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Republicans Look To Carve New Paths To Victory In Blue Illinois, But GOP Leaders Divided On Message

An attendee at the Illinois Republican Party's annual GOP Day rally at the fairgrounds on Thursday holds a sign supporting State Sen. Darren Bailey (R-Xenia) in his campaign to unseat Democratic Gov. JB Pritzker.
An attendee at the Illinois Republican Party's annual GOP Day rally at the fairgrounds on Thursday holds a sign supporting State Sen. Darren Bailey (R-Xenia) in his campaign to unseat Democratic Gov. JB Pritzker.

Under a hot mid-August sun, Illinois Republicans on Thursday rallied the party faithful during the party’s annual GOP celebration at the Illinois State Fairgrounds in Springfield, assuring conservative attendees that 2022 would be the year the party finally makes strides to gain back power in Springfield.

“I sense that the pendulum is starting to swing our way,” newly minted Illinois GOP Chair Don Tracy told the crowd. “People are saying they’ve had enough. No more tax hikes. No more attacking law enforcement. No more leftist radical agendas and and no more king-like rule by one man shutting down our economy and destroying Illinois’ future.”

Tracy dubbed Democratic Gov. JB Pritzker “King Pritzker,” and said under his leadership, Illinois is “woke and weak,” especially compared with states run by Republican governors during the pandemic. The governor has staked his re-election campaign on his handling of COVID-19, which included mitigations Republicans say hurt businesses and stymied individual liberties.

“Let’s fire Pritzker!” Tracy yelled to attendees, who echoed his call — which also matched the “Fire Pritzker” signs behind him on the small stage — and cheered with the chairman.

The last time a Republican won statewide election was seven years ago, when Bruce Rauner sold himself to voters on his business credentials and libertarian-leaning economic principles, meticulously avoiding social issues — a practice he mostly continued during his term as governor.

But since then, the GOP has faltered, with the “Blue Wave” election cycle in 2018 — which also brought Pritzker to power — erasing gains Republicans made in 2016, and drawing even this past November.

While Rauner consistently declined to evaluate former President Donald Trump or engage much with national politics, those vying to become the next Republican governor have not shied away from some far-right GOP positions, especially those that have galvanized during the COVID-19 pandemic and divisive 2020 election cycle.

However, Republicans must walk a thin line in deep-blue Illinois in order to gain back former GOP strongholds in Chicago’s suburbs that has recently been ceded to Democrats, in addition to attracting the new and more diverse voters whom party leaders said over and over on Thursday they were committed to recruiting.

Three-way contest for governor?

More than one Republican who made speeches during the all-day festivities Thursday, which also includes an annual breakfast meeting of the Illinois GOP’s party infrastructure, sarcastically thanked Pritzker and Democrats who control the General Assembly for moving Illinois’ primary election from its usual mid-March date to June 28 next year. The extra three months, they said, would afford the GOP more time to raise money, knock on doors and sell voters on the party’s platform.

But it also means more time for the field of Republican gubernatorial hopefuls to shape up. Currently, it’s a three-way race between former State Sen. Paul Schimpf (R-Waterloo), suburban businessman Gary Rabine and State Sen. Darren Bailey (R-Xenia), who made a name for himself last year fighting Pritzker’s COVID restrictions through a series of mostly unsuccessful lawsuits.

Bailey, whose giant campaign bus brought T-shirts, signs and stickers that called Pritzker a “tyrant” to the fairgrounds, told reporters earlier in the day that name recognition and “hard work” was his key advantage.

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“You’ve got a track record with me,” Bailey told reporters, characterizing his legal crusade. “Standing up for the people, standing up for freedom that’s being threatened in the state of Illinois right now. People respect that. They have been respecting that.”

Many speeches Thursday criticized Pritzker’s latest mask mandate for schools, implemented earlier this month after COVID’s more transmissible Delta variant set off an uptick in new cases and hospitalizations in Illinois, and has also filled up hospitals and children’s ICU beds in other states. Appeals to the crowd steered clear of vaccine talk, but earlier in the day, the candidates addressed that issue with reporters.

Schimpf is the only candidate who has gotten his COVID shots, though he said he isn’t in favor of government mandates for the vaccine. Bailey refused to say whether he is vaccinated, incorrectly claiming HIPAA laws protect him from having to answer. Earlier this summer, he told a closed-door crowd of Republicans he was not vaccinated.

