The 21st Show

Top Illinois Republican blames Trump for party’s losses

House Republican Leader Jim Durkin, center, is flanked by members os his leadership team in this file photo from February 2020.  State Reps. Avery Bourne, left, and Tom Demmer both chose to seek statewide office rather than run for re-election. Now Durkin is stepping down from his position.

House Republican Leader Jim Durkin, center, is flanked by members os his leadership team in this file photo from February 2020. State Reps. Avery Bourne, left, and Tom Demmer both chose to seek statewide office rather than run for re-election. Now Durkin is stepping down from his position. Brian Mackey/NPR Illinois

"Illinois voters rejected us," House Republican Leader Jim Durkin says. After his party's dismal showing in this year's election, he announced he would step down. And in a conversation taped Thursday afternoon, he came across as a man unburdened: "Donald Trump, I believe, is greatly responsible for the shrinking of the party."

This interview is scheduled to be broadcast on The 21st Show on Monday, Nov. 14.


House Minority Leader Jim Durkin
R-Western Springs


Brian Mackey: From Illinois Public Media, this is The 21st Show. I'm Brian Mackey. We are still processing the outcome of this year's general election. We're also waiting on some of the dominoes yet to fall across the political landscape of Illinois. But one we already know about is that Republicans in the Illinois House of Representatives will be electing a new leader of their caucus. Republicans have been the minority party in the House since 1997. And in recent years, the Democrats have built up a veto-proof majority, one that's been getting stronger, in part that's been through careful and creative mapmaking -- gerrymandering -- to maximize the number of seats they can win. But it's also been because, especially since the rise of Donald Trump, the voters of Illinois have been favoring Democratic candidates and Democratic ideas. There's no way to sugarcoat it. For Illinois Republicans, 2022 was another very difficult year. On Thursday afternoon, I spoke with the outgoing Republican leader of the Illinois House of Representatives Jim Durkin, he represents Western Springs in the General Assembly. Leader Durkin, welcome back to The 21st Show.

Jim Durkin: Thank you, Brian, glad to be here.

Why are you stepping down from the House leadership position?

You know, Brian, let me just preface it by saying that nine years serving as a House Republican leader is, it's an incredible experience. I'm humbled at the support I've received from my constituents, but also my members. But it's been 20 years also overall. This year's primary was very challenging. And after the results came in, I made a commitment to myself that I needed to head to when a certain amount of seats for me to continue on. It was important for me, and I held to that. I was not able to meet that threshold, and I decided that it was the time for me to pass it over to the some new people, to bring fresh ideas, new thoughts to place into the, into the House of Representatives. And, you know, more importantly, I wanted to make sure that I left under my own terms. And that's what I'm doing.

You said the primary was challenging. Do you think the Illinois Republican Party put its best foot forward for the general elections this year?

Well, that was an election that I've never quite witnessed before, where you have the incumbent Democrat is meddling, meddling to the point of maybe $30 million to clearly influence the voters for the general election, and he was successful. [State] Sen. [Darren] Bailey is a fine man. He represents a very conservative part of the state. Senator Bailey is who he is. But when it comes to winning seats in the areas where the most votes are cast, that means it's city of Chicago, the suburbs, and the collar counties, the attitudes and the approach is much different. And Senator Bailey's, I would just say that his style and his philosophies didn't work up here. And we're seeing not only, there was a time where the, we knew the suburbs were, there was a time where the suburbs were pretty strong Republicans, we lost that maybe 15-20 years ago. But the collar counties are now very, very, I would say, close to being blue, if not purple. And you're seeing that in the county board races where Democrats are winning most of the county seats, and you have to be able to appeal to more than just the conservative base in Illinois to succeed at a statewide level.

Look at the last people that we, last Republicans that were able to win statewide races: Judy Baar Topinka, Mark Kirk, Jim Edgar, all considered moderates. And if they were around today in office, they would be considered RINOs, they would be vilified. And I've been, I've been called a RINO. And you know what? That's part of, that's a major part of the problem with the party. If you don't go along with 100% of the conservative way, if you don't abide 100% by the party platform, you're of no good. But the fact is, if we can agree on eight of 10 things, we're better off. But it's not going to help us at the end of the day, because Brian, this is a business of addition, and not subtraction. And right now, there's a fringe element within the Republican Party, who would rather be part of subtraction to make their point as to using their heads and finding a way for us to be able to compete on a statewide basis.

