Making the presidential decision: Tracking three Illinois GOP voters

March 19, 2012

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(WBEZ/Sam Hudzik)

A McHenry County farmer who's married to a Democrat. A stay-at-home mom active with Downers Grove Republicans. A conservative blogger from Wilmette who identifies with the Tea Party.

Every few weeks for the past three months, I chatted with these GOP voters as they tried to pick a presidential candidate. Here are their stories.

Holding their noses no more

Eva Sorock and I are sitting in the kitchen of the beautiful Wilmette house she shares with her husband, Herb, and their three cats.

"It's a very old house, as Illinois goes. 1931 it was built," Sorock said. "We love it. We love the area. Love the neighborhood."

Eva is 65 and says she's lived a "charmed" life on the North Shore. Her kids are grown, though the family still gets together on Sundays for a lively dinner.

"Even within a relatively conservative little family situation, we have huge [political] arguments. I mean, not arguments, but discussions where people disagree on different things," she said.

Eva was a journalist years ago. These days, she writes a blog called Conservative Brand. She is a Tea Partier, but she says unlike some in the movement, she's been politically involved for years. Eva was on the school board for eight years, and lost some friends as a result.

"I didn't have a huge effect on the school board. I didn't change anything. But I do think it's like a really good example to your children that that's what people have to do in a representative constitutional democracy," she said.

Eva approached her presidential vote this year with that same feeling of responsibility. When I first started talking with her, she felt the front-runners at the time, Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney, were "extremely flawed." This is from December:

"We kind of feel like we've already given in and held our noses and tried for the moderate with McCain, and now in a much more dire situation where the country is...heading in a very bad direction, we're being asked to hold our noses and vote for another moderate that we don't trust," Eva said.

A few weeks later, after Iowa and New Hampshire voted, Eva was still looking for the right conservative. She'd warmed a bit to Gingrich, liked his ability to talk with authority about things like the free market.

Eva praised Rick Santorum for his integrity, but felt this wasn't the right election to focus so strongly on social issues, even ones she agreed with. She was still skeptical of Santorum when we talked in February.

"His personality, it seems horrible that you have to worry about that when people like Nixon got elected, who really had a bad personality," Eva said. "But [Santorum] does come out as kind of a sour puss."

Eva said if the election were held then, she'd probably vote for Gingrich. We'll get to her final decision in just a bit.

Bipartisan in voting, bipartisan in life

First, I want to introduce you to Harry Alten.

"The corn stalks come through here, and those knives down there actually pull it through cause they're rotating, they travel at 16 feet a second and they just keep pulling it through," Harry explained as we looked at a trailer for harvesting field corn.

At the farm he shares with his brother in northern McHenry County, Harry guides me through a maze of equipment. They used to grow specialty crops, everything from onions to sweet peppers to butternut squash. Now they stick to corn and soybeans, and restore antique tractors as a hobby.

Harry is also involved in ag groups like the farm bureau. He calls this his semi-retirement.

"I'm 73 years old and I can't stop now. You know, if I were to sit at home and watch TV all day, I think I'd go nuts," Harry said. "Absolutely nuts."

Harry is a Republican, though he supports Democrats if they're strong on agriculture. This bipartisanship also applies to his marriage.

"[Geri] is a Democrat and I'm a Republican," he said. "I'm a conservative and she's a liberal. She wants to help everybody do everything. From cradle to grave, and I don't think that's right. I think you should earn it."

When we talked in December, Harry was not impressed with any of the candidates, but was leaning toward Romney.

"He's honest, open and sincere," Harry said, noting he has a knack for reading people. "When I used to hire employees, too, first impressions always made it for me."

Still, none of the candidates was giving Harry what he wanted on one issue. Farmers need immigrant labor, he said, and he was disappointed with Republicans' hard line. Then, in mid-January, Harry heard Gingrich talk about a compromise.

"It was, let's say, a qualified answer. It was a start," Harry explained. "It's shifting my mind a little bit [about whether to vote for him]. But he's still got the baggage of his personal life."

"I have looked at Playboy, so I'm not completely moral," Harry said, chuckling. "But, I mean, I just don't understand that morality in a person's life. And I've been married 44 years to the same woman. And I don't mean to judge [Gingrich] morally, but in the back of my mind, I am."

We'll check back with Harry, right after you meet Amy Sejnost Kovacevic.

Not yet buying what they're selling

Amy has been a leader in Young Republicans groups, and is actually on the ballot herself in Downers Grove on Tuesday. She's running for precinct committeeman.

"I got started back in 1984 with my dad," Amy remembered. "I was nine years old, and my dad ran for his first time as Republican Precinct Committeeman here in Downers Grove Township."

She walked door-to-door with him. Amy's 36 now, and is GOP, through and through. She even met her husband at a Republican Party event.

When we started talking three months ago, she was as undecided as could be, genuinely weighed down by the importance of her one vote. In each conversation, she talked about how she needed to do more research on the candidates and how she wished she could roll up all their good qualities into a single super candidate.

"That is the ultimate goal is: Who will be successful in beating Obama?" she said.

It's ballot time

In our final interview, last week, Amy told me Santorum was out, because she worried he wouldn't appeal to moderates in the general election. She narrowed her pick to either Gingrich or Romney, but wouldn't give a final answer.

"I really thought [by] this time, I would have really been sold on a candidate, and I'm just not," she said. "And I'm hearing that from other voters as well."

Our farmer from McHenry County, Harry, is sold on a candidate. Harry last week early-voted for the guy he's been leaning to from the beginning, Romney. Harry said he wants this campaign wrapped up.

"Because right now all they're doing is creating fodder for the Democratic Party. You know, more negative, more negative," he said. "[Democrats] have more ammunition now. And we're providing it."

That's not the way Eva, our Tea Partier from Wilmette, sees it. She wants the fight to continue.

"Well, I'm pretty sure I'm going to vote for Rick Santorum," she said.

Her vote is not that simple, though. She'll pick Santorum for president. But on the vote that matters - delegates to the Republican convention - Eva will vote for those aligned with Gingrich. That's because, she said, they're Tea Partiers, and could raise a ruckus at the convention.

Still, if Romney prevails, Eva will vote for him, though unenthusiastically, against President Obama.

"What I say to my friends that are so gung-ho for Romney. 'You know...say you win, you get out there and fight for this guy. Because, don't ask the Tea Party people, who are actually the worker bees of the conservative movement, don't ask us to...stuff envelopes and walk door to door for a candidate that we were ambivalent about to start with,'" Eva said. "And that's probably what will guarantee Obama wins."

Even though she sounds a touch defeated, Eva said she believes in the American system.

"You know, I'm glad I spent all the time thinking about it, and agonizing over it...and all these regrets about the Mitch Daniels or whatever, Herman Cain, whoever I thought I'd like, you know, it's not really worth dwelling on, because…it wasn't part of the plan in the end," she said.

When I mentioned she sounded like me, a long-suffering Cubs fan, in late September, Eva said, "I know. It's not about winning. It's just about hoping to win."

And that will be our last word. Many thanks to Eva Sorock, Harry Alten and Amy Sejnost Kovacevic for letting us into their heads these past few months. On Tuesday night after the polls close, we'll find out how all the other Illinois Republicans feel.