As chairman of the Illinois Republican Party, Andy McKenna’s job is to be the optimist, the guy building grassroots support and raising money to lead the party to political victory. It isn’t easy, with a Democratic stranglehold on state politics.

As chairman of the Illinois Republican Party, Andy McKenna’s job is to be the optimist, the guy building grassroots support and raising money to lead the party to political victory. It isn’t easy, with a Democratic stranglehold on state politics.


But the Dec. 9 arrest of Gov. Rod Blagojevich on federal corruption allegations made McKenna’s pitch much stronger. Already, the GOP is trying to capitalize on Blagojevich’s problems to win back some of the control Democrats have taken in recent years.


Here are some questions and answers about McKenna’s political game plan, from an interview conducted Wednesday by The State Journal-Register:


Q: How has the governor’s arrest boosted the GOP’s hopes for 2010?


A: Greatly, McKenna believes.


Republicans were gearing up for a battle over the governor’s seat next year, with Blagojevich’s poll numbers low and no clear successor to him for the Democrats. Now Republicans hope to paint Democrats with the broad brush of ethical and other problems that led to the GOP losing power in 2002, amid Republican Gov. George Ryan’s corruption scandal.


The phrase “Blagojevich Democrats” will become commonplace, McKenna said.


“The 2010 election is going to be a referendum on them,” McKenna said. “They put the state in an ethical cloud, and we really think that’s what voters will contend with in 2010.”


Q: How will the GOP try to link Blagojevich’s problems to other Democrats?


A: Republicans already are criticizing other Democratic leaders, from House Speaker Michael Madigan to Lt. Gov. Pat Quinn, for supporting Blagojevich’s re-election in 2006 even though questions already had been raised about federal probes into his administration.


“They need to be held accountable for it,” McKenna said.


Several top Democrats initially supported an effort to take away Blagojevich’s power to appoint a replacement for Barack Obama in the U.S. Senate and instead have a special election, but then backed away. Republicans see an opportunity to score points there.


“I don’t think there’s any voter in Illinois that missed the point that they reversed tracks simply to save a seat,” McKenna said.


The state budget is in desperate shape, prompting talk of a major tax increase to stop the bleeding. Republicans will claim they’ve warned about a budget crisis coming for years under Blagojevich’s leadership, and now Democrats should be held accountable for not heeding the warnings.


Q: What challenges does the GOP face with this strategy?


A: McKenna acknowledges the Republicans can’t win solely with a “We’re not Rod’s guys” agenda.


Democrats are moving quickly to distance themselves from the governor by impeaching him. And there’s a long time for any image reshaping between now and November 2010.


McKenna thinks voters will see past efforts by Democrats to cut Blagojevich ties.


“It just doesn’t hold water that it was only one guy. These folks have dragged us through a national embarrassment. … Voters get it that that did not have to happen,” McKenna said.


Look for Republicans to try to build a stronger set of candidates than they’ve had in recent elections, following the model set in winning re-election bids by U.S. Reps. Mark Kirk and Peter Roskam.


They’ll pitch themes of ethical reform, fiscal responsibility and transparent government, all while trying to avoid fights over divisive social issues, such as abortion, that have split the party in the past.


“We can’t have a litmus test as we go out and try to put this ticket together and try to recruit candidates,” McKenna said. “For us to be successful, we’ve got to reach more broadly.”


Q: What seats are Republicans shooting for in 2010?


A: McKenna sees opportunities to win the governor’s seat and the U.S. Senate seat to which Roland Burris was appointed by Blagojevich late last month. Legislative seats taken by Democrats in recent elections and even local government and judicial seats will be targeted.


McKenna isn’t talking about top candidates or a detailed set of goals, saying those will come closer to the election. But the change from Democratic control will be the overarching theme.


“We’re very comfortable with our history and the differences we’ve painted, and we think we can go to voters and say we’ve been right all along,” McKenna said.


Ryan Keith can be reached at (217) 788-1518 or ryan.keith@sj-r.com.