SPRINGFIELD, Ill. (NEXSTAR) — He was the last Governor of Illinois who was not either voted out of office, or sent to prison. Now, Jim Edgar, a downstate Republican who left office on his own terms with high approval ratings, is offering advice to the field of GOP hopefuls running for that office; and he’s grading the current incumbent, Democrat J.B. Pritzker, on his first term guiding the state through the pandemic.
“I find the longer I’m out of office, the better they like me,” Edgar quipped.
He was undefeated in statewide elections, winning the Secretary of State’s race twice in 1982 and 1986, and the Governor’s mansion in 1990 and 1994.
“The Republican Party in Illinois was always more of a centralist party,” he said. “That’s why I think we were able to win elections statewide.”
A lot has changed since then. Democrats hold supermajorities in both chambers of the General Assembly, and every statewide office from Governor to Secretary of State to Comptroller. Edgar blames some of his party’s losses on the rise in polarization that turns primary elections into ideological purity contests.
“When I first broke into Republican politics, more Republicans in the legislature were pro-choice than were Democrats,” Edgar recalled about his election to the Illinois House in 1976. “Now, it’s completely… both parties almost require you — especially if you have presidential ambitions — you have to be whatever the party line is. You don’t have really that much discretion for your own thoughts on some of those buzz issues like that.”
Edgar held the governor’s office when Republicans briefly took control of the Illinois House after a Republican wave election in 1994. During that next General Assembly, Edgar, who was pro-choice, signed the Parental Notification Act into law. That new act would require doctors to inform parents when minors sought abortion services for nearly three decades. It remained on the law books until Governor Pritzker signed its repeal this year.
“Well, I was a little surprised because I know the public opinion on that,” Edgar said. “But, you know, there’s concern, I think, at the state level what the Supreme Court might do on the whole question of a woman’s right to choose, and I think there’s a feeling that they have to protect that. I think maybe that was a little too far.”
Edgar referred to recent abortion restrictions passed in Texas and Mississippi that are currently before the U.S. Supreme Court and its 6-3 conservative majority. He says he’s concerned the high court could weaken or overturn Roe vs. Wade, and that would be a “step backwards.” However, he saw the recent move to repeal the parental notification law he signed as another polarizing move that went too far to the left.
“If you look at polling, more people are pro-choice than they are ‘Right to Life.’ But on this issue, most people think parents have a right to know,” he said. “Now, one of the issues is what they talked about this time: we wrestled with trying to put safeguards in there, because there are some times where that notification doesn’t work. And there were safeguards we thought put in there.”
Edgar acknowledges both parties have changed dramatically since he left office, though many of the enduring controversial or divisive issues remain the same.
“I think we’ve had a polarization in society,” Edgar said. “And I lay the blame, to some extent, on the media on that. We have seen a polarization in the media.” He then referred to partisan commentary on national cable news outlets or social media where, “there’s no fact checks on what they say.”
“Today, those biases are reinforced by… they hear their biases all the time,” he said about the general public. “They don’t get challenged on their points of view. They just get it reinforced because they will either watch the TV station they agree with — meaning more national than local — or they go to social media, and they get their information there.”
Edgar believes the increase in polarization and one-party control of the state legislature contributes to a broader sense of disillusion and frustration with the institutions of government.
“People need to be willing to compromise,” he said. “To get things done, you’re not going to get 100% of what you want. So even if you’re the governor and your party’s in control the legislature, you’re still not going to get 100%. So you need to be willing to reach out and, you know, meet people halfway.
“The other reason: If you have policies that are designed as a result of compromise, that means a lot of different points of view are going to be at the table, and that policy is probably going to reflect a lot of different points of view, and I think can be more acceptable to the public.”
Edgar said compromise is a lost art in politics, and it’s costing citizens a sense of belonging in the process.
“I had to remember when I was governor, ‘Now I’m Governor for the entire state.’ And also, you know, ‘I don’t agree with that legislator from the south side of Chicago, but they they come at it from a different background.’ And then, we both might be right, and we both might be wrong, and we got to find that common ground. But unfortunately, today, if you look like you’re willing to compromise, then people think well, ‘You’ve sold out, you have no principles.’ And that’s unfortunate.”
While Edgar suggested Pritzker had gone “a little too far” on social issues like repealing the last anti-abortion law on the books, he held back from criticizing the incumbent governor for how he handled the earlier days of the pandemic.
“As a governor who went through a state disaster that was the biggest natural disaster we’d ever faced in Illinois, you don’t have the luxury of saying, “Let’s have a committee hearing in the Senate or the House and talk over how we’re going to deal with it,” he said. “You got to move quick, and the pandemic was the same way.”
“Yeah, we’re a year-and-a-half in, but a lot of these decisions had to be made very quickly, because nobody knew what the impact was going to be,” he said, adding that he doesn’t fault Pritzker.
“Now, we can have a debate about what we could and couldn’t have done differently. And I think there should be once we’re done with the pandemic,” he said. “I don’t think we’re quite done, though. I think we’re getting close. If people would just get vaccinated, I mean, this thing could be behind us. That’s the thing that just I cannot understand.”
“I mean, I grew up in the era of polio,” Edgar said. “I mean, we rushed as kids down to get vaccinated and they hadn’t tested that thing. But we wanted vaccinated. We didn’t want to get polio. And so I have a hard time today — maybe I’m just too old. I just don’t understand this hesitancy to get vaccinated, but a lot of people haven’t, so we still have the pandemic hanging around.”
“I do think once it’s done — and I hopefully it’ll be done sooner than later — you take a look at what is the right procedure,” he added. “I don’t begrudge some of the things that Governor Pritzker had to do. You never want to have to… That would have been a terrible thing to have to deal with. Saying that, there is no doubt there is fatigue.”
Edgar says Pritzker could be defeated in the upcoming 2022 election, but only if his party picks an electable candidate who can appeal to a statewide audience beyond the primary.
“We saw what happened in Virginia a couple of weeks ago. If that would happen in Illinois, then you’ve got an outside shot at winning the governorship in a state that’s democratic,” he said.
“The party out of power always does better, and there’s no doubt right now President Biden has some real problems,” Edgar said. “Right now, the Republicans have an opportunity in Illinois. The governor’s race is going to be tough, but it’s not impossible. But down the ticket in legislative races, again, particularly in the suburbs, they could pick up some seats if people aren’t scared to death of who they have at the top of the ticket.”
Edgar believes state senator and primary gubernatorial hopeful Darren Bailey (R-Louisville) “has a real problem running in the Chicago area,” noting that the former House Republican “wanted to remove [Chicago] from the state” at one point. He described venture capitalist Jesse Sullivan as “a very bright young man,” but predicted he’ll have “his pluses and minuses” as a first-time candidate who has never held elected office before.
Edgar warned Republican voters against turning their primary contest into a race to embrace former President Trump if they hope to win the race against Governor Pritzker.
“I don’t think that can win in the general election,” he said. “That’s the dilemma the Republicans have. I think it’s gonna be extremely difficult for somebody that is viewed is a strong Trump type to be able to win a general election in Illinois for governor. I think it’s going to take a moderate Republican.”
“I don’t think it’s out of the realm of possibility that a Republican couldn’t win, but it’s going to have to be someone who is not going to scare the people in the middle, and are going to be able to pull over some, as I call it, independent-minded Democrats, or thoughtful Democrats, and do well with independents,” Edgar said. “So in the suburbs is where it’s going to be decided.”