Land of Lincoln Top Target for Reform-Minded Conservatives

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

( - A fight over the heart and soul of the Illinois Republican Party is pitting discontented conservatives against the party's establishment at a time when the GOP is hoping to deliver the state for President Bush and hold on to its Republican Senate seat.

The growing unrest, which reported on last month, reached a boiling point Jan. 17 when members of the party's State Central Committee joined Republican lawmakers and grassroots activists to discuss the party's direction.

Conservatives are demanding changes throughout the party, starting with Republican National Committeeman Bob Kjellander, who also serves as the Bush campaign's liaison to Illinois, Michigan and Wisconsin. Kjellander is a friend of Bush political adviser Karl Rove.

"When he became national committeeman, the Republican Party held the governor's office, we had the majority in the House and the majority in the Senate," state Sen. Steve Rauschenberger said. "Today, we've lost the governor's mansion, we've lost every constitutional office except one and we're in the minority in both the House and the Senate."

The conservative Rauschenberger is running in the GOP primary for the U.S. Senate seat being vacated by Republican Peter Fitzgerald. Rauschenberger has made reforming the party a signature issue of his campaign.

Despite Kjellander's rank in Republican circles - he oversaw five states for the Bush campaign in 2000 and serves as chairman of the RNC's rules committee - he angered conservatives when he made $809,133 on lobbying work related to a pension bond deal proposed by Democrat Gov. Rod Blagojevich's administration.

Conservatives like Rauschenberger said the payment gives the Illinois Republican Party a negative image at a time when it is trying to overcome a corruption scandal. Former Republican Gov. George Ryan was indicted Dec. 18 on corruption charges; his campaign committee and 59 people have already been convicted.

Kjellander hasn't been accused of doing anything illegal. But his critics remain concerned about the appearance of his actions and the Republican losses in Illinois since he became the state's national committeeman in 1995. He was re-elected in 1996 and 2000 at the party's convention.

"The people who have [been] given leadership have not done a good job," said state Rep. Terry Parke. "We have consistently lost the president, and in this last [2002] election we lost all but one of our Republican officeholders statewide. It doesn't seem like who is [in] there now is getting the job done."

When confronted with the criticism, Kjellander defended the job he's done, and said he planned to seek the post again this year. He accused Rauschenberger of using the issue to attract attention to his Senate campaign.

"He's pandering to a very small minority in the party who would rather see the party fail so they can sweep up the ashes," Kjellander said. "It's a rule-or-ruin mentality."

He added, "My job as national committeeman is to lobby on behalf of Illinois and bring resources into the state. And on that subject, I think I've done a darn good job."

Emphasizing conservative values

Kjellander's critics include a plethora of conservative activists, ranging from Family Taxpayers Network founder Jack Roeser to former state Sen. Pat O'Malley to Steve Meyer, a member of the State Central Committee. The group draws its inspiration in part from Washington insider Grover Norquist, who has said the Illinois Republican Party lacks an "ideological foundation."

Meyer was responsible for the Jan. 17 meeting. Estimates vary, but participants said it attracted around 100 people.

Parke was one of four lawmakers who attended. He said the party should stand for less government, lower taxes, a free-enterprise system and family values.

"I'm willing to go the extra mile to bring grassroots Republicans into the fold," Parke said, "and make them feel good about being Republicans in Illinois."

State Sen. Chris Lauzen said he plans to hit the road this summer in search of grassroots conservatives who want to return the party to its traditional values.

"We can disagree on the social issues, but I think the common ground is fiscal conservatism," Lauzen said. "And if we are fiscal conservatives, we have to demonstrate it in our votes. We need to stop this hypocrisy."

Lauzen said he was disgusted last year when Republican leaders in the state House and four Republican senators voted for the Democrat governor's plan to double the state's debt.

Two other lawmakers - state Sen. Kirk Dillard, who didn't return phone calls, and state Rep. Paul Froehlich - also attended the Jan. 17 forum. Froehlich said he was concerned about the party's prospects in November.

"It's not clear to me that we're making sufficient progress figuring out how we can attract minority voters, or at least a share bigger than the miniscule amount we've been getting," he said. "Until we figure that out, we're going to have a tough time carrying the state of Illinois."

Victory or defeat in 2004

The lawmakers tempered their comments about the party when asked about its chairman, Judy Baar Topinka. As state treasurer, Topinka is the only Republican state officeholder, but in some conservative circles, she is considered a liability because of her socially liberal views and connection to the establishment. She became chairman in 2002, but held elected office during the Ryan era.

The state party's co-chairman, Steve McGlynn, said Republicans who want reform should vote for Bush. McGlynn said the Justice Department under Attorney General John Ashcroft has done more to clean up political corruption in Illinois than anyone else. Federal prosecutors are leading the corruption investigation.

"The people who are interested in re-electing George W. Bush are going to come together and work very hard to get that done," McGlynn said. "Those who have different agendas will probably be on the outside, sniping and criticizing and engaging in shameless self-promotion. I'm trying to promote the Republican Party."

MaryAlice Erickson, the party's vice chairman, said much of the criticism is unwarranted. She said Topinka has opened up the party to everyone and handed the State Central Committee the most power it has had in years.

"I think it's personal hostility," Erickson said of the criticism. "They don't agree with part of [Topinka's] Republican philosophy, and they don't agree with some of the things she supports."

But conservatives vowed to remain persistent in their quest for reform. O'Malley, who ran for governor in 2002, said the movement is well underway, and Cathy Santos, co-founder of Republican Young Professionals, said grassroots forces are also determined to elect Bush.

As for Kjellander, if Republicans are truly unsatisfied with the work he's done as national committeeman, they should challenge him for the post, he said.

"I am prepared to run on my record and if I win, I win, and if I don't, I don't," Kjellander said. "But I don't intend to be run out of the Republican Party."

Rauschenberger, who is busily preparing for the March 17 primary, said voters are ready to "turn the page" and want to see fresh faces in the Illinois Republican Party.

"The old leadership that's holding on by their fingernails wants to deny there's a problem," Rauschenberger said. "They get personal benefits in some way from maintaining control of the party. But they're strangling our recovery."

See Earlier Story:
Illinois Conservatives Say Rift in State GOP Hurts Bush
(Dec. 30, 2003)

E-mail a news tip to Robert B. Bluey.

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