Rabine repeated falsehoods about the vaccine killing “thousands of people” and contended that because he already had COVID, he believed getting the vaccine would weaken his natural immunity, which is not true.

“The CDC can say what they want,” Rabine replied when told the Centers for Disease Control has advised the opposite. “I listen to scientists all over the world…We shouldn’t demand a vaccine in anybody, in my opinion. It’s my body. It’s my choice.”

Rabine also said he’s hired the team of conservative economist Art Laffer — famous for his theories on supply-side or “trickle-down” economics — to advise his campaign and time in office should he be elected. The candidate declined to identify any particular Laffer-inspired policy he’d implement, but pointed to other states where he said those ideas have made economies more competitive.

In fact, Laffer’s team has actually tried to make inroads in Illinois before, under Rauner. The former governor hired Laffer’s partner, Donna Arduin, as his budget advisor early in his term, but she left the job a couple months into the state’s budget impasse, which would eventually extend two years.

But Rabine said he was a “totally different leader” than Rauner, citing his resume as a “business builder,” which he said means “I’ve got to get along with people.” Rauner, a venture capitalist, famously made enemies within his own party and even came to blows with those in his own office.

Both Rabine and Bailey declined to say whether they believed for certain President Joe Biden had won the presidency in November over Trump, who — nine months later — still contends the election was stolen from him.

“Joe Biden is the president. That’s a moot — We’re looking forward,” Bailey said, mentioning he’s in favor of voting solely on paper ballots and voter ID laws.

Schimpf and his campaign prickle at the suggestion he’s any sort of moderate, and point to the former legislator’s conservative voting record. But he did express worry about those in his party who spend their political capital elevating misinformation and focusing on issues like critical race theory, saying that wing of the party could jeopardize Republicans’ larger goals, including the work of actually governing.

“You win crossover votes by talking about the issues that unite us, not the issues that divide us,” Schimpf told reporters.

Schimpf, Bailey and Rabine were not asked to speak at the afternoon rally at the fairgrounds, a source of tension throughout the day, especially as U.S. Rep. Rodney Davis (R-Ill.) took the stage. Davis for months has been weighing a possible run for governor if Springfield Democrats redraw his 13th congressional district to force him out of office.

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“Hoping to remain in Congress…But it’s not my choice,” Davis told reporters Thursday, referring to Democrats’ control over legislative and congressional maps — the latter of which has not yet been unveiled. “It’s the choice of the corrupt Democrats in Springfield.”

Davis has been vaccinated against COVID and said “it’s clear” vaccines prevent serious infection and death.

“The overwhelming majority — almost every single hospitalization with COVID right now — is in the unvaccinated population,” Davis told reporters, though he claimed the politicization of the issue began with Democrats while Trump was still in office last year as the vaccines were being developed.

Red meat vs. ‘restraint’

In the tightrope walk between throwing red meat at the party’s base and attempting to appeal to disaffected voters, the ILGOP’s messaging under Tracy’s leadership since his February has taken a hard right turn, invoking hot button issues like calling for the ban of critical race theory.

Illinois Republican National Committeeman Richard Porter told the crowd Thursday that teaching about racism in schools is a Democratic ploy to sow division, obliquely referring to the New York Times’ 1619 Project, which examines the ways the U.S. was built with slave labor and traces the history of racism to modern times.

“The reality is slavery was a stain on our history; it’s not our history,” Porter said. “It was wrong and we all know it was wrong. You know how I know it was wrong? Because the Republican party fought to end slavery and bring civil rights to this country. And we should never forget that history. We are the the folks who fight for right and justice. That’s who we are.”

Republican leaders in the legislature, however, angled for a more moderate approach to crafting a party platform, focused on state and kitchen table issues.

Illinois House GOP Leader Jim Durkin (R-Western Springs) said voters’ rejection of Pritzker’s graduated income tax at the ballot box in November, along with the ouster of former Democratic Supreme Court Justice Tom Kilbride, were evidence Republicans’ message can work.

Durkin’s Senate counterpart, Leader Dan McConchie (R-Hawthorn Woods), both hail from suburbia, which has become fertile ground for Democrats in recent years, especially as moderate women have defected from the Republican party in the Trump era. Both their speeches encouraged Republicans to go after female and minority voters.

