Republicans have their day at the Illinois State Fair
By Amanda Vinicky, IL Public Radio
Springfield, ill. – Democrats had their day at the Illinois State Fair on Wednesday, so Thursday was the Republicans' turn.
Playing second fiddle has been a common thing for Illinois Republicans of late... but it's something they're trying to change.
Still, Republican leaders have a message for their Democratic counterparts: Thank you.
Democratic feuds and failures have given Republicans a reason to be optimistic that they can rebound next year from a disastrous 2006. Gathering Thursday for "Republican Day" at the State Fair, they talked about using the disarray to drive political fundraising and help draw a sharp distinction between the two parties.
"They have given us an opportunity to soar like we've never had before," said U.S. Rep. Ray LaHood of Peoria. "It means that the Republican Party, if we have the right candidates and right ideas, can only do well."
But officials acknowledged the party has its own troubles, too.
Many people are unhappy with President Bush's handling of the Iraq war. Closer to home, some key Republicans are retiring from Congress and the General Assembly, meaning the party must fight to keep those seats before trying to pick up new ones.
"It creates a challenge," said Illinois House Minority Leader Tom Cross, R-Oswego. "To be blunt about it, we've got to first hold before we can start playing offense, and that becomes a money issue."
Last year, Republicans lost every statewide race, from governor to treasurer. Already a minority in the General Assembly, they lost even more seats. The GOP's future looked grim.
But Democratic control of state government has produced so much turmoil that some Democrats are publicly apologizing.
A legislative session that was supposed to end May 31 is still dragging on. The state budget expired July 31 without a new one to take its place. House Speaker Michael Madigan, chairman of the Democratic Party, has been called a closet Republican and an untrustworthy meddler. Gov. Rod Blagojevich has been called a dictatorial madman.
"The people of Illinois are beginning to realize having one party in complete control is dysfunctional," said Bob Kjellander, an Illinois member of the Republican National Committee. "I think we're going to have a rebound."
To do that, Republican leaders said, the party should raise money by portraying itself as the responsible alternative to Democrats who want to raise taxes and create big government programs but can't even pass a state budget. It also can take advantage of the state's earlier primary election and the legion of GOP presidential candidates to build voter interest.
They also stressed the importance of showing voters clear distinctions between the parties a job they said will be easier after this year's bizarre legislative session.
Republicans still face the task of recruiting candidates. People will be reluctant to invest their own time and money in races if they think Illinois has become an unalterably Democratic state. The GOP still hasn't found a big-name opponent for U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin next year, although several Republicans said positive things about possible candidate Jim Nalepa.
Nalepa, a West Point graduate who lives in Hinsdale, runs an executive recruitment firm and twice ran against U.S. Rep. Bill Lipinski in the 1990s. He announced an exploratory committee Wednesday.
Seeking to try something new, Republican Chairman Andy McKenna added a presidential straw poll to the party's State Fair activities. His goal was to entertain and energize party volunteers.
"Our workers got depressed. We needed to give new ways for people to get involved and get new people involved," McKenna said.
People lined up by the dozens to vote in the poll on a rainy day at the fairgrounds. Jon Blessing of Chicago took time to vote for former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney.
"As was shown in Iowa, straw polls have strong implications," Blessing said. "You get front-page coverage in the New York Times, The Associated Press. It's momentum."
Romney won the poll, with just more than 40% of the 922 votes cast, followed by Fred Thompson with just less than 20% and Ron Paul at just less than 19%. Rudy Giuliani and John McCain came in fourth and fifth.