Illinois Republicans Gear Up to Take On Biden and Pritzker

Democrats had their day in the limelight (or rather the hot summer sun) Wednesday; Thursday was Republicans’ turn to get into campaign mode, with an annual meeting of the Illinois Republican Party’s top leaders and a rally at the state fair.

Republicans began the morning with a relatively small and serious meeting of the Party’s State Central Committee before moving Thursday afternoon to the fairgrounds for beer, a barbecue and a rally.

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The rally had somber moments, as Republicans took time for a prayer and a moment of silence in honor of Chicago police officer Ella French, who was shot and killed earlier this month during a traffic stop. French’s funeral was Wednesday.

But at the start, the event’s master of ceremonies was seemingly trying to keep things light by getting the crowd going with a comedy routine.

“Did you hear about Arnold Schwarzenegger telling us to screw our freedoms? Am I the only one who sees a problem with those words coming from a charismatic politician originally from Austria?” said Sangamon County Circuit Clerk and Sangamon County Republican State Central Committee member Paul Palazzolo.

Of U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi: “She’s had her face lifted so many times now every time she crosses her leg her mouth snaps open. Although she’s a little upset right now. Last week a Peeping Tom threw up on her windowsill.”

And of Democratic Gov. J.B. Pritzker: “Some people say that J.B. stands for ‘just bacon.’ Now with these jokes I don’t want to say that the governor’s heavy, but these days all of his infrastructure spending is on belts.”

While some of the crowd laughed, other Republicans complained they found the attempt at standup distasteful, misogynistic and unhelpful as they’re trying to win back control – an imbalance emblematic of a chasm in the party between conservatives and moderates.

U.S. Rep. Darin LaHood of the Peoria-area laid out his vision for what would happen in Washington if the White House and Congress were in GOP hands:

Ban race theory, implement patriotic education to teach children to “love American,” continue building a wall at the Southern U.S. border and hire 100,000 police officers “to support law and order.”

“And we have an obligation to go after big tech,” he said. ‘How ironic is it that the leader of the Taliban has a Twitter account and President Trump doesn’t? Absolutely irresponsible to let these tech companies continue what they’re doing.”

Even with congressional district boundaries as-yet undecided, Illinois Republicans hope to turn the tide in Washington by winning competitive districts in central Illinois that are currently blue; LaHood gave a shoutout to Esther Joy King, who narrowly lost last November to retiring 17th District Democratic U.S