It's interesting you say that because we just talked to someone on our program recently from a liberal perspective about making alliances with 90 percenters people who agree with you on 90% of issues versus 75 percenters, 50 percenters. You think the Republican tent is getting smaller in Illinois around the country?

It is, and that's happened over the last 10 years, and I will just say that the, we've, the Republican brand has gotten smaller, you're seeing, and I would say that the far right and far left have had too much influence in our primaries, because that is why we have such a large growing, independent voter out in Illinois. And because of that, there's less people who are participating in primaries, which gives the, as I said earlier, the far right and the far left more power to be able to decide who's going to represent them in the general election. So, and I will just say this, that Donald Trump is, I believe, is really responsible for the shrinking of the party. He's turned off more people in areas where we have to compete, and that's mainly in the suburbs and the collar counties. And the more that he sticks his nose into this process, getting involved with state elections, but also what he's doing at a national level, it turns people off. And they naturally associate the Republicans with Donald Trump.

And well, I thought we had a, we ran a good message with, you know, the economy and also public safety, parental rights. We were overwhelmed on Tuesday, and I believe greatly because people look at Republicans as extremist, and also they associate Republicans with Donald Trump, and also the US Supreme Court. I mean, there was a lot of factors that were in play. But at the end of the day, Illinois voters rejected us. And it was a, it was a tough night. And we, I hope we learned something from this, that you have to be able to expand and not just, you know, disqualify somebody because he may have a different position than most, than conservative Republicans on the Second Amendment, reproductive rights, or even same sex marriage and gay and lesbian rights. I mean, we're losing a lot of people, a lot of people who otherwise thoroughly believe in the Republican positions on public safety, spending our budget, spending in our budget, but we've completely turned our back on them because we disagree with them on social issues. And you know what? It's addition, it's not subtraction. And if we continue on with this approach, and just nominate people in the most important races that appeal to the far right. We're going to be in the same, we'll be, we'll be having the same elections over and over again. That is why JB Pritzker got involved.

Well, let me ask you about that. ... You've talked a couple of times now about Governor Pritzker and his interference or participation, however you want to phrase it in the Republican primary for Governor spending 10s of millions of dollars to boost the campaign of Darren Bailey. There's a way of looking at that. And look, I, I get the question about norms. And I am not a fan of breaking political norms and taboos. I also have a lot of questions about whether it's healthy for a state that only billionaires and multi-hundred-millionaires seem to be able to run for governor, people who have the backing of that sort of wealth. But there's a way of looking at it that Governor Pritzker helped Republican voters see clearly who Darren Bailey was. And they picked him, right? They voted for him. How do you reckon with, you know, the fact that that's where Republican voters are right now?

Well, as you said earlier, I would say that people who call themselves Republicans are, it's shrinking. And we are. I don't agree, and look, it is what it is. I don't think we can stop it. But having the parties meddle in the other party's primaries, I think it's just bad for them. It really is not really what this country should be accepting, but it is what we're doing. Let the Republicans play their, play out their primary, Democrats play out their primary, but I'm afraid this is setting up a very terrible precedent, which we'll see more of in the years to come. And this may be the new norm. But what it does is that it's you know, it was clever, you know, Darren Bailey is too conservative for Illinois. Those are the commercials. And what does that mean? It means that there was more money spent on behalf of Darren Bailey by JB Pritzker than even Mr. Uihlein.  And when people hear that -- they said he's too Republican, too conservative -- that appeals right to that voter who's a single issue person maybe, or who's ultra conservative. And that's why we have a large independent voting base. Because we've, it's shrinking. And it's more of the far right that has, that are voting in the Republican primary, and it appeals perfectly to them. And you know, it was clever, he was successful. And it was obvious from the results two nights ago.

Some of the other top members of the House Republican leadership team include Dan Brady, Tom Demmer, Avery Bourne, all of whom gave up running for reelection in order to pursue statewide office this year. Now you're stepping down. What is the leadership vacuum going to be in the Illinois House? How is that going to be filled? Because I will say you and I think Representatives Brady and Demmer and Bourne, you all, you know, appreciate the value of politics and negotiation and back and forth and yes, standing, you know, standing for what your side believes in, but there are also people who just want to fight and you know, see Chicago separated from the state of Illinois, and propose legislation along those lines. Where does the House Republican Caucus go from here?

Well, I hope they continue with the approach that I took. One, you've got to bring in more young people into the mix, allow them to grow, and that's what I specifically did for Tom Demmer and Avery Bourne. They were unsuccessful, but they ran statewide, we all had great hopes of them, beginning of the year. But I don't know how people can say that Chicago should be separated from the state of Illinois when it's the city of Chicago that basically pays for everything in the state of Illinois, not just Chicago, but everything downstate, as well. Chicago is a great city, I love Chicago, and I will defend Chicago, as long as I'm around in any place in the public domain. But to take that very nearsighted approach, that all things Chicago are terrible, and that people outside of the Chicago area are being shortchanged, doesn't, it doesn't, it doesn't, it's not basic reality. And I would say that those people who do that certainly enjoy spending their time, spending money in the city of Chicago, because it's a beautiful place, it's a destination spot for the world. And we should do more to promote Chicago to make sure Chicago is going to thrive, that when Chicago thrives, the rest of the state will thrive.

But to pass resolutions and say that we need to begin a process of you know, separating Chicago and being 51st state, absolute nonsense, absolute nonsense, and it's petty, and doesn't, I mean, if it works, maybe for a few people in different parts of the state and to prove they can get elected, you know, fine, but the fact is, I'm embarrassed by it. But that's the way people look at the state as a whole. And I don't go along with that. So I hope that whoever succeeds me will work with whoever the mayor is, and help them succeed, find a way to make it a safer, more productive part of the state, and also help the state as well. But you know, if Chicago falls, the rest of the state falls, that's the bottom line.

Only a few minutes left in our conversation, are you supporting anyone to replace you?

No, I've not received a call from anybody. A meeting has not been called yet. And I'm like, no, who. I mean, I've heard some names. But..

What, yeah, and I... [crosstalk]  

I divorce myself from this situation and let the best man or woman succeed. But I hope that they learn something from this election cycle. But I hope that they understand that this is a, that the state goes beyond I-80, and you have to be able to appeal. And you have to not only find candidates that reflect the district, not have to, you know, abide by the party principles or have to be ultra conservative issues. But the thing is, when you say things that are bad about Chicago, I mean, I think that that's wrong, we need to embrace Chicago, and you know, find ways to help it. And you know, that's the only way we're going to win votes up here. I love Chicago. People that I live in the suburbs with, they love Chicago too. People in the collar counties love Chicago. We're saddened by what has happened over the past few years. But Chicago is not going away. Let's figure out a way to help it. And when we do that, we're going to, we're gonna have a better showing, and people will realize that the Republican brand is just not ones that are on the fringe, but ones that are willing to work with party leaders in Cook County, in the city of Chicago, to help not only Chicago, but its citizens. And that's what our jobs are. It's not just you know, representing a few areas of the state, we've got to represent everybody. We may not agree with them on everything.

But that's what I tried to work, and I worked with the mayor of Chicago, I've worked with the Governor his first term to find, on his first budget and also the capital program. And I hope that there is more collaboration. And I will just say this for JB Pritzker and the Speaker and the President and whoever succeeds me, please hit the reset button. Start all over again, and try to work your way into finding a collaborative process where you can work together. And I'm not saying that we need to get everything out of any major piece of legislation, but allow us to participate and take in some of our ideas. We have smart men and women that have been left out of the process, because none of our ideas get a chance to be heard in a committee, or on the floor of the House of Representatives. There's a way of going about this. The election is over. Let's put things aside and do what's right as opposed to everything being dependent on the political future or the next election cycle.

We are out of time. House Republican Leader, outgoing House Republican Leader Jim Durkin, thank you for taking the time to speak with us on The 21st Show.

Thank you, Brian.