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Will the Illinois GOP disappear like the Whigs?

Downers Grove 11/06/12
Attendees Downers Grove Township Republican electinight viewing party show their support for Mitt Romney PapPassero's November 6 2012.

Downers Grove, 11/06/12 Attendees of the Downers Grove Township Republican election night viewing party show their support for Mitt Romney at Papa Passero's November 6, 2012. | Curtis Lehmkuhl~Sun-Times Media

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Updated: December 9, 2012 7:52PM

Talking with Illinois Republicans in the aftermath of Tuesday’s epic election losses in Barack Obama’s home state brought to mind the old joke about the guy who woke up in the hospital after being hit by a bus.

“What happened?” asked the police officer.

“I don’t know,” said the man. “I just got here myself.”

That President Obama kept Illinois in the national Democratic column on Election Night obviously came as no surprise.

But the extent of the Democratic victory up and down the ballot and across the state was stunning — most notably producing a new 40-19 advantage in the next Illinois Senate — and left GOP officials in a state of shock on a day they had hoped to be celebrating Mitt Romney en route to the White House.

With Democrats also building an only slightly less daunting 71-47 advantage in the Illinois House while taking five of six battleground Congressional races, the Republican debacle raised the very real question of whether the party has been permanently marginalized in this state only two years after showing signs of a comeback.

I didn’t see it coming.

“I didn’t see it coming either,” said a groggy Illinois Republican Party Chairman Pat Brady. “We’re in the process of sorting it out.”

“I don’t think anyone did,” said Patty Schuh, spokesman for Senate Republican Leader Christine Radogno, who also wanted to “step back and evaluate” the election data before offering a diagnosis.

Neither were ready to concede a permanent malady, but Ryan acknowledged the GOP is on a path to extinction if it doesn’t learn to appeal to a more diverse group of voters.

“We have to address that or we will go the way of the Whigs,” said Brady, who only weeks ago was predicting Illinois Republican candidates would hold their own this year despite a Democrat-drawn remap of Congressional and Legislative boundaries that tilted the advantage in the Democrats’ favor.

Brady’s expectation had been predicated in part on the success of the GOP’s “Retire Madigan” campaign — built around attacks on House Speaker Mike Madigan as the source of Illinois’ problems and the biggest obstacle to fixing them.

Instead, Madigan emerges from this election as strong as ever, which I’d imagine came as less of a surprise to him, as his dominance is not of an accidental nature.

Nowhere, though, were the Republican failures more glaring than in the Senate, where Democrats picked up a net gain of five seats.

Folks, this is a legislative chamber that not so very long ago was commanded by James “Pate” Philip, a Chicago-hating Republican from DuPage County.

Now, for at least the next two years and quite possibly for the next decade, Senate Republicans will be about as relevant as their counterparts on the Cook County Board, in other words not very.

And that Republican bastion of DuPage County?

It elected its first Democratic state senator Tuesday, to go along with two Democratic state representatives. And for the second straight time, Obama carried DuPage, too, although not by quite as much as four years ago. The very clear picture is that this is no longer Pate Philip’s DuPage County.

In the wake of Tuesday’s “devastating blow,” as Schuh called it, Republicans said the most obvious explanation was the remap, but they were savvy enough not to stop there.

“It’s never appealing to whine,” Brady said.

A greater threat to the GOP’s long-term health may be demographic trends that find more Democratic voters living in the suburbs, in particular the fast-growing Hispanic population that has been driven squarely into the Democratic camp by a harsh Republican approach to immigration reform.

Throw in signs of a lasting gender gap as Republicans continue to alienate women voters on a variety of fronts, and you wonder whether the Illinois GOP can ever fully recover.

That may depend in part on how the Democrats use their super-majorities, which theoretically could override any governor’s veto, although it’s not always that simple.

“Madigan is the king. He can do what he wants,” said Brady, not ready to back down from that failed approach.

Indeed, Democrats can now do whatever they want on the major issues confronting the state without waiting for Republican support. On the flip side, they’ll completely own the political consequences of those choices, which means Madigan will move cautiously — his first priority always being to preserve his majority.

“One party rule is not good for the citizens of Illinois. One party domination is even worse,” Schuh said.

On that point, Republicans will find me and many other independent-minded Democrats in agreement. But it’s up to them to start offering better alternatives.

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