The Republican Party in Illinois is in terrible shape, what with its last elected governor in the slammer and its inability to hold onto the historically heavily Republican congressional seat vacated this year by former House Speaker Dennis Hastert.

This isn’t to say there aren’t good Republicans in Illinois, but as a political force the party is at best a shadow of what it once was, and many are wondering if things aren’t going to get worse before they get better.

When parties decline in influence and power, things often get worse because they are forced to recruit political neophytes to run in hopeless and even less than hopeless races. In Illinois, the main quality Republicans seem to be looking for in their candidates these days is a hefty personal bank account and a willingness to finance a campaign.

Jim Oberweis, the wealthy investment banker and dairyman who managed to lose the Hastert seat, was just such a candidate. He’s run twice before for statewide office, spent millions in doing so and had failed to get through a primary until he could focus his millions on a single congressional district. This time he was able to buy the primary, but just couldn’t win the special election that followed. He’s now working to get his act together for another run against the fellow who beat him in November.

A candidate’s personal wealth can prove crucial, but only if he or she combines that wealth with an understanding of how to win a campaign and has the experience to handle the issues that have to be handled to actually win voter support. Unfortunately, many self-funders, as they’re known, are heavy on money and a little light on substance.

This may be the case with a young fellow by the name of Steve Greenberg who is running against two-term incumbent Melissa Bean (D) in Phil Crane’s old district. Bean defeated Phil Crane, who has been a friend of mine for 40 years, and I would like to see a Republican retake the seat. Bean would seem to me to be beatable by the right candidate, but that candidate is going to have to go after her on issues that matter.

Instead, Greenberg has launched an effort to demonize Bean for her disagreement with the Bush administration’s decision to support Kosovo’s unilateral declaration of independence from Serbia. He claims that her disagreement on this should be seen as evidence that the woman (who is of Serbian extraction) is “anti-American” and in the pay of a foreign power hostile to the United States.

But Greenberg has gone even further, suggesting that Bean should neither take money from nor associate with Serbian-Americans because they, like Bean, are not to be trusted or treated as loyal Americans. This is, of course, both silly and dangerous. It’s the sort of politics we ought to avoid.

Arabs, Jews, Croats, Greeks and Serbs may have their differences in their native lands, but those who have come here have become Americans and proven their loyalty to this country in more ways than one can count. Whenever I hear someone dismiss a Jewish-American’s concerns about events in the Middle East because “he’s Jewish” or suggest that Muslims are all in league with terrorists, I wonder more about whether the speaker understands just what this country is all about.

No one expects those who come here to forget their heritage or cease caring about the folks they left behind, but what we do expect is that in arguing foreign policy and other questions, they do so from an American perspective. That’s what Jewish-Americans do when they argue that support for Israel is in this nation’s interests, and it is what Serbian-Americans have done in arguing against the road down which Kosovo is traveling.

The fact is that conservative Republicans like former U.N. Ambassador John Bolton and former Secretary of State Larry Eagleburger share the essential position that Greenberg calls un-American. Moreover, concern for the precedent set by the Kosovars has led more than a hundred nations (including Israel) to withhold recognition of the new regime.

Greenberg is a novice and has time to get his campaign back on track. Bean is vulnerable on real issues. She has, for example, tried to portray herself as something other than a knee-jerk Democrat beholden to big labor and left-wing interest groups, but voted to allow labor unions to organize workers without giving them a chance, through a secret ballot, to have a say in whether they want to join up.

It was Newt Gingrich, I think, who suggested that if you can find an 80-percent issue to stand beside, you should do so. In supporting the stripping away of workers’ rights, Melissa Bean is on the wrong side of an 80-percent issue and has opened herself up. For an inexperienced candidate to waste his time on goofy issues he can’t pretend to understand — and thus turn an otherwise vulnerable opponent into a victim of a ham-handed personal attack — makes no sense.

Keene is chairman of The American Conservative Union, whose website can be accessed here.