said he's encountered the hostility from the Illinois Republican Party firsthand. His Republican opponent in the primary won the state party's endorsement, despite Wiegand's past work helping Republican candidates run for office.

Kjellander admitted that he angered people like Wiegand and O'Malley last year when he supported Corinne Wood in the Republican gubernatorial primary and then backed Topinka as chairman of the state party. But he said the criticism of the $809,133 consulting charge is absurd.

"There's absolutely nothing wrong with that," Kjellander said. "Yeah, it's a lot of money, but it was a contingency fee. Just because we have a Democratic administration doesn't mean Republicans should crawl in a hole."

Kjellander (pronounced shell-ander) said he's grown accustomed to the criticism. In fact, he prefers to call his critics "rabid extremists" rather than conservatives.

Preparing for the 2004 race

The state party, Republican National Committee and Bush-Cheney campaign all expressed optimism about the president's prospects in Illinois.

Kjellander acknowledged that Republican candidates "took a drubbing" in 2002 because of the controversy surrounding then-Gov. Ryan. But Illinois Republican Party spokesman Jason Gerwig said voters are prepared to move on from the problems that plagued Republicans last year. Both he and Kjellander said statewide political problems wouldn't detrimentally impact Bush or the eventual Republican nominee for the open U.S. Senate seat.

"Things are in better shape than they've been in for a long time," Kjellander said. "And that's what is so disappointing, that we've got this small band of naysayers who would just rather tear down than work positively. But I'm not even worried about that because they're such a small incestuous group."

A staff of five field workers is heading up a voter registration project, which mirrors a national Republican goal of registering 3 million new voters. Topinka, meanwhile, has raised $2 million since assuming the chairmanship of the state party last year. As state treasurer, she is the only Republican constitutional officer.

And while the conservative critics continue their efforts to reform the state party, the Bush campaign offers individuals the opportunity to contribute as team leaders. In early 2004, the campaign plans to sponsor organizational meetings to get foot soldiers on the ground.

Gerwig noted that Illinois isn't the only state where Republicans butt heads on ideology or leadership. Topinka, for instance, supports abortion rights, while her conservative critics adamantly oppose abortion. But in the end, Gerwig said it's important that everyone works together.

"They seem to have established this litmus test of what it means to be Republican, and if you don't adhere to that test, they don't make room for you," Gerwig said of the conservative critics. "If that's how they feel, that's more at their end than our end. We want Republicans to win at the White House and the courthouse. We want everyone to be involved."

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