Illinois. From an outside perspective, the state’s three decades of uninterrupted support for the Democratic presidential nominee may suggest it’s a bastion of blue. The truth is more complex. In between the blue ripples of Chicago’s Lake Michigan, the purple suburban yard signs of Chicagoland, and the red sunset over the cornfields, there is a conservative collegiate comeback underway in Illinois.
Though a lifetime Illinoisan, I strongly considered immigrating to a more conservative state for my undergraduate education. Ultimately, I chose to attend the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign because I wanted a sea of progressive peers to whet my mind; I was not disappointed.
When a supermajority of your classmates is progressive, connecting with other conservative students becomes a top priority. Like many conservatives my age, Ben Shapiro’s campus lectures were intellectually formative and set my expectations high for the scale of campus politics.
The College Republicans hosted Steven Crowder the semester before I began but were a small organization compared to the well-oiled machine that was the College Democrats. While I have fond memories of conversations and friends from that time, the club lost steam after the campaigning for Governor Bruce Rauner and Congressman Rodney Davis ended in 2018.
Attendance dwindled to single digits and posts at the once active Illinois College Republican Federation were abandoned. The leftover drama between the graduated leadership of the campus College Republicans and Turning Point USA chapters drove a phantom wedge between the conservatives on campus, inciting a collective action problem. The advent of the pandemic in 2020 knocked the movement into life support.
Frustrating may be the best word to describe taking the leadership reins as College Republicans transitioned online. Prohibitions on in-person events throttled our ambition, but it was a sober opportunity to plan the comeback conservatives deserved.
The hunger for conservatism when the campus reopened in 2021 was remarkable. Overnight, the chapter grew from single digits to eighty dues-paying members. We memorialized the Quad on 9/11, debated rival student political groups, and bonded over socials. The pinnacle of our success was hosting former U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions for a campus lecture with three-hundred attendees, the first conservative speaker at Illinois since Crowder in 2018.
This success is attributable to coalition building. I prescribe to the Kirkian perspective that conservatism is an attitude towards life, not a rigid ideology. In our chapter, conservatives of all walks are welcome. Breaking down old barriers and rekindling friendships with TPUSA, YAL, and the newly formed YAF chapter allowed College Republicans to have a far greater impact and elevate to the heights I aspired from the Shapiro lectures.
Progress extended beyond our campus. A dozen College Republican chapters around the state united to charter the Illinois College Republicans, a spiritual successor to the Illinois College Republican Federation. Sharing resources and celebrating each other’s success was key, resulting in notable events including the primary debate between the Republican candidates for IL-13 at the University of Illinois Springfield.
Another crucial point of progress was re-normalizing conservative views on-campus in Illinois. Conservatives need to know they are not alone, and progressive students must be comfortable extending the Overton Window to the Right. We celebrated a friendship with our liberal counterparts, the College Democrats, co-hosting a social outside our public debate.
Our leftist peers did not exhibit the same maturity and grace towards the conservative revival. Our hosting of Attorney General Sessions prompted condemnation from the Illinois Student Government, who demanded we postpone the event and move it off-campus. The event was disrupted by protests from a litany of leftist student groups. Yet, classical liberalism prevailed. Conservatism continued in the professional, tactful, and thoughtful manner we envisioned.
For too long the scales of campus politics in Illinois have been unbalanced. If a conservative comeback is underway in Illinois, it can happen anywhere. But the future of conservatism must be prudent to build coalitions that are both rewarding for the membership and substantive in content.
I graduate in comfort, knowing that the Land of Lincoln is roused to return to the conservatism of its namesake.
The views expressed in this article are the opinion of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Lone Conservative staff.