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GOP Leaders Say Moderate Governor Candidate Key In 2022

Former Gov. Jim Edgar, left, was in Bloomington on Thursday for an event. Here he is in 2014 with the last Republican governor, Bruce Rauner.
Seth Perlman
Former Gov. Jim Edgar, left, was in Bloomington on Thursday for an event. Here he is in 2014 with the last Republican governor, Bruce Rauner.

The Lincoln Club of McLean County on Thursday evening hosted its inaugural event at the Bloomington Country Club. Billed as an educational forum, the event was entitled "Can Illinois Be Fixed?"

As debated by a panel of GOP leaders, that question centered largely around another question: Can Republicans unseat Gov. JB Pritzker in the 2022 gubernatorial race?

The answer, according to former Illinois Gov. Jim Edgar is … maybe.

He was joined on the panel by state Rep. Dan Brady of Bloomington and former Illinois Republican Party Chairman Pat Brady. The event was moderated by state Sen. Jason Barickman, also of Bloomington.

Edgar said the problem facing Republicans in a gubernatorial race is the growing chasm between a state that’s moving left and a party that’s moving right.

“And that’s not conducive to winning in a general election,” Edgar said.

To reclaim the governor’s office, Edgar said Republicans will have to unite behind a moderate candidate — something that hardline conservatives will resist. But a shifting electorate means that in the Chicago suburbs, a once reliable source of GOP votes, people aren’t casting ballots for Republicans the way they once did.

“The suburbs now are at best lukewarm Republican,” Edgar said.

The best strategy for making headway in the area, in his estimation, is to nominate a moderate candidate who won’t “scare” the state’s northern voters.

But he acknowledged that in the shifting political landscape, “moderate” doesn’t mean what it used to.

“My definition of a moderate is what would’ve been an extreme conservative 20 years ago,” said Edgar, who served as Illinois governor from 1991-1999.

The party may attribute the conceptual shift in part to Donald Trump, who stoked party divisions and moved Republicans away from what many would describe as the party's core conservative values.

Pat Brady said he’d like to see the GOP find its way back.

“I want to get the party back to conservatism, which is belief in the rule of law, respect our alliances more on a national level, don’t spend more than we take in,” he said.

“And what we see in the last four years, that’s populism. That’s not conservatism.”

Brady said the party needed to be realistic in estimating the effects of Trumpian politics on Illinois voters, particularly near Chicago.

“I walked in the suburbs,” Brady said, of canvassing during the presidential campaign. “(Trump) was extremely unpopular.”

Brady said Republicans have to acknowledge that Trump’s brand of politics didn’t work in Illinois, pointing out that he lost the state by more than a million votes in both the 2016 and 2020 presidential elections.

“We need to get back to what Gov. Edgar did when he won 25% of the African American vote. Let’s get back to what we were when we were a great force in this state,” he said.

Cheney's Ouster

Brady said the ouster of U.S. Rep. Liz Cheney from her GOP leadership role on Wednesday was an example of just how far the party has drifted from its foundational values.

“I think the conservative movement yesterday took a huge step backwards. One of the bedrock principles of conservatism is we believe in the rule of law; we believe in our institutions,” he said.

Brady said that Cheney, along with Illinois Rep. Adam Kinzinger, did the right thing in refusing to collude in the lie that the 2020 presidential election was stolen.

“I think that was the right thing to do, and I think that was the right message that we need to get back to," he said.

Dan Brady said that effective GOP policies will involve less isolationism and more openness. He cited his collaboration with Pritzker during the pandemic as an example of the kind of bipartisan cooperation necessary to get things done.

Brady credited Pritzker for his role in keeping the COVID testing site at the Interstate Center in Bloomington open after state officials moved to close it down. Brady said Pritzker also helped to increase the availability of the COVID vaccine in McLean County, and got the Illinois National Guard to assist in administering doses.

Brady said he’s received criticism for working with the governor on issues of public health.

“This pandemic has just been unbelievable on so many fronts, and you’re damned if you do, and damned if you don’t,” he said. “But you have to keep trying because that’s what you’re elected to do.”

Edgar said when it comes to the COVID response, he doesn’t find much fault with Pritzker. And he doesn’t think the governor’s handling of the pandemic renders him vulnerable in the 2022 election.

“Pritzker’s numbers on this aren’t great, but they could’ve been worse,” said Edgar, adding that people who didn’t support Pritzker’s candidacy are likely the same people that disapprove of his COVID response.

“So I’m not sure how many votes he lost. I don’t think if I was running the campaign that would be the issue I would raise,” Edgar said.

Edgar said that Pritzker, like all governors, was forced into a no-win situation trying to mount a response to rapidly evolving public health crisis with little help from the federal government.

For him, Edgar said, one of the biggest takeaways of the pandemic was the disparities it revealed in health care.

“I’ve always been a big believer that government shouldn’t be out there providing any more services than necessary, and health care," he said. "But I think COVID showed we have a problem in this country when it comes to health care. Because who suffered the most? It was the poor.”

Edgar said the problem was one he hoped all lawmakers could work together to address.

Sarah Nardi is a WGLT reporter. She previously worked for the Chicago Reader covering Arts & Culture.