After a decade of the Democratic party dominating all levers in government the state of Illinois is a mess. Its government pension debt is far and away the largest of the 50 states and its dismal credit rating reflects it. Unlike neighboring states Illinois is hemorrhaging jobs and dancing around its myriad problems, apparently hoping they’ll go away on their own.
Such an environment ought to be advantageous for Republicans, but the last election left the state party’s desiccated corpse by the side of the road. Democrats picked up four Congressional seats and greatly expanded their majorities in the state senate and general assembly. No small part of this had to do with the deft gerrymandering of the electoral maps by state assembly leader and Democratic boss Michael Madigan, but Republicans managed to make a bad situation even worse. Republicans inexplicably managed to even lose seats in districts that Madigan crammed with Republican voters, thanks to disjointed get out the vote efforts, lackluster candidate recruitment, and an ineffectual state party apparatus.
There’s no reason to think 2014 is going to be much different for the Illinois GOP: After the party poobahs pushed out the state chairman Pat Brady for saying that he was fine with gay marriage (as is most of the state) it has s struggled to find anyone of any substance to take the job.
The 2014 gubernatorial race promises more bad news: Madigan has maneuvered to get his daughter in position to nudge out current governor Patrick Quinn as the Democratic candidate, with the full force of the Democratic party and the Chicago business/labor/government combine behind her. The Republican field includes retreads from the last election along with a few no-names and a businessman who’s as Republican as Michael Bloomberg but with a lot less money and ingenuity.
In the short-term it’s difficult to see how the Republicans in Illinois can break the Democratic stranglehold.
But they may have a political star in the wings by the name of Erika Harold. Harold’s resume is almost too good to be believed: born and raised in downstate Champaign, she is half African-American/Native American, has a degree from Harvard Law School, and was Miss America. Lest anyone doubt her conservative bona fides, her platform as Miss America was teen abstinence. She’s been practicing law in Chicago and doing all the little things expected of someone who aspires to a political career.
That career almost began last year: in March 2012, shortly after winning his uncontested primary, Congressman Tim Johnson announced he would retire from Congress at the end of the term. The post-primary retirement is a common maneuver by Illinois congressmen hoping to put their political (or actual) scions in their seat without the messiness of a primary. Johnson’s former chief of staff announced shortly thereafter (his website was actually up before the announcement) that he would stand for the nomination, which post-primary is chosen by the chairs of the various Republican County Committees.
As Johnson’s district director for most of his decade in office he knew these people well—and they weren’t fans. Shortly after his announcement downstate Congressman John Shimkus’s district director, Rodney Davis, who also happens to be from the district, announced his candidacy, and the other downstate congressmen quickly coalesced behind him.
Then Harold announced that she would contest the seat. She made a few appearances and was beyond impressive, and people began to pay notice to her. Suddenly, it was a contest, despite the fact that Harold had no political connections to speak of while Davis had the support of nearly every downstate GOP officeholder or functionary that mattered, including the likely next chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, one of the most powerful perches in Congress.
In the end, political muscle and horse-trading saved Rodney Davis, barely, and Harold went back to Chicago, but not without a fledgling fan club that included a plethora of important downstate politicos who rued the chance to send a potential superstar on her way.
Shortly before the November election—one in which Davis nearly managed to lose, despite being in a Republican district and millions of dollars of support from outside interests—Harold returned downstate to give a speech at an event where nearly all of the important Republican players were, a performance that knocked the socks off of everyone and further spread the notion in people’s minds that a terrible mistake had been made.
The GOP has since been solicitous of her desire to begin a political career, but it has little to offer her. With a new law on the books saying that gubernatorial candidates need to have a lieutenant governor nominee, several have approached her to join their campaign, but she has no intention of riding on that ship to nowhere. Others have tried to steer her to run for a state senate or state assembly seat, but there are no open seats around her hometown and despite the political success of another Chicago transplant with a degree from Harvard Law School she does not see herself running for office in her adopted hometown.
The attorney general’s office is likely to be an open race and in many other states it has been used as a springboard to higher office, but it’s a heady post for a political newcomer whose dad isn’t the speaker of the state assembly, and the spoils that go with such a system make it unlikely she’d receive strong party support.
What’s left is for her to run for Congress against Rodney Davis in a real primary in 2014, and there are indications that this is precisely what she intends to do—the rumor afoot is that she is in the process of moving back to Champaign, and that she will make some sort of announcement this summer.
The prospect of a contested primary has the downstate GOP nervous: Davis is now one of their own and they’ll line up in lockstep to support him. But there’s no denying that this hyper-intelligent, charismatic woman may be the only person on the horizon with the chops to run a statewide race and have the ability to run well among the suburban soccer moms, the Chicago yuppies, and the small town denizens downstate.
Winning a primary against an incumbent is a tall order, and it would require not a few politicians to think beyond short-term exigencies and do something that might offer the only hope for the GOP to have success at the statewide level again.
The Illinois GOP (and the national GOP as well, for that matter) has proven itself adept at making myopic decisions. We may soon find out if this practice will change.
Ike Brannon is research director of the R Street Institute.