After months of public infighting and constant bickering over issues that also continue to divide the national party, Illinois Republicans selected a new leader Saturday who they hope is the best option to bring factions of the party together after its poor showing in last November's elections.
The party's central committee chose committeeman and lobbyist Jack Dorgan of Rosemont as the party's chair for the next year. He replaces outgoing chairman Pat Brady, who resigned last month after conservatives complained about his public support for gay marriage and other leadership issues.
Over the last few weeks, Dorgan, 53, emerged as a consensus choice with the potential to bridge gaps between the party's conservative and moderate wings. Party leaders are seeking ways to appeal more to youths, women and minorities after a drubbing in state elections that allowed Democrats to nearly sweep contested congressional seats and achieve supermajorities in both chambers of the Illinois General Assembly.
"After the last six months, the party really needs to refocus on the basics," House Republican Leader Tom Cross said. Dorgan told the committee he has 30 years of political experience, including as a legislative aide for state Rep. Roger McAuliffe, senior staff for Gov. Jim Thompson's office and on Gov. Jim Edgar's cabinet.
"He has the strengths of knowing the fundamentals of party basics and of party structure," Cross said.
Along with Cross, Dorgan had the backing of U.S. Sen. Mark Kirk, state Comptroller Judy Baar Topinka and members of the Illinois congressional delegation.
"I know Jack will be a leader who will focus on keeping our party energized heading into the 2014 election and trust he will work to ensure the Illinois GOP is inclusive so that we continue to live up to our full potential as a party," Kirk said in a statement.
The other six candidates included former Congressman Joe Walsh, former lieutenant governor candidate Don Tracy, former Cook County state's attorney candidate Lori Yokoyama and businessman Jim Nalepa. State Sen. Matt Murphy of Palatine removed his name from consideration late last month.
Brady resigned from his post May 8, citing his wife's battle with cancer and his desire to focus on family after six years in Republican politics.
He came under fire from conservatives earlier this year after calling the party "on the wrong side of history" for opposing gay marriage. Critics said they had several issues with Brady's leadership.
Brady faced several ouster attempts by state central committeemen led by state Sen. Jim Oberweis of Sugar Grove and Jerry Clarke, former chief of staff for U.S. Rep. Randy Hultgren. Illinois Republicans' fight over gay marriage and the leadership of the unpaid, often thankless post has served as a microcosm of differences and problems within the national party. Walsh, who lost a bid for re-election last November to Democrat Tammy Duckworth, told committeemen Saturday that even the private, closed-door process of selecting a chairman was emblematic of problems.
"We should be speaking to a ballroom of 1,000 Republicans right now," Walsh said. "My god, folks, the party is breaking. If we don't pick someone who will excite and energize the base, the party will wither away."
Dorgan's lobbying firm has political connections on both sides of the aisle. Dorgan has a practice with James McPike, a former House Majority Leader under powerful Democratic Speaker Michael Madigan. Their firm, Dorgan — McPike & Associates, has a politically active client list. The firm has donated to former governors George Ryan and Rod Blagojevich, Madigan and the House Republican Organization, among others.
It is not uncommon for lobbyists to take top party posts. Former Mississippi governor Haley Barbour worked as a Washington lobbyist before being named Republican National Committee Chair in 1993.
Dorgan would not specify Saturday if he backs gay marriage, only that he wants the Republican party to be more of a "big tent" organization. "Legislators should legislate," he said of the issue, which failed to come to a vote in the state Capitol, before session adjourned Friday. He said he has a 90-day plan of action to put the party position for the 2014 election.
"Whether you like government or you don't, it's there and it's a necessity," Dorgan said of taking on the chairmanship.
Committeemen's votes were weighted by primary turnout in the districts they represent, giving the most politically active places the most power. Dorgan was elected with 59 percent of the total vote on the first ballot, party officials said.
"I had different thoughts, but Jack won fair and square," Oberweis, who backed Nalepa, said. Moving forward, he pledged to do everything he could to help Dorgan in his new role.
With another election for chairman next April looming, Dorgan, by some, is clearly being viewed in a temporary capacity.
"The next chair is for the time being a perhaps temporary successor until the new one is officially elected," State Sen. Kirk Dillard, a Hinsdale Republican and likely 2014 Republican primary bidder, said.
But Dorgan's performance could earn him a permanent four-year spot. "Time will tell," Cross said.