A week after suffering statewide losses at the ballot box, Illinois Republicans already are facing another potentially daunting prospect looming two years from now: former President Donald Trump’s third bid for the White House.
Trump, who endorsed a number of high-profile losing candidates across the country in last week’s midterm elections, announced Tuesday that he would be mounting a campaign to return to the Oval Office.
Since Trump’s announcement, GOP politicians from across northern Illinois had mixed reactions to the news, ranging from enthusiasm to dread.
While some ducked the question or didn’t return reporters’ calls, others had lukewarm reactions, expressing a cautious approach to see how the politics play out between now and then.
“I’m hoping that cooler heads prevail and someone talks him out of running,” said state Rep. Steve Reick, R-Woodstock. “We should coalesce around a less polarizing candidate.”
In last week’s election, Illinois Republicans suffered major statewide political losses, including races for a U.S. Senate seat and Illinois governor. The GOP also saw pockets of success elsewhere across the state, such as in some county board and local legislative races.
Democrats maintained control of all statewide offices and held onto supermajorities in both chambers of the Illinois General Assembly while also winning 14 of 17 U.S. House races.
Still, the GOP made inroads elsewhere. Voters chose to have the Whiteside County Board lean more Republican and favored Republican incumbents in Lee County. In La Salle County, Democrats lost the county clerk’s office, and the GOP strengthened its majority on the 29-member board.
Two years ago in Illinois, Trump lost to President Joe Biden by almost 17 percentage points, 3,471,915 to 2,446,891. This year, Democratic Gov. JB Pritzker fended off a challenge from downstate Republican Darren Bailey, who Trump endorsed, by a margin of 11.6 percentage points, or 2,187,055 to 1,722,712 votes, according to unofficial totals.
Reick said he thought Bailey’s “dismal performance” Nov. 8 helped drag down numbers for other Republican candidates in the northwest suburbs.
Republican Kendall County Board Chairman Scott Gryder blamed Trump directly for his loss to Democratic U.S. Rep. Lauren Underwood in Illinois’ 14th Congressional District. During Gryder’s campaign, he was forced to attempt a political highwire act by trying to distance himself from the former president while also needing votes from diehard Trump supporters.
“Trump remains at the top of the list,” Gryder said of the political headwinds he encountered in his race against Underwood. “The Democrats did an effective job of making the race about him.”
Gryder added that Republicans need to “pivot away” from Trump because he turns off a lot of potential voters.
“A lot of his policies are what we Republicans believe in, but it’s time for a change at the top if we’re going to win elections,” Gryder said.
Kenneth Shepro, former Kane County Republican Party chairman and soon to be past vice president of the Kane County Board, offered even stronger criticism of a potential Trump campaign, calling Trump “the architect of the biggest Republican election fiasco in a half-century.”
Trump’s aggressive misstating of facts – in particular his contention that he won the 2020 election – has become a major turnoff for voters, Shepro said.
“The election claim is a significant reason why the voters rejected the Republican Party even though they overwhelmingly disapproved of President Biden and his policies,” Shepro said.
Kane County Republican Party Chairman Andro Lerario, however, said he’s “all in” for Trump.
“I was expecting it. I was ready for it. I’m glad he did it,” Lerario said. “So that way, now we can all start to plant the seeds of what is our work to be done. It’s easier on us to know this far ahead of time.”
Jeanne Ives, a former state representative and former GOP gubernatorial candidate, said regardless of one’s own personal feelings about Trump, she supported his candidacy on the primary ballot because it meant “Republicans can make a decision whether they want him to be their nominee.”
Ives said she also is open to “looking at who else might be in a better position to move the country forward because we have big problems.”
Ives criticized the “disgusting left” for painting every Republican as an extremist and dismissing good policies, including some put forward by Trump.
Nevertheless, the Trump effect on Republican voters was noted in the midterms, said Christopher Mooney, professor emeritus of political science at the University of Illinois in Chicago.
“He can’t win nationally. He’s got bad political instincts,” Mooney said of Trump. “He’s excellent in terms of playing his voters. But in terms of being a decent candidate, he’s got no idea, and that’s been proven, obviously, the last several weeks. He was rejected. The Republicans are going to have to live with him.”
Mooney pointed to Trump’s failure to gain the popular vote in the 2016 and 2020 presidential elections, and voters largely chose not to elect his preferred midterm candidates last week.
“So, if parties are about trying to [pit] people in office to make public policy, you’ve got a guy that can’t stay in office,” Mooney said. “That’s a bad thing for the party.”
What does that mean for Republicans in Illinois then? Mooney said he believes Trump’s candidacy won’t help Republicans’ reputations or fundraising efforts.
“Republicans, especially Republicans in the suburbs in Illinois – the few that are left – they really can’t be happy about this,” Mooney said. “In general, I would say it’s going to hurt the Republicans in Illinois. Those who are going for Darren Bailey, they’re not all hardcore Trumpers.”
Larry Smith, La Salle County Republican Party chairman, said Trump will have to adapt his approach if he’s going to win a national election because he disenfranchises voters needed to win beyond his base.
With that said, Smith acknowledged that Trump is popular in certain counties, such as La Salle. Trump garnered 56% of the vote there in 2020.
“He polled really well in La Salle County, and I know he’ll poll well again,” Smith said. “Some of it is warranted, some of it is not. If you are putting Trump against Joe Biden, I’d rather have Trump because I believe our country would be in a lot better place if he still were in office. He’s more capable than Biden.
“But to win the national election, he’ll have to moderate his personal style.”
Still, others declined to discuss Trump directly or wanted to wait and see how things play out.
State Sen. Craig Wilcox, R-McHenry, hedged on whether Trump’s announcement would have any major significance for Illinois Republicans at this early juncture.
“It’s a single announcement, so until you see what the primary field looks like for either Republicans or Democrats, it’s hard to assess,” Wilcox said, noting that many conservatives “appreciate the policies, if not the gentleman.”
Some “never Trumpers” and Democrats may even push for Trump’s nomination, thinking his extremism will make him an easy candidate to run against, Wilcox said.
McHenry County GOP Chairman Jeffrey Thorsen said he didn’t feel he could comment on the announcement at this point, noting that he wanted to wait until it was closer to the primaries in early 2024.
Thorsen said there are strong feelings about candidates running for president, and commenting on it at this point might poison the well and alienate those who fall on a different side.
“I don’t want to disenfranchise any of those folks in my party,” Thorsen said. “[The party] has had no discussion about any presidential campaign.”
Former Kane County Chairman and Treasurer-elect Chris Lauzen said he’s not concerning himself with Trump’s plans.
“Like many local elected officials, rather than thinking about national and state politics, my entire focus now is on producing results that I’ve promised in the Kane County Treasurer’s Office. [I’m] focused on local, tangible results,” he said.
DeKalb County GOP Chairman Tim Bagby – who won his reelection bid as the top vote-getter in his DeKalb County Board district – said he thinks it’s too early to opine on what the 2024 Republican presidential race will look like.
“I think we’re going to wind up having a contest for the nomination,” Bagby said. “And as chair, I’m a little bit like Queen Elizabeth. I’m expected not to take sides in a primary. So there will be plenty of opportunity for people to express their opinion as the primary’s caucuses come toward us.”
Shaw Local News Network reporters James T. Norman, Camden Lazenby, Mark Foster and Derek Barichello contributed.