Yes, McLean County Democrats are energized headed into this year’s elections. But Republicans know how to win.
They hold a 15-to-5 majority on the McLean County Board. Every locally elected state lawmaker is a Republican, including the Illinois Senate minority leader. Every countywide elected official is a Republican. Even in a county with four colleges, President Donald Trump still won here.
“Once you start taking something for granted, apathy sets in,” said Connie Beard, a former vice chair of the McLean County Republican Party. “So I welcome a good challenge (in 2018). I welcome that we can start asking people to wake up and get involved and recognize that if you don’t stand and express and vote, then you’re going to lose what you’ve valued.”
McLean County Republicans in 2018 will try to fight off one of the most significant electoral assaults they’ve faced in years—from Democrats stoked by Trump’s election, and from Libertarians who are on local ballots for the first time. And Republicans will face those challenges while simultaneously picking a new local chair who could reshape the party’s future.
Chuck Erickson, an attorney and McLean County Board member, announced last month that he will not be seeking another term as local GOP chair. Beard, a real estate agent, is running to succeed him. Normal Town Council member Scott Preston is also considering it.
Every political party has factions, and for Republicans social and fiscal issues are often the dividing line. It’s been especially pronounced in the Republican gubernatorial primary, with state Rep. Jeanne Ives running that controversial TV ad alleging that Gov. Bruce Rauner is not sufficiently conservative on issues like trans rights, abortion, and immigration. Ives has stood by the ad, but many mainstream Illinois Republicans have condemned it.
In McLean County, where Democrats and Libertarians are trying to make inroads, one question facing Republicans is about inclusivity: Just how big should their metaphorical tent really be?
“A strong local party should be reflective of the varying views that exist within the Republican Party on any sort of issues,” said state Sen Jason Barickman, R-Bloomington. “Allowing different viewpoints within the party I think is healthy. I think it’s a reflection of the actual views that exist within rank-and-file members.”
Barickman is a prominent moderate voice among local Republicans. He was one of the GOP’s lead negotiators on school funding reform in Springfield last year. In 2013, he was the lone Republican senator to vote in favor of same-sex marriage. (He said he did so only after getting an amendment added that protects religious freedom.) Two months ago, Barickman broke with Rauner and said Republicans should be open-minded about legalizing marijuana in Illinois.
Barickman said the next McLean County Republican Party chair should focus on energizing his or her members while uniting on principles such as limited government and individual personal freedoms.
“When we engage with local Republicans, (it’s) making sure that we focus on the issues that unite us, and not the ones that divide us,” Barickman said. “That makes us stronger.”
Social issues can be especially divisive.
Erickson, who’s been party chair since 2014, is an ardent and unapologetic supporter of Republican causes. His self-described “outspoken and unashamed advocacy for Republican principles and values” occasionally put him at odds with other local Republicans. Last summer Erickson issued a statement to clarify his remarks on the Republican Party’s Facebook page about President Trump’s infamous “both sides” comment on Charlottesville.
That’s continued in the months since. In November on the party’s Facebook page, Erickson shared a post from the Illinois Family Institute (IFI) criticizing GLT for its coverage of the institute’s robocalls on the Equal Rights Amendment. The IFI objected to GLT referring to it as a “hate group,” a designation it earned from the Southern Poverty Law Center for its anti-LBGT positions. The Republican Party’s Facebook page—run by Erickson—has posted 11 times since Jan. 1 about the NFL and players kneeling during the National Anthem.
“I do remind people that on a Republican Party Facebook page—I don’t know how to break this to people—it’s a Republican Party Facebook page, OK?” Erickson said. “If you come to a Republican Party Facebook page, you really should expect to see articles that Republicans are going to agree with.”
Is there a line between the Republican Party and groups like the Illinois Family Institute?
