Pate Philip behind Everett Dirksen during DuPage County GOP's 1960's rise (Illinois.gov)
By Daniel Brinkman -
It was the mid 1970s and a young Nancy Louise serving as regional patronage chief for the Illinois Republican Party heard from one of her co-workers that there was a county chairman way up in DuPage who had events that drew crowds of over 3,000 paid attendees. She naturally didn’t believe it and needed to see for herself. As she rode up Route 59 about a quarter of a mile from the venue, she saw a line of people patiently waiting to get into the event. One of the finest political organizations in the country was getting its start. Little did she then know, she would eventually become Mrs. James “Pate” Philip and be at the center of this massive enterprise he was well on his way to putting together.
DuPage would eventually rise to be the second largest Republican County in the United States. On the day he retired as the last Republican in this State to lead one of its legislative chambers, Pate received a call from then President George W Bush asking him to stay on a little longer as DuPage GOP Chair. Such was the stature and regard this bastion of Republicanism was held in.
Chris Stirewalt, Political Editor of Fox News has said that the suburbs nationally are like the Catholic vote. “Republicans generally need to win them but they are usually only won by a few points either way.” DuPage had always been the exception to that rule. In 1988 Dan Rather hastily called Illinois for Dukakis, but the counting was slow in DuPage that year because of referendums on the ballot. Pate told then Governor Thompson to “Stop worrying,” and sure enough DuPage went for Bush 71% to 29% by a margin of 123,622 votes. Bush won the state by 94,999 votes. Two years before that, straight ticket Republican votes outpaced Democrats by a ratio of more than 30:1. In 1998 for US Senate DuPage went 63% – 34% for Peter Fitzgerald, a margin of 73,000 votes that went most of the way to making him a US Senator.
By 2004 the margin had slipped to 38,000 for President, but in down-ballot races margins were high enough for most to delude themselves into thinking there wasn’t a problem brewing. In 2008 Barack Obama became the first Democrat to win DuPage County since 1852 (The GOP was not founded until 1854). He won it again narrowly four years later. Troops on the ground wrote off those two victories as a kind of favorite son phenomenon. In 2016 Hilary Clinton made it a three peat for the Democrats with a margin of 62,000 the highest a Democrat had yet recorded in the former GOP stronghold. At the legislative level however, voters still made the distinction between national Republicans and local ones. Pate Philip would often say “all politics is local.” But there remained no apparatus for 13 years at that point to sell the party brand local or national to those new folks migrating into the county and to those neglected by the atrophied party that remained.
At the beginning of this month, with virtually unlimited democratic coffers, a fleeing voter base, weak top ballot candidates, and national headwinds, the chickens finally came home to roost to the notion of DuPage as a Republican county. six legislative seats were lost, two congressional seats (both of which drawn to be solidly GOP) seven county board seats, and most indicative of the political barometer, three countywide races.
As anyone familiar with DuPage politics will tell you, this latest catastrophe wasn’t entirely unexpected. The scale of the calamity might have been, but the trends have been well known for some time. The obvious question then is, what happened?
In the 15 years post-Pate, the local organizations have played a defensive action working to arrest the decline. Since the early 2000s, the state Democrat Party Chairman Michael Madigan has become increasingly aware of the listlessness of the DuPage GOP and took increasing advantage of it. As became Soviet dictum, “Probe with a bayonet, if you meet steel, stop! If you meet mush, then push.”
Madigan’s mistake was to probe first into Addison Township (in the northeast corner of DuPage) throughout the early 2000s, here was an organization already seasoned by decades at the front lines of democratic attacks. They fought him off admirably, effectively and repeatedly. Following the remap of 2010, whether by luck or brilliance, Madigan happened upon a strategy that would divert the attentions of the township organizations which had become the defacto bulwark of a rudderless party.
When James “Pate” Philip left as DuPage party chair in 2003 he left it with half a million dollars. Without their long time leader the DuPage GOP quickly fragmented into the nine individual township organizations who learned to fend for themselves. The money quickly dwindled and was never replenished. Neither were these organizations created equal in their ability or resources to fend for themselves.
The lasting coup of the 2010 redistricting map is that it took those districts that followed GOP organizational lines and smashed them up. Local Republican organizations long used to having one representative and one senator now suddenly had five or six in some cases. To be required to focus on too much is to focus on nothing at all. This has undone local efforts to bolster candidates. Tea Parties admirably tried to pick up some of this slack as have larger more well-heeled groups like that of Dan Proft. Tactical victories partially explain the decline, but not the broader trends.
While the township organizations helped slow the decline they were not the essential force in DuPage’s rise to preeminence. How then was the county so effective at its peak? Was it all just demographics as some would argue, or purely leadership? Surely both played a role, however one feature absent over the decline of the DuPage party was its massive and systematic outreach during its peak. The county GOP sent a quarterly newsletter to each and every voter. A substantial portion of what was raised every year and at massive events (like the one where Nancy Louise met Pate) went to their distribution. These efforts helped to educate all voters and especially newer ones to see why conservative governance was essential first at the local level, then at the state level. Before they knew it, they had become reliable Republican voters!
A sad consequence of the exodus from Illinois over the last decade is that those that have moved in from other states or from Chicago, have been subject to no campaign to win their hearts and minds to the conservative cause as had existed before. Why then should we expect them to suddenly switch their allegiance, or their ideology simply by virtue of their geography?
If the IL GOP is to somehow redeem itself, it must begin again to invest in making the case for itself, for its ideas, and why it represents the only beacon of hope for Illinois.