“We can beat JB Pritzker…finding supporters — ones that we traditionally have not had — who like what we have to say, who like what we stand for,” Durkin told the crowd. “We are spreading that message of this new day in Illinois to independent voters.”

McConchie discouraged attendees from engaging in identity politics — something multiple speakers said was a game for Democrats.

“We have to have ideas,” McConchie said. “This isn’t about personality…We are a party of ideas.”

Both men made their speeches shortly after Sangamon County Circuit Clerk Paul Palazzolo — a longtime figure in Springfield Republican politics — made a series of off-color jokes to kick off the rally, stand-up comedy style.

But there weren’t many laughs from the crowd, many of whom looked visibly uncomfortable as Palazzolo took digs at U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s appearance — “She’s had her face lifted so many times, now every time she crosses her legs, her mouth snaps open” — along with President Joe Biden’s mental state, comparing former California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to Adolf Hitler and taking jabs at Pritzker’s weight.

“In fact, some people say that JB stands for ‘just bacon,’” Palazzolo quipped. “I don’t want to say that the governor’s heavy, but these days all of his infrastructure spending is on belts.”

ILGOP Chair Tracy, who also committed to building a more diverse Republican party, said afterward he doesn’t “like fat jokes and I don’t like facelift jokes. I like good political jokes about Republicans and Democrats.” But he said Palazzolo’s emcee performance “speaks for itself.”

Earlier in the day, Schimpf told reporters that while he’s been “very critical” of Pritzker’s performance as governor, he would “never make it personal.”

“He’s trying to do what he thinks is best for the state,” Schimpf said. “I disagree with him vehemently about that, but you’re never going to see me attack him personally and call him names.”

Former GOP State Sen. Kirk Dillard — who has twice lost races for governor and now serves as chair of the Regional Transportation Authority — made a quiet appearance at the Republican rally, telling reporters he was there as an “observer” as he also weighs whether to jump into the race to unseat Pritzker. Dillard says he’s been approached by GOP leaders and funders who are seeking a moderate to get in the race and set the tone for the party.

Dillard said that if the election were held today, Pritzker would win against the current field, citing the billionaire governor’s deep pockets as just one reason for that assessment.

“I worry that the Republicans — if they run somebody, they’ll run somebody that’s unelectable and you wanna win the general election and govern when you get there,” Dillard said.

As he considers his run, the former protege of moderate Republican governors Jim Edgar and Jim Thompson had a word of advice for others in his party as the GOP seeks to rebuild.

“I would urge all Republicans to always exercise good, thought-out restraint and not make this about personalities,” Dillard said. “It ought to be about positions on issues, not personalities.”

State Reps. Avery Bourne (R-Morrisonville) and Ryan Spain (R-Peoria), both millennial legislators seen as rising stars in the Republican Party, agreed.

“That’s how we win people: talking practically about how our party’s ideas better benefits them down the road, versus the Democratic party,” Bourne said.

Spain condemned Palazzolo’s attempt at comedy earlier in the afternoon.

“We should resist the temptation to make jokes, use over-the-top rhetoric,” he said. “This is really serious business…2022 is the opportunity of our lifetime to deliver change for the state of Illinois and you don’t have to reach for the low blows to do that.”

In addition to focusing less on red meat issues, another Republican lawmaker is hoping to bring nuance back to political discourse in Illinois. State Rep. Mark Batinick (R-Plainfield) on Friday is set to announce a weekly radio show he’ll host at least into the fall.

In an era of politics driven by the incentives of outrage, cable news and social media, Batinick told NPR Illinois he’s excited to be able to delve into issues in a weekly hour-long show he’s named “Policy Nuance with State Representative Mark Batinick.”

“I almost wanted to call it 'Political Self-Destruction with Mark Batinick,'" the Republican joked, acknowledging that discussing policies in detail could make him vulnerable to opposition research in the next campaign cycle. But he said his constituents deserved more than talking points or tweets.

"I think they'll actually appreciate having an elected official that's willing to get boring with them," Batinick said. "I think people would really like competent and boring right now."

Though he said he knows it's turned into a "third rail" for those in his own party, Batinick still claims credit for pushing Pritzker to implement a statewide mask mandate last spring to help slow the spread against COVID-19. His inaugural show next week, which premieres on Joliet radio station WJOL, is dedicating his first show next week to the science of masking.

Copyright 2021 NPR Illinois | 91.9 UIS. To see more, visit NPR Illinois | 91.9 UIS.