“I think there’s some line. I’m not going to say that all Republicans agree with the Illinois Family Institute. But I think it’s fair to say that more Republicans agree with the Illinois Family Institute than disagree. ... You have factions in every party. You can’t change that in a party. It’s always gonna be there. The only goal you can try to accomplish is, there’s more things that we agree on than disagree on.”
John Parrott was chair of the McLean County Republican Party before Erickson. He said the next chair should embrace the Republican Party fully—including social issues like abortion.
“That issue, and some of the other social issues, is really what brands the Republican Party as being different than the Democrat party,” Parrott said.
On the other end of that argument are Republicans like Pat Brady, a former Illinois GOP chair who butted heads with social conservatives in 2013 over his support of gay marriage.
“The sole purpose of the party is to get your candidates elected,” said Brady, who was born in Bloomington. “It’s not a debating society.”
Parrott famously called for Brady’s ouster over gay marriage.
“The ‘my way or the highway’ approach to running a party doesn’t work,” Brady said. “You need to appeal to a broad group. You also need to be a little forward-looking on where the electorate is going. Not that you need to compromise your principles. But younger people, on these social issues, they don’t care. They are more concerned with fiscal issues. Where they’re going to get a job, or how they’re going to pay off their student loan debt.”
“We need to be the party of 2020 and not 1955,” Brady added. “The ideologues get caught up in that, and the effect is we lose elections.”
That deeply conservative strain of Republican is most noticeable in rural McLean County. Trump actually lost Bloomington-Normal to Democrat Hillary Clinton in 2016. He still narrowly won the county as a whole—by around 1,000 votes—because of how well he performed in rural precincts, picking up 70 to 80 percent of the vote in some places.
Yet there are signs of a shift in the county’s political makeup. Trump won a smaller percentage of overall McLean County voters (45 percent) than both 2012 Republican nominee Mitt Romney (54 percent) and the 2008 nominee John McCain (48 percent).
During the 2016 primary, nearly 40 percent of those voting took a Democratic ballot, more than twice as many as in the 2010, 2012, and 2014 primaries, election records show. The Republican share of primary voters dropped from 87 percent in 2012 to just 60 percent in 2016.
McLean County is also becoming more diverse. The county added 22,000 residents between 2000 and 2016, but the percentage of those who are white has dropped from 89.2 percent to 84 percent. White, rural voters are more likely to vote Republican.
Democrats are trying to seize on this. Eleven of 13 county-government races are contested in 2018. Two longtime GOP state lawmakers, Dan Brady and Keith Sommer, face their first challengers in years. And Democrats sense an opening with Rauner, one of the most vulnerable Republicans in the U.S.
During 2014-2016, Democrats had filled only 23 percent of their 120+ precinct committeeman slots, according to directories maintained by the McLean County clerk’s office. Today, Democrats have 66 percent of those slots filled—more than the Republicans.
* = 2018-2010 tallies are candidates only (those who've filed for the March primary).
“In nearly any decade, you see perceived ‘shifts.’ Not so much in our county in the past, but the world is different now. Each year, each decade, sometimes each day, brings a new challenge and a new headline,” said Kathy Michael, the Republican county clerk who herself will face a Democratic challenger, Nikita Richards, in November. “The Republican principles should be and will be preserved, including national strength and pride, a desire for peace and freedom, and the extension of human rights throughout the world.”
“Is there a true shift? We’ll know come November, not only in our nation and Illinois but here in McLean County,” Michael added.
The Next Chair
So far, Beard and Preston are the only two possible candidates for chair. Elected precinct committeemen will pick their new chair in April.
Beard, who studied communications and theater in college, appears focused on the messaging.
“I would love to see us having more conversations,” Beard said. “Although I’m an ardent conservative—I hold fast to principles that are just as conservative as Chuck and John Parrott and those who’ve come before me—I have a little different approach to sharing those principles with people. I like to hear people’s hearts. I like to hear what they’re thinking. I like to connect with people on a level that can really make a lasting impact and a change.”
Preston, who is currently a party vice chair and has not yet decided whether to actually run for chair, said he’d focus on building up the party’s infrastructure and cultivate a “farm team” that would become the next generation of candidates for local races.
“As we look to this next cycle, what unites us far outweighs what divides us,” Preston said. “That overcomes all else when you’re talking internally about the party.”
When asked by GLT how much distance the McLean County Republican Party should put between itself and the polarizing, unpopular Trump, the response was generally the same: let’s focus on local and state issues.
“When local Democrats are talking about Donald Trump, obviously they’re trying to distract the public from the actual issue of the day,” said Barickman. “Trump doesn’t have a role in local government. He’s at best an indirect role in our state government. So I think there’s some deflection going on there.”
As he announced plans to step down, Erickson touted the party’s accomplishments during his tenure. The GOP holds that 15-to-5 majority on the county board. The party’s executive committee includes several young Republicans like Preston, a 30-year-old elected official.
Erickson also said the party has grown its treasury. Indeed, the McLean County Republican Central Committee had $20,221 in cash on hand as of Dec. 31, state election records show. Four years ago, the party had only $4,859 in its war chest.
Erickson said the next chair will need to motivate Republicans to match the energy level of their Democratic challengers. He also said they need to harness sophisticated get-out-the-vote tactics.
“They’re gonna have to be up on technology. They’re gonna have to be up on what their opponents are doing. They’re gonna have to be up on a lot of things, because it’s going to be a very competitive environment going forward,” Erickson said of the next chair.
It’s a tough job, no matter who gets it. Barickman previously served as chairman of the Champaign County Republicans.
“It’s one of the most difficult jobs you can have in politics,” Barickman said. “My perception of that job is similar to one of being a parent. All of the complaints come to you, and you’ve gotta sort ’em out. And when things go the right way, you’re the last person to get credit for it.”
A New Challenge
Republicans also face a newer challenge—the McLean County Libertarian Party. Eight Libertarians filed to run for county positions in 2018. Voters will be able to pull a Libertarian ballot in the March primary for the first time due to presidential candidate Gary Johnson’s strong showing in 2016. (The Libertarians too will have a new local chair in 2018, with McLean County Board candidate Steve Suess hoping to succeed Bennett Morris.)
The socially liberal, fiscally conservative Libertarian platform is what attracted Lupe Diaz to the party. Diaz, who ran unsuccessfully for Bloomington City Council, has straddled the line between Republican and Libertarian; he’s a founder of the McLean County Libertarian Party, but he’s also still a Republican precinct committeeman and technically on the party’s executive committee, though he said he’s no longer actively involved with the GOP.
Diaz said one reason he stepped away from the GOP is because he was passed over for a McLean County Board vacancy last year. (Ryan Scritchlow eventually was appointed to the seat.)
Diaz also supports decriminalization of marijuana and gay marriage.
“My belief is the government shouldn’t be in our bedroom or our wallet. That’s what it comes down to,” said Diaz.
For the future, Diaz said the GOP should actively recruit more people of color and focus on local issues like municipal budgets, streets, and other infrastructure.
“If we focus too much on what Donald Trump is doing every day, we don’t get anything accomplished,” Diaz said. “Most people don’t realize the local government has a lot more effect on their daily lives than what Donald Trump is doing in the White House.”
Midterm elections are notoriously bad for the sitting president’s party, meaning it won’t be a shock if Republicans lose big locally, statewide, or nationally. Local Democrats like Erik Rankin, who’s vying to become the next chair of the McLean County Democratic Party, say it’ll be important to get activists more involved by having them serve on committees or host events.
Will local Democrats be able to turn their 2018 electoral gains into a permanent shift?
“That’s the million-dollar question,” Rankin said.
GLT’s Charlie Schlenker contributed to this report.
Editor's note: This story has been updated to remove a reference to the local Libertarian party as "right" on the political spectrum, to better reflect the political views of its membership.
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