Heading into next month’s primary election, Republicans in Illinois are more unified on pocketbook concerns but remain divided on social issues — a split accentuated along geographic and ideological lines.
Republicans don’t agree on same-sex marriage. They don’t want the state’s temporary income-tax increase to continue next year, but are pessimistic that even electing a Republican governor will change that. They think home-state President Barack Obama’s signature health care law should be repealed and feel the minimum wage should stay the same.
That picture of what it means to be an Illinois Republican in 2014 emerged in a Tribune/WGN-TV telephone poll featuring live interviews of 600 GOP voters from Feb. 5-8. The state GOP controlled the governor’s mansion from 1977 to 2003, only to implode amid scandal and wander in the political wilderness ever since. The loss of a power base has seen the party’s once-dominant moderate faction give way to a more pronounced rightward tilt as Illinois has become more Democratic controlled and Chicago-centric.
“It’s not a very promising” landscape for Republicans, said Paul Warda, 66, a retired accountant from Lombard who lives in what once was the state’s staunchest GOP bastion — DuPage County. “Republicans keep shooting themselves in the foot in their campaigns.”
The poll results illustrated one example of the ongoing split over social issues within Republican ranks: the state’s new same-sex marriage law, which was approved in November with three supportive Republican House members. Two of them face conservative primary challenges for re-election. The third, former House GOP leader Tom Cross, is running for state treasurer with nominal opposition in a low-key race.
The statewide Tribune poll showed that 60 percent of Republican primary voters want to see the same-sex marriage law repealed. Another 34 percent said the law should be allowed to stand when it takes effect June 1.
But it’s a different picture in the six-county Chicago area. Republican voters in the city and suburbs are split, with 49 percent favoring repeal and 45 percent saying it should be left alone.
Thomas Wysoglad, 72, a retired federal facilities manager from southwest suburban Bolingbrook, said the same-sex marriage law should stand.
“I believe in equal rights,” he said, adding that a later job in retail exposed him to a diversity of people.
“I don’t see any real negatives to recognizing same-sex marriage. I’m Catholic also,” he said. “Times change.”
Downstate, however, nearly three-fourths of Republicans said gay marriage rights should be rolled back.
Betty Ann Losey, 80, a retired deputy county clerk from Princeton in central Illinois, said she would like to see Illinois “get back to some conservative living,” and that includes repealing the same-sex marriage law. “I’m a Christian, I’m against it and I don’t think it should’ve been passed,” Losey said.
Among Republicans calling themselves moderates — 29 percent of the sample — 53 percent said the law should stand compared to 42 percent who want it to be repealed. But nearly seven in 10 conservatives polled want the law taken off the books, even though the four Republicans running for governor have said a repeal is not something they foresee happening.
GOP voters are more unified in saying the Democratic-passed state income tax increase should start to drop off as scheduled in January 2015. If allowed to expire, the tax rollback will decrease state revenues by more than $4 billion — or more than 10 percent of the state’s general revenue — at a time when Illinois government remains plagued by billions of dollars in unpaid bills and accumulated debt.
Republican governor candidates Bruce Rauner, an equity investor from Winnetka, and state Sen. Bill Brady of Bloomington have pledged to allow the tax rollback to proceed. State Sen. Kirk Dillard of Hinsdale and state Treasurer Dan Rutherford of Chenoa have said the tax hike may need to be extended while a reform of the entire tax code gets underway.
Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn, who signed the tax hike into law and is seeking re-election, hasn’t said whether the increase should be extended and has delayed his annual budget message to lawmakers until after the primary elections.
Statewide, 63 percent of Republicans want the bulk of the tax to expire while 27 percent said it should be continued. Support for rolling back the tax extended across all demographic lines.
“All they did was increase the taxes to put more money in the coffers so they can spend it on whatever they feel like,” said Michael Petersen, 58, a retired carpenter who lives in Carpentersville. Democrats, he said, “control everything in Springfield.”
Petersen acknowledged a belief that no matter who is elected governor in November, the tax increase is likely to be extended past January — a view in line with 55 percent of the poll’s respondents statewide. Only 31 percent said they believed the tax would be rolled back as scheduled. “I don’t think it will (expire), but it sure ought to,” Petersen said.
