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Thursday, Aug. 27, 2009 04:41 pm

State Republicans energized for the good ol’ days

Republicans, as a class, tend to pine for the good ol’ days — mainly, the eras when they were in power.

That’s been especially true in Illinois as the Republicans, uniformly blown out of power by George Ryan’s scandals and George Bush’s leadership style, have tried repeatedly to use the good ol’ days to convince voters that they should be returned to stewardship status. For instance, every chance they get they trot out former Gov. Jim Edgar — one of the few living historical Illinois figures who still represents moderation and good governance in many voters’ minds.

But Jim Edgar wasn’t even at last week’s Republican Day event at the Illinois State Fair. I ran into him earlier in the week, after Wednesday’s rainstorm. He was walking alone through the fairgrounds, heading for his car. He had a horse in a race, but the race was canceled because of the storm so he was leaving.

We chatted for several minutes, mostly off the record at his request. Edgar made it clear that he hasn’t formally endorsed anyone for governor yet, even though most people think he wants state Sen. Kirk Dillard to win. Edgar said that Dillard had a good chance of winning the general election, and Dillard returned the favor the next day by repeating Jim Edgar’s name again and again, everywhere he went.

But Dillard was one of just a few politicians at the fairgrounds last week who wanted to look back in time. Most others tried their best to focus on the future, which now looks brighter to more Republicans than it has in many years.

“I’ve never even met George Ryan,” is one of state Sen. Matt Murphy’s best lines on the gubernatorial campaign trail. Congressman Aaron Schock, the nation’s youngest U.S. House member, delivered the red meat keynote address to the gathered crowd’s delight. At just 28, Schock was nine years old when Jim Edgar was first elected governor.

There was a hunger at the State Fair which was almost completely lost after Republicans realized late in George Ryan’s term that they were doomed to exile. The Republican Day crowd was the biggest I’ve seen since the 2000 presidential campaign. Dozens of candidates showed up, many coming out of the woodwork to ride that massive energy wave they believe will arrive on Illinois’ shores next year.

The GOP also turned the page on the contentious rein of state party chairman Andy McKenna, who surprised almost everyone by abruptly announcing his resignation before the event. More than a few grumbled that McKenna’s self-centered move had taken attention away from the day’s success, but the party swiftly and almost unanimously voted to name McKenna’s replacement shortly after he resigned. Republican National Committeeman Pat Brady, who’s proved popular with both moderates and many conservatives, was given the helm.

Imagine, a state Republican chairmanship succession that was accomplished without screaming threats of retaliation. Unreal.

McKenna’s unexpected announcement helped overshadow the only other big controversy of the day. Sen. Murphy unveiled a cable TV ad which blasts Sen. Dillard’s tax-and-spend record and attempts to tie the DuPage County Republican to Cook County Board President Todd Stroger and Rod Blagojevich. Dillard’s supporters seemed to be the most furious at McKenna for attempting to focus the day on himself, but McKenna probably did Dillard a big favor by distracting attention away from the Murphy ad.

As noted above, Dillard is the most likely candidate to invoke the state’s past, partly because he was so involved in it — as Jim Edgar’s chief of staff, Jim Thompson’s chief legislative liaison. Much of the Old Guard is with Dillard. His event last Wednesday night was jam-packed with people from the good ol’ days. But Dillard has also attracted a young, energetic crowd of campaign staff, volunteers and supporters. He’s not totally living in the past.

Meanwhile, in Chicago, members of the Cook County Democratic Central Committee gathered behind closed doors to interview candidates for the slating process. At one point, somebody reportedly voiced a fear that the conference room was bugged.

The Democrats are on the run and the Republicans appear to be getting their act together. But there’s a very long way to go until election day, and this is still a Democratic state.

Rich Miller publishes Capitol Fax, a daily political newsletter, and thecapitolfaxblog.com.
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