After Election Losses, Illinois Republicans Pick New State Senate and House Leaders

A red wave may not have materialized on Tuesday as polls predicted and the GOP had hoped, but election currents swept in changes across the top ranks of the Illinois General Assembly.

A week after the election, Republican members of the legislature on Tuesday night selected new leaders. House members chose state Rep. Tony McCombie of Savanna as the new minority leader, and senators elected state Sen. John Curran of Downers Grove as their new leader, replacing, respectively, Jim Durkin and Dan McConchie. 

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McCombie and Curran will formally take on their new roles during a pro-forma election on Jan. 11 that’s part of the inauguration ceremony for the 103rd General Assembly.

Illinois’ legislative leaders – sometimes referred to as the “four tops” – wield hefty control in Springfield, though Republicans’ slim numbers have diminished the minority leaders’ power and negotiating hands.

McCombie will be the first woman to serve in a top leadership position in the Illinois House. In 2009, Senate Republican Leader Christine Radogno of Western Springs became the first woman to serve in a top leadership post in that chamber. 

Illinois Democrats, who hold the House Speaker’s and Senate President’s gavels, have never elected a woman to lead a caucus.

Durkin, the current House minority leader, has served in the role since 2013. He announced the day after the Nov. 8 election that he would not seek another term in leadership, citing election losses that could see House Democrats pick up five seats.

“I came up short. And I’ve done this job for nine years and I have no regrets,” Durkin said. “I’ve been involved with some amazing pieces of legislation, historic moments in Springfield, but I’m also – at this point – I believe it’s great for me to be able to say goodbye and pass it off to the next generation. We’re bringing in a new set of eyes, new energy.”

Durkin on Tuesday told WTTW News he was “happy” to support McCombie.

“The House Republican Caucus is focused on helping Illinois families by offering common sense solutions to the many problems our state faces,” McCombie said in a statement. “We will be a unified force that will grow our party by sticking to our core values and ending the corruption that has pervaded state government.”

McCombie previously served chair of the House Republicans’ campaign arm and was the mayor of Savanna, near the Iowa border in far northwest Illinois. She was first elected to the House in 2016 by beating incumbent Democratic Rep. Mike Smiddy, which her statement said “taught her what a tough campaign fight is.”

While she has a reputation for conservative leanings, those with knowledge of the internal meeting said McCombie did not receive unanimous support – a sign of the ongoing tension within Republican ranks.

Signs the most right-leaning wing of the House Republican caucus would not support McCombie were apparent last week, when news broke that she had locked enough support to win the job.

Rep. Dan Caulkins, R-Decatur, released a statement Friday bemoaning what he said was “strong arming and media manipulation … the kind of tactics that have produced an apparent permanent minority caucus in the House.”

“The reason the House Republicans are undergoing the process of selecting a new leader is because of glaring deficiencies in the previous leadership of our caucus,” Caulkins said in a press release. “We are not going to advance as a caucus if we perpetuate the same policies and processes that have directly led to the expansion of the super majority Democrats have enjoyed for far too long.”

Republican Reps. Martin McLaughlin of Barrington Hills and Tim Ozinga of Mokena had also tried for the job.

It’s not the only turnover in the House GOP. Most of Durkin’s leadership team will not be returning – David Welter lost in a primary, Avery Bourne’s bid to serve as lieutenant governor was felled when gubernatorial candidate Richard Irvin lost the primary to Darren Bailey, Keith Wheeler lost in the general election, Tom Demmer lost a general election race for treasurer and Dan Brady for secretary of state.

In the Senate, Curran received “unanimous” support, according to a press release announcing his victory.

“I am humbled and honored to have the full support of my Senate Republican colleagues to serve as their new leader in the 103rd General Assembly,” Curran said in a statement. “We stand ready, with our focus directed toward the future, on developing solutions that will address the critical issues facing our state.  We are equally dedicated to growing our ranks, which will give all Illinoisans greater representation and balance in their state government.”    

His predecessor, McConchie, had wanted to remain minority leader, but in a statement wished Curran “the very best as he assumed the helm.”

“Illinois’s problems are not a mystery. While people for years have flocked to states with lower taxes and better standards of living, Illinois’s net population has largely stayed flat. We all know people who have left our state for better environments,” McConchie said. “It is the moral responsibility of the state’s leadership to attempt to address the real systemic problems facing our state so that we once again can become the people magnet we once were. On this point, the Democratic leadership fails miserably while the Senate Republicans stand strong.”

A Senate Democratic insider said Curran’s selection was positive, noting that Curran had worked in bipartisan fashion on measures including a law to combat organized retail thefts.

Curran was sworn into the General Assembly in 2017 and previously served as vice-chair of the DuPage County Board. He was an assistant Cook County state’s attorney who is now in private practice.

Democrats’ top leadership will remain unchanged.

In a private meeting, Senate Democrats on Tuesday night lent support again to President Don Harmon of Oak Park.

“I want to thank my colleagues for their continued support. Our accomplishments in the Senate are a team effort. We head into a new session collectively focused on moving Illinois forward,” Harmon said in a statement.

Harmon was first elected President in January 2020.

House Democrats did not take a vote on Speaker Emanuel “Chris” Welch, but his office on Monday issued notice that he had secured support for a second term.

I’m honored by the trust my colleagues and my neighbors have placed in me, and I’m ready to build on the progress we have made in the past two years,” Welch said in a statement. “We have more work to do– and with a strong, diverse, and talented Democratic Caucus alongside me, I am excited to continue the work Illinoisans have sent us to do.”

Welch was elected speaker in January 2021, after it became clear that the man who’d held the job for all but two years since 1983 – Michael Madigan – no longer had support.

Both Harmon and Welch will lead super-majorities of Democrats, meaning they have enough numbers to pass any type of legislation without a single GOP vote.

Follow Amanda Vinicky on Twitter: @AmandaVinicky

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