A Tea Party gathering of this size and prestige is not a common thing for our area. We're just not that "Tea" here. When you look at this year’s mid-term election culture, Illinois has been surprisingly tame. We have nothing like Delaware GOP candidate for U.S. Senate Christine O’Donnell to make headlines for their wars against masturbation, or a gal like Nevada U.S. Senate candidate Sharron Angle fighting the fluoridated water scourge like it's 1953 and the Russians are coming. Though the Nation’s John Nichols has suggested that U.S. Senate candidate Mark Kirk falls within the "scariest Republican" category, Kirk was a Tea Party target earlier this year.
Why hasn’t Illinois seen a major, national Tea Party win or upset as, have Delaware, Alaska, Nevada, and other states? What are we doing wrong? Or am I wrong, in suggesting that our Republicans aren’t sufficiently “Tea”? I asked several Chicago-based political science professors for insight. Here’s what they had to say:
Dick Simpson, chairman of the University of Illinois at Chicago’s Political Science Department and former 44th ward alderman: I'm not sure if there's a simple way to answer this. We didn't see it in the primaries much, partly because they occurred earlier than the Tea Party movement's peak. There's been more conservative candidates in Illinois — [Republican gubernatorial candidate Bill] Brady's pretty conservative — but there haven't been the extreme Tea Party candidates as in other places. They’ve not even been strong enough to defeat Kirk, though there was a candidate to the right of him.
Nevertheless, the Tea Party could have an effect on the upcoming general election, if they all vote in both the gubernatorial and senatorial races. Those races could go Republican. There's some key [congressional] races to watch — [Tenth District] Dan Seals race, and three suburban, seated Democrats [Debbie] Halvorson, [Bill] Foster, and [Melissa] Bean, and then the race to replace Kirk. If the conservatives were to really push voter turnout, that could make a major difference in the House of Representatives, depending on if those incumbents’ seats were lost. Right now, in the seats where there are Democratic incumbents, the candidates running against them don't have much money and are sort of weaker candidates.
The Democrats have gotten stronger in places like DuPage county, but that could be reversed in this election. The Tea Party's going to make no difference to the races in Chicago itself, but in these suburban races, they could be key.
Nicole Kazee, assistant professor Department of Political Science at UIC: There are simply too few far-right voters in Illinois for the Tea Party to get its own candidates on the ballot. However, the Tea Party movement IS still affecting Illinois politics. Republicans here tend to be fairly moderate, but not so this year. (Compare, for example, Republican Governor Jim Edgar to this year's Republican gubernatorial candidate, Bill Brady. The difference is astonishing.)
In a year when the Republicans have a chance at regaining power in Springfield, the last thing they want is to divide their potential supporters on Election Day. To keep everyone together, the Republican Party in Illinois is absorbing some of the Tea Party's demands and making a clear shift rightward. Even more importantly, the strategy seems to be working. These conservatives continue to poll well, and may even win—something we can attribute at least in part to Tea Party anger and mobilization.
Victoria M. DeFrancesco Soto, assistant professor in the Department of Political Science at Northwestern: Why we haven't seen a Major Tea Party presence is more than political culture, this year the reason is logistical. Illinois holds the earliest primary, (this year, February 2) and at that point the Tea Party Express and its most relevant actors had not gotten into full gear. For Chicagoans the idea of a tea party may seem far off, but outside of Chicago the movement could take hold if the momentum does indeed continue into 2012 and beyond.
John Brehm, professor of political science at the University of Chicago: One reason that we haven't seen a strong Tea Party presence in Illinois is that this state is very much a blue state these days: both senators, all state executive offices, many [Congressional] representatives, and many of the state's districts are strongly Democratic. The areas which have been Republican strongholds in the past are the collar counties, but those are closer to up-in-the-air as to party leanings. The race for U.S. Senate is currently, essentially tied in the polls, with both candidates hauling some seriously heavy baggage in the form of the failed family bank and fishy loans for [Democrat Alexi] Giannoulias and a spotty reputation for full honesty from Kirk. Brady is currently walloping [sitting Governor Patrick] Quinn in the pre-election polls for governor, with Quinn laboring under the same unemployment problems that affect the country as a whole.
The Republican party here went through a transition over the past decade from one of fiscal conservatism and social moderation to one of social conservatism. The Tea Party people appear to be more motivated by fiscal conservatism, if they appear to be motivated by anything.
The three states you mention [Delaware, Alaska, Nevada] are states where the GOP establishment candidates lost in the primaries to Tea Party types. The GOP has not really been in power for a while in Illinois, so there really isn't a GOP establishment to rebel against by Tea Party sympathizers.