The prevailing view is that the Illinois Republican Party lies on a slab in the morgue. “People think it’s dead from the shoulders down and up,” says conservative commentator Thomas Roeser.

Dial back a decade to the 1994 elections, and things were bright and lively for the Republicans. “They had everything,” says Democratic political strategist Eric Adelstein, though he’s overstating it. Paul Simon and Carol Moseley Braun held the two U.S. Senate seats, but the Republicans occupied every elected statewide office from the governor on down, and they controlled both houses in Springfield.

Since then the party’s undergone “a long and bitter decline,” says Republican activist Chris Robling. Central to the decline is the licenses-for-bribes scandal identified with George Ryan, but there were other factors. “The party structure was directed from the governor’s office,” says Robling. “The party became the establishment, and there was a certain calcification and ossification. We weren’t interested in free and open debate. And we had been inattentive to organization, over decades.”

In 2002 the GOP lost control of both houses, and every statewide candidate went down but Judy Baar Topinka. “I’m an army of one,” says the state treasurer, who also became state party chairman shortly after the election. While commentator Bruce DuMont says the sassy Topinka “gives a zip to the party,” others carp that the chairmanship demands a full-time occupant. “This job is a miserable one, but it isn’t too much for me,” says Topinka, speaking of herself as party boss. “It keeps me very active.”

Topinka turned down a run for the Senate this year, and so did former governor Jim Edgar. The moderate Jim Thompson wing of the party yielded the field to a pack composed largely of wealthy conservatives. “These are C-grade candidates,” says Democratic strategist Peter Giangreco. “On the Republican side you have right-wing fire-breathers and unknowns with deep pockets.”

Topinka prefers to describe her primary candidates as “people who are successful in running businesses and their lives,” not professional politicians. Topinka’s neutral in the Senate contest, but Jack Ryan, the former investment banker who abandoned that life (though not the fortune it made him) to teach at Hales Franciscan High School, is seen by Democrats and by many Republicans as having the strongest potential to win in November. “He’s young and charismatic,” says Adelstein. “He’s got money, and he has an appeal across party labels.”

On the other hand, Ryan, who’s been way ahead in the polls, carries a last name that could remind voters of a certain former governor. And last week his opponents, who saw what happened to Democrat Blair Hull, started getting after Ryan to release his own sealed divorce records. Ryan used to be married to TV actress Jeri Ryan.

As for the general-election prospects of the others, Jim Oberweis has some name recognition thanks to his failed bid for the Senate two years ago and to his dairy business, but his stand against illegal immigration may not wash among independents. Paper-company executive Andy McKenna is worthy but dull. “He’s someone who hangs back in a room,” says Roeser. “I don’t find in Andy the passion a candidate has to have.” State senator Steve Rauschenberger is smart and has legislative experience, but lacks the money to clear the primary–or the red-blooded conservative credentials. “That’s the reason General [John] Borling isn’t going anywhere,” says Roeser. “He’s the only one who’s prochoice, a liberal on social policy.”

Whoever emerges will be able to walk and talk like an outsider, and that excites stalwarts. “We don’t need people from George Ryan’s world anymore,” says 43rd Ward Republican committeeman Suzanne Davis, a mainstream figure who is backing Jack Ryan despite his conservatism. Immediately after the primary, Topinka says, “We will have a unity event. I want peace in the valley, and everybody will get behind the candidate. There will be party discipline–I’m a stickler for that.”

Illinois has been tilting Democratic. Al Gore carried the state 55 to 43 percent against George Bush, and in 2002 Senator Dick Durbin trounced his opponent by 20 points while Rod Blagojevich reclaimed the governor’s mansion after 26 years of Republican tenants. Blagojevich has jacked up his popularity in office by demonizing this group (he called recalcitrant state legislators “drunken sailors”) and that agency (Maryville Academy, the Illinois State Board of Education). “Rod is always establishing some straw man to aggrandize himself,” says Topinka. “We laugh whenever he goes into a gubernatorial speech, as to who’s going to be the fish in the barrel this time.”

At any rate, the Almanac of American Politics calls Illinois “the Democrats’ strongest state between the District of Columbia and California.”

Illinois elections have always been won in the middle. But some of the Republican faithful argue that the state’s voters have lately shown that they value independence above moderation, as exemplified by lame-duck senator Peter Fitzgerald. “The regulars didn’t take to Peter, but he opposed O’Hare Field and brought in Patrick Fitzgerald as U.S. attorney, which were right moves,” says Robling. “He’s a brilliant, visionary, homework-processing servant of the people. He called ’em as he saw ’em, and people like that.”

Some Republicans see state senator Barack Obama as the stiffest potential competition from the Democratic field. “All those people on the left interested in civil rights, gay rights, and the environment would gather around him,” says Roeser. “He’s smart and attractive, and if he won he’d be the first African-American man in the Senate since Ed Brooke. There would be this historical thing about him.”

In recent years Illinois Senate races haven’t attracted national attention. Or money. But this year’s presidential contest could be close, and the Republicans are defending a slim advantage in the Senate. (The balance is 51 Republicans to 48 Democrats, plus Vermont’s James Jeffords, a Democrat-leaning independent.) “I talk to the White House daily,” says Topinka. “Bush is not just going to fly over Illinois. He’s going to campaign here. There will be a lot going on.” Topinka herself has launched a young professionals network and the first Republican registration drive in 30 years, and she promises to have several million dollars in the party kitty by election time.

“You never know what the backlash will be from the Ryan days,” Topinka says. “If there are more indictments and court proceedings, that won’t be good. But the Senate candidate we have will be someone carrying his own water, who isn’t beholden to anyone, and that will help sparkplug the situation for us.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Mike Werner.