A Republican state rep who gave party leaders fits looks to move up

Rep. David McSweeney likely will run for the U.S. Senate or secretary of state.

SHARE A Republican state rep who gave party leaders fits looks to move up
State Rep. David McSweeney, R-Barrington

State Rep. David McSweeney, a Republican from Barrington, has announced he will not run for reelection.

Seth Perlman/AP

Rep. David McSweeney (R-Barrington Hills) announced last week that he will not seek reelection.

Instead, he said, he’ll likely be making a 2022 statewide bid for either the U.S. Senate against Sen. Tammy Duckworth or secretary of state if Jesse White retires. 

He may not be a household name, but McSweeney has been a huge thorn in the state Republican leadership’s side since he first ran for the Illinois House in the 2012 primary. 

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He took on Rep. Kent Gaffney, who had been the House Republicans’ appropriations director for a decade and was appointed to the seat after the untimely 2011 death of Republican Rep. Mark Beaubien. McSweeney at one point during the campaign claimed House Republican staff had violated the law by doing political work on state time and tried hard to get Gaffney kicked off the ballot.

He won a three-way primary and then went on to defeat Beaubien’s widow, who ran as an independent in the general election. 

In other words, McSweeney did not arrive in Springfield well liked by the people who ran his own party. And he hasn’t tried to ingratiate himself with them at any point since then. 

He refused to attend House Republican caucus meetings and eventually became one of the most outspoken Republican critics of Gov. Bruce Rauner. He became a go-to person for reporters needing anti-Rauner quotes.

He basically served the same purpose as former Democratic state Rep. Jack Franks, who built up his name recognition by regularly slamming Democratic governors and was beloved by political reporters and now chairs the McHenry County Board. McSweeney’s district includes part of McHenry County, and Franks and McSweeney have worked together over the years to pass various local government-related bills.

After Rauner lost his re-election bid, McSweeney turned his fire on his own House Republican Leader, Jim Durkin. He has called Durkin corrupt, said he was an anti-Trump “RINO” (Republican in name only) and called on him to resign. Durkin retaliated by yanking staff support on two separate occasions. McSweeney kept his name in the papers.

McSweeney is an information sponge. He is super-smart and makes it his business to constantly find out what is going on in this state’s politics and governance. 

He immediately sought out many of Springfield’s old hands after taking office and pumped them for every bit of advice and insight he could get. Those relationships, combined with his outspoken critiques of his own party helped him pass a lot of bills through the Democratic-controlled House, and also probably helped keep him safe from any serious general election challenges. 

McSweeney’s far northwest suburban district is somewhat odd. It once was represented by conservative firebrand and trial lawyer Al Salvi, who left to run for the U.S. Senate. Rep. Beaubien was a pro-choice liberal Republican. Gaffney was somewhat more conservative than his mentor Beaubien, but definitely was to the left of McSweeney, who is hard-right on taxation and social issues.

The 52nd District was long considered a Republican bastion, except for the usual Jesse White wins (the popular pol routinely wins most legislative districts and won every single county in 2002). Republican Mitt Romney defeated President Barack Obama by 10 points in the district in the 2012 election. 

But President Donald Trump, who had problems everywhere in suburbia, won McSweeney’s district by a mere 1.6 percentage points in 2016. And then Democratic Comptroller Susana Mendoza won it last year by 2 points. Trump isn’t doing much to improve his popularity in the suburbs, so 2020 could be even worse for Republicans in that part of the world.

McSweeney has sharply criticized Gov. J.B. Pritzker, so it’s possible that the Democrats might have tried to take him out if he ran again, but it seems unlikely since his dissension in the Republican ranks can be quite useful to their Statehouse purposes. Every time the Democrats advanced one of McSweeney’s bills they drove the other side crazy.

Even so, a warm Democratic body with little party support could’ve forced McSweeney to spend big bucks on his reelection just to be safe, and that money would be better spent on setting himself up for the 2022 statewide contest.

The House Republican operation was completely blindsided (and overjoyed) by McSweeney’s announcement, so they don’t yet have a list of possible candidates. 

But McSweeney’s exit means it’s now quite possible that the district goes into play next year if the Democrats can find the right candidate. That could turn out to be McSweeney’s ultimate revenge on his party. Careful what you wish for.

Rich Miller also publishes Capitol Fax, a daily political newsletter, and CapitolFax.com.

Send letters to: letters@suntimes.com.

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