Rockford is a blue collar city in northern Illinois. Like many former manufacturing towns in the Rust Belt, its citizens vote primarily Democratic. Between 2005 and 2017, Independent Larry Morrissey was able to sway enough Democrats, Republicans, and Independents to stay in the mayor’s office. Morrissey declined to run for a fourth term, and in Tuesday’s election, Tom McNamara restored Democratic control over City Hall in a landslide.
Since 2001, Republican candidates for mayor have fared poorly, due to the fact that most Republican voters were satisfied with keeping Larry Morrissey in office. Despite a robust Democratic primary voting record, they considered Morrissey a better choice than the alternative. Here are the results for Republican candidates since 2001 (the last time a Republican came close to winning):
- 2001 – Dennis Johnson – 34.83%
- 2005 – Gloria Cardenas Cudia – 4.07%
- 2009 – John H. Harmon – 9.23%
- 2013 – Michael Kleen – 18.32%
- 2017 – Brian Leggero – 13.6%
Not a stellar record, but it doesn’t show the whole picture. Rockford’s east side is deeply Republican, and Republicans have a strong showing on the city council. Unfortunately, these aldermen do not seem to have a unified agenda. Individual priorities and loyalties trump political party affiliation. How can the Republican Party turn things around? How can it appeal to a majority of Rockfordians, many of whom are suspicious of GOP motives and ideas? There are no easy answers but here are a few good places to start.
Messaging: Jobs, public safety, and good stewardship of the public purse are things all voters can get behind. Rockford Republicans need to make fiscal responsibility and economic growth the centerpiece of every election campaign. Social issues, or so-called “wedge issues,” are fine for state and national campaigns, but have little currency in a local race. It’s fine for a candidate to take a personal stand on social issues, but he or she should be thinking about areas where city government can actually have an impact.
Unity and Organization: Republican officeholders and candidates need to put aside their differences and work together to win elections. Volunteers and newcomers should be welcomed and given the resources they need to help out. Precinct committeemen, the party’s primary means of voter outreach, are woefully under represented. There needs to be a major effort to fill every open precinct committeemen position, even if that means canvassing neighborhoods. A farm system should be developed to find, foster, and support future candidates for public office.
Local Party Platform: Rockford Republicans should develop their own platform to address specific needs in the community. That will provide a metric against which candidates can be measured in primary elections. It will also help candidates develop their own positions on issues they may not be familiar with. A local platform can evolve to meet the changing needs of the community. As issues are raised (a new sales tax or vehicle sticker, for example), the local Republican Party can formulate a unified response to those issues.
Voter Outreach: Local elections are sometimes decided by a handful of votes. Can Republicans afford to alienate a single voter? Courtesy, respect, and a willingness to listen go a long way. I have seen candidates yell, lecture, insult, and argue with voters. What does that accomplish? Candidates need to be patient and listen to voters’ concerns, even if they disagree. When a candidate runs for public office as a Republican, he or she is not just representing themselves, but the party as well. Also, there are many people in Rockford who would happily vote Republican if Republican candidates bothered talking to them, showing up in their neighborhoods, or attending their community meetings. No demographic or neighborhood should be “written off.”
If Republicans really believe their party governs best, they need to get serious about winning elections. In 2013, I captured 18% of the vote using very little money by reaching out to voters with a simple, straightforward, and common sense message. Imagine what a well-funded candidate with a similar approach could accomplish?
Elections shouldn’t be about single candidates pursuing personal agendas. They should be about building a political base in order to ensure a majority of the voting population continues to support your governing philosophy, not just for this election, but the one after that, and so on and so forth. That is how the Democratic Party came to politically dominate Rockford, and that is how Republicans can take it back.