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Illinois Republican Chairman Don Tracy resigns just weeks before RNC in Milwaukee

Rick Pearson, Chicago Tribune on

Published in News & Features

Embattled Illinois state GOP Chairman Don Tracy resigned Wednesday, ending his more than three-year run and furthering a chaotic period of leadership for a political organization bordering on irrelevancy just weeks before Republicans gather in nearby Milwaukee to renominate former President Donald Trump at their national convention.

Tracy’s resignation comes just two days after Illinois Republican leaders deposed Mark Shaw of Lake Forest as the state GOP’s vice chair over controversies stemming from his unsuccessful effort at last month’s state convention to leverage his party position and role as a paid Trump adviser into the post of Republican National Committeeman from Illinois.

In his resignation letter, Tracy said his decision was in part because he spent more time dealing with infighting among fellow Republicans than fighting Democrats.

“When I took on this full-time volunteer job in February, 2021, I thought I would be spending most of my time fighting Democrats, helping elect Republicans, raising money to pay for more Party infrastructure, and advocating for Party unity. Unfortunately, however, I have had to spend far too much time dealing with intraparty power struggles, and local intraparty animosities that continued after primaries and County Chair elections,” Tracy wrote in the letter.

“In better days, Illinois Republicans came together after tough intraparty elections,” Tracy continued. “Now however, we have Republicans who would rather fight other Republicans than engage in the harder work of defeating incumbent Democrats by convincing swing voters to vote Republican.”

Tracy said his resignation was effective upon the election of a new chairman or “no later than July 19,” which is the day after the Republican National Convention ends. He authorized a three-member committee to search for his replacement.

Tracy held the party chairmanship since February 2021. An attorney from Springfield and a co-owner of his family’s wealthy food distribution business, he was narrowly elected by a moderate coalition of the Republican State Central Committee over Shaw to replace then-GOP Gov. Bruce Rauner’s handpicked chairman, Tim Schneider, who Shaw helped push out.

Tracy was chosen as the first state Republican chairman from outside the Chicago area since 1988. Though previously an unsuccessful candidate for lieutenant governor in 2014, he was viewed as coming from the donor class of the party rather than having a strong background in rank-and-file political organizing.

That image proved to be his downfall as the GOP suffered continued political losses that led Democrats to control all three branches of state government and saw its suburban base sharply eroded in the populous collar counties. Republicans have lost a sizable share of suburban residents as the party that once embraced fiscal conservatism and social moderation has shifted sharply to more social conservatism and moved the GOP’s geographic base to less-populated rural downstate Illinois.

Tracy failed to find ways to harness the rural populism that was an outgrowth of Trump’s dominance of the party. He also didn’t help party candidates distance themselves from Trump’s unpopularity in the suburbs, the region which has traditionally been the key for Republican success statewide.

Ultimately, it was the controversies that engulfed Shaw at the state GOP convention in Collinsville that led to Tracy’s resignation.

Shaw obtained an unauthorized delegate badge that entitled him to vote for himself for national committeeman, but he was twice rejected for the post by an overwhelming floor vote of delegates.

Urged to drop out of the national committeeman’s race, Shaw later acknowledged he threatened to kick the “ass” of another state central committee member. Shaw also faced criticism for handing out drink tickets promoting his own RNC candidacy to a hospitality room dedicated to pushing support for Trump.

 

With various Republican county chairs and state central committee members urging Tracy to remove Shaw from the vice chairmanship, Tracy took no public position and said he was powerless to force Shaw out. Critics said that made Tracy look weak and they also accused him of siding with Shaw by questioning whether he was being treated unfairly.

In his letter, Tracy said the sacking of Shaw was “without due process” and “portends a direction of the state party I am not comfortable with.”

Tracy’s handling of the Shaw controversies reopened long-standing concerns about Tracy’s leadership abilities after having survived a “no confidence” test among state central committee members in May of last year.

In his letter, Tracy said his decision to resign had been made prior to a Tribune article detailing concerns from party insiders about his leadership.

But he erroneously wrote that “no one from the Tribune called me about this article, which I did not learn of until (Wednesday) morning.”

A state GOP spokesman said Tuesday that Tracy “can’t chat today” to respond to a Tribune inquiry about party leadership moves.

Tracy also had faced criticism as an inadequate spokesman for the state party, often dodging reporters at GOP events and, when speaking to them, repeating national Republican talking points rather than addressing the substance of questions.

A similar pattern was evident at state central committee meetings, said one source familiar with the inner working of party matters. The source said Tracy showed up “literally” reading from a script and, if something happened off-script, he would “have to take a break.”

Even before Tracy’s announcement, efforts to replace him had been brewing. Two potential successors who have been frequently mentioned are Aaron Del Mar, a former Cook County GOP chair from Palatine, and state Sen. Jason Plummer of Edwardsville. Both are members of the state central committee.

In addition to Tracy’s resignation and Shaw’s ouster as vice chair, the state GOP’s finance chairman, suburban businessman Vince Kolber, stepped down following last month’s state convention. Kolber finished third for national committeeman, a post that eventually went to Dean White, a businessman from St. Charles.

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©2024 Chicago Tribune. Visit chicagotribune.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

 

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