Like the GOP governor candidates, Republican voters also are split over the state’s new public employee pension law — an effort to deal with a $100 billion unfunded pension liability that eats into state revenues and hurts Illinois’ credit rating and its overall economy. The constitutionality of the new law is being challenged in court.
Only Brady, a member of the panel that crafted the pension law, supports it among the four GOP candidates. Views of the other three contenders for governor range from the law not going far enough to questions of its constitutionality.
Overall, a plurality of Republicans, 42 percent, said they did not think the new law went far enough toward reducing the unfunded liability — a gap scheduled to close within 30 years. Another 28 percent said they thought the new law went too far while 21 percent said it was satisfactory.
Among GOP voters who live in union households — about 20 percent of the sample — the gap closed slightly between those who thought it didn’t go far enough and those who thought the law went too far. A total of 41 percent of union households polled said lawmakers should do more, while 33 percent said the law went too far in curbing cost-of-living increases and extending retirement ages.
“If you’re not going to fund our pensions, maybe you should have told me that 20 years ago before I got this job,” said Jane McFadden, 51, who works in law enforcement in Danville in east-central Illinois. “They shouldn’t take it out on us because they screwed up.”
One general election issue that has surfaced early is whether Illinois should increase its minimum wage from the current $8.25 an hour to at least $10 an hour as Quinn has proposed. Illinois’ wage rate is $1 an hour higher than the federal minimum wage. Democrats nationally and locally have sought to make a hike in the minimum wage a campaign issue amid growing income inequity, with the president pushing for a national $10.10-an-hour wage.
Rauner, the front-runner in the race, has stumbled on the issue — originally saying the state rate should be lowered to the federal rate. Later, he said the minimum wage should be increased if coupled with pro-business reforms. Others in the race say the rate should remain the same, contending an increase would be disruptive to a business climate that has been slow to recover from the recession.
The poll found Republican voters overwhelmingly say the state’s minimum wage should remain the same. Statewide, 60 percent of voters say it should stay at $8.25 an hour while 27 percent said the wage rate should be increased. Another 11 percent said it should be lowered.
Jeanne Lynn Moore, 65, of Schaumburg, said that as the owner of a housecleaning business in the northwest suburbs she would have to reduce staff or increase prices if the minimum wage is increased.
Boosting the minimum wage to $10 an hour would be “very foolish,” Moore said. She said most of her staff already make at least $10 an hour but start out earning a little less so they have an “incentive to become efficient.”
But Linda Pieczynski, 62, a Hinsdale attorney, said she believed raising the minimum wage was an economic “justice issue.”
“If people are working 40 hours a week, they ought to be able to support their family and pay their bills,” she said. “They shouldn’t have to work 80 hours a week in order to (have) just the bare necessities.”
On the national issue of the Affordable Care Act, known as Obamacare, Republicans in the president’s home state are adamant in wanting to see his signature health care law repealed.
Sixty-eight percent of Republicans statewide said they wanted the health care law eliminated — a figure that rises to 76 percent among Downstate voters. Another 29 percent of voters statewide want the law improved while 2 percent say it should remain as is.
“They voted on something they didn’t even know about,” said Ray Brammer, 74, a retired electrician from South Elgin. “It’ll never work.”
Carl Amling, 51, an information technology consultant from Bartlett, called Obamacare “socialized medicine” but said he supports some elements of the law, including preventing insurers from denying coverage to people with a pre-existing health condition.Regardless of their views on individual issues, there is a defeatist sense among some Republicans that Democratic control of Illinois government isn’t going away soon.
“How does a Democrat lose in the state of Illinois?” asked Brian Tydd, 55, a salesman from Batavia. Tydd said it seems like “voting Republican in this state tends to be a wasted vote,” but he still casts a GOP ballot.
“You can’t write a movie script for National Lampoon like the last 100 years of state government in Illinois,” Tydd said. “My suggestion would be that federal officials prohibit us from electing (anyone) else.”
-WGN/Chicago Tribune reporting