GOP says party is on the mend

U.S. Senate hopefuls hold rally at state fair

Friday, August 15, 2003

By Kristen McQueary
Staff writer

SPRINGFIELD ? Despite a meager turnout and only one well-known redhead in the crowd, Republicans rallying at the Illinois State Fair insisted the GOP will orchestrate a comeback during the presidential and U.S. Senate elections next fall.

State Treasurer Judy Baar Topinka, chairwoman of the Illinois Republican Party and the only GOP member in a statewide office, said the lineup of Republican U.S. Senate candidates ? though mostly unknown ? is the best crop she's seen in 20 years. Among the candidates are an Indian businessman, a dairy boss and a retired Air Force general who admitted joining the Republican Party only a few months ago.

"The Republican Party on the national level cares about Illinois," Topinka said. "George Bush is not ceding this state to anybody. This state is going to go with Bush. I really feel that in my heart of hearts."

With Bush topping the ticket, Republican U.S. Senate candidates hope his popularity will trickle down to their races. None of the seven candidates in the race so far, however, made significant progress toward distinguishing themselves during the low-key rally, except perhaps, former Goldman-Sachs executive Jack Ryan, who made a splash by bringing a busload of South Side students and hiring a professional camera crew to follow him around.

Nine months after losing the governor's mansion and the state Senate, GOP officials said the party is rebuilding. The old guard, including former House Minority Leader Lee Daniels, former Senate President James "Pate" Philip and former Gov. George Ryan, didn't attend the rally. Neither did many of the GOP insiders who lost clout after the November election.

And state workers now under a Democratic administration didn't show their faces at the free food-and-beer Republican event as they have in years past.

"It used to be who you knew and nepotism and contracts," Topinka said of the crowd. "These are the people who really want to be here, who really want to work."

Indeed, their work is cut out for them. Momentum for the Democrats continues to charge ahead, despite ongoing spats among Democratic leaders. While Topinka said scandal in the old Ryan administration is "yesterday's news" and the characterization of Illinois as a Democratic state is wrong, it's unclear whether voters are ready to swing back to the GOP.

Candidate Jack Ryan is using the slogan "Jack" to separate himself from any residual backlash to the Ryan name, and federal prosecutors have not closed the book on Operation Safe Road, a state corruption probe that has focused on Republican leaders.

Hoping to capitalize on any leftover anti-corruption sentiment, U.S. Senate candidate John Cox printed out his ethics plan on coffee mugs and distributed them to members of the Republican State Central Committee. He also opposes O'Hare International Airport expansion, which he called the biggest pork-barrel project in the country.

One of the only non-millionaires in the race, state Sen. Steven Rauschenberger of Elgin, won the nod Thursday of Republican Senate leader Frank Watson. Though federal campaign laws restrict the amount of money he can raise, Rauschenberger has the advantage of built-in infrastrucutre from Republican senators around the state.

"A lot of these guys are good candidates, but we need someone who will be a good senator," said state Sen. Christine Radogno (R-LaGrange). "He scares the Democrats because they know he's very creative and very smart."

Other candidates at the event included Jim Oberweis, who ran for U.S. Senate last year but lost in the primary; Andy McKenna, owner of a Morton Grove paper company; Dr. Chirinjeev Kathuria, a suburban Chicago-raised businessman; and John Borling of Rockford, a retired Air Force general and recent immigrant to the Republican Party.

Meanwhile, several Republicans used the event to gauge interest in a statewide 2006 race. New Lenox Mayor Mike Smith, a familiar face in Springfield, said he is interested in a slot on the statewide GOP ticket. Smith is a former golf course owner who serves as president of the Northeastern Illinois Planning Commission, president of the Will County Governmental League and is an official with the Illinois Municipal League, one of Springfield's most powerful lobbying groups made up of mayors from throughout the state.

State Sen. Dan Rutherford (R-Pontiac) also is feeling out his popularity for a statewide seat, perhaps secretary of state.

Party loyalists insisted up-and-comers such as Smith and Rutherford show the party is growing stronger.

"The press should report what they actually see and hear, and I'm telling you the state of the Republican Party is invigorated, excited and most of us are moving forward with a positive attitude," said Bobbie Peterson of Beecher, a member of the Republican State Central Committee.

Topinka, long rumored to be interested in the 2006 gubernatorial election and one of Gov. Rod Blagojevich's toughest critics, said she doesn't have time to think about a gubernatorial race.

"I could be dead in four years," she said.

Kristen McQueary covers government and politics for the Daily Southtown. She can be reached at or (708) 633-5972.

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