CHICAGO | The odds are historically against them, but Illinois' beleaguered Republicans are looking to reverse their fortunes by recruiting help in the heart of enemy territory: Democratic Chicago.
Three days after the end of a legislative session where the Democratic-controlled General Assembly failed to address a number of pressing issues, Republicans announced efforts to revamp their ranks within the city.
Party officials say the push to find state legislative and City Council candidates is "unprecedented" because of its open, "American Idol"-style public vetting process. Illinois House Republican Leader Tom Cross and state Sen. Matt Murphy announced the campaign Tuesday at a news conference.
Republican leaders say Democrats shouldn't assume they have a permanent lock on the city, but they acknowledge the GOP has failed to recruit effective candidates, train them or keep them on the ballot.
In recent election cycles, five or fewer of the 37 state legislative seats located within Chicago have been contested, spokesman Chris Cleveland said.
"Half of success is showing up," said Murphy, a former lieutenant governor candidate and leading budget negotiator in the Statehouse. He called the state's Democratic leadership an "utter failure."
"Just look at last week in Springfield," he said, referencing the Legislature's adjournment last Friday without deals on pensions, gambling and gay marriage. "This could not come at a better time."
Working to even the scales between Democrats and Republicans in Chicago districts is only one potential benefit of the plan, as was evident by the participation of Cross and Murphy, neither of whom hails from or represents Chicago.
Officials said they expect voter turnout among Chicago Republicans to increase by at least 5 percent as a result of the campaign. That could help give Republican candidates an upper hand in statewide races, including the governor's race, which the party narrowly lost in the last election.
Murphy is a former lieutenant governor candidate who could make a bid again in 2014, and Cross is a likely candidate for attorney general.
Adam Robinson, chairman of the Chicago Republican Party, said the effort has a $250,000 operating budget, of which $100,000 has been raised.
An estimated 150,000 Chicago residents who voted Republican in the last general election are targeted. Party officials say potential candidates will be recruited by web ads, before entering a public vetting process and having their campaigns backed by legal representation.
Currently, only one Republican state lawmaker hails from Chicago — state Rep. Michael McAuliffe, who succeeded his late father, Roger, a longtime Republican state representative.
While Cross and Murphy, among others, have called for the party to be more of a "big tent" organization both locally and nationally, Republicans continue to struggle with ways to attract such constituencies as women, minorities and gay voters.
Until that problem is solved, University of Illinois Springfield professor Charlie Wheeler said, the new recruitment campaign may be futile.
"The basic problem Republicans have is that they're wedded to ideas that don't appeal to the demographics in the city," Wheeler said. "All you've got to do is look at the demographics and realize that unless Republicans find a way to appeal to those groups, they are not going to do very well."