Jim Nowlan column sig

To borrow a popular sports metaphor, 2022 is likely a rebuilding year for an Illinois Republican Party that is on the ropes.

To be honest, chances of the GOP winning statewide offices next year are slim, but not impossible. And unless overturned by the courts, the hideously tortured redraw of legislative and congressional districts — an affront to citizens in a democracy — will, if anything, build on the two-thirds majorities Democrats hold at the district level.

I suggest the Illinois Republican Party focus on nominating a broadly attractive slate of state candidates, which will be hugely difficult in and of itself.

Second, the party should also focus on the one potential bright spot opportunity — electing a majority on the seven-member Illinois Supreme Court — for the first time in six decades! After all, it is the Dem majority on the state high court that has repeatedly blocked efforts to provide voters fair districting, and has over the decades reliably blocked any court matter that would importune Cook County Democrats.

Here’s the situation:

At the top of the ticket is inoffensive U.S. Sen. Tammy Duckworth, an Army helicopter pilot who lost her legs fighting for our country. Next on the ballot is Gov. JB Pritzker, who is rich as Croesus and willing to spend the same $171 million, more if necessary, that he put into his first race for guv.

How would you like to go up against those two?!

Complicating matters is the shadow cast by Donald Trump. The Donald is wildly popular in small town and rural Illinois. This means that candidates who trumpet their Trumpism are odds-on favorites to win statewide GOP primaries — and lose the general election in the vote-rich Chicago suburbs where women tend to disdain Trump.

When I was a kid in politics half a century ago, the GOP party organizations at the state and county level still had some influence over who would win primary nominations. That, by the way, was the historic purpose of party organizations: To influence, even control, primary nominations, by rallying the precinct workers in behalf of candidates the party leaders felt had the best chance of winning the general election.

Not today, when GOP party organizations have many chefs, but almost no cooks, to work the trenches. And no money unless a Daddy Warbucks sort, like billionaire Ken Griffin, once again matches Pritzker.

The Cook County Democratic Organization has always done a good job of building a bench of attractive up-and-comers, promising them good jobs in government should they lose, until the next elective opportunity came along.

Look at it this way: If you were an attractive young GOP contender, why would you put yourself up against the Democratic state slate, likely lose, and then watch others walk over your dead political body to run when prospects might subsequently be better?

I think of attractive GOP prospects in just my central Illinois, such as state Sens. Jason Barickman (Bloomington) and Sue Rezin (Morris) and Rep. Ryan Spain (Peoria; a former student of mine).

So, ideally, the Illinois Republican Party should somehow identify the best of the prospects across the state, and say to them, “We will find money to back your campaigns for state office in both the primary and general. If you lose, we will find positions for you at good law firms or companies until you have a better shot at electoral success. We have your back.”

That is, obviously, easier said than done. Instead, I worry that the party will, out of impotence, endorse an open primary, leave the field to Trump acolytes, and go down in a ball of flames in November.

Now, to the GOP opportunity: The Dems created new state Supreme Court districts, and there are races to fill judicial slots in two, possibly three, of the five new districts. Even though the Dems redrew the districts to give them a chance at holding on to their 4-3 majority, Republicans have a good shot at winning all the open seats, which would give the GOP a 4-3 majority.

I am betting the issues in the court races will be: 1) law and order, and 2) “A GOP court is the only way to prevent total, absolute Democratic control of the state, which is never healthy.”

For the present, the Illinois Republican Party ought to be looking to a post-Trump world, by building a bench now that can win, if not now, in the future.

Jim Nowlan is a former state legislator and aide to three unindicted Illinois governors. A retired professor of American politics, he writes a newspaper column on Understanding Illinois.