I recently attended a speech by former British Prime Minister Tony Blair in which he inadvertently provided some advice for the Illinois Republican Party.
Blair recounted a conversation he had with a fellow MP after his Labour Party had lost their fourth national election in a row in 1992. In the wake of that defeat, his frustrated colleague lamented to Blair, "What the heck is wrong with the voters of England?"
This anecdote is better told with an upbeat British accent but Blair's point was that the better question at the time was, "What the heck is wrong with the Labour Party?" Five years later, Blair led a new, centrist Labour Party that won a landslide victory and maintained power for the ensuing decade.
After losing three gubernatorial elections in a row to the corrupt and the incompetent, it is tempting for Illinois Republicans to say, "What the heck is wrong with the voters of Illinois?" when they should be asking, "What the heck is wrong with the Illinois Republican Party?"
Illinois voters sent one message to the Chicago Democrats in charge in Washington, D.C. by dispatching four new Republican Congressmen and a U.S. Senator. Yet those same voters offered a very different message to the Chicago Democrats in charge in Springfield where virtually nothing changed.
This seeming voter bi-polarity was not present in other Midwestern states where Republicans won governorships in Michigan, Iowa and Wisconsin and took control of state legislative bodies in Indiana, Wisconsin and Minnesota.
Some Republicans blame the underperformance on the vaunted Chicago Machine. But that excuse fails to explain how conservative Bill Brady secured only 54% of the vote in DuPage County in 2010 after moderate Judy Baar Topinka received only 50% in DuPage in 2006 (by comparison George Ryan received 70% of the vote in DuPage in 1998). Nor does it explain why Republicans netted zero State House pick-ups north of I-80 this cycle.
To understand what happened and why it continues to happen to the Illinois GOP requires two examinations: (1) an honest assessment of the very real talent and work ethic surpluses the leadership of the Illinois Democratic Party enjoys so that Republicans may address their deficits; and (2) the development of a policy agenda focused on reclaiming the suburbs. The Republican Party will not be the majority party in Illinois again until it is the party to which suburban families affiliate.
The Republican performance at the state level in this wave election cycle against the discredited Chicago Democrats is totally unacceptable but not inexplicable and it is about time some responsibility was meted out. Republicans cannot effectively preach accountability if they don't practice it--and accountability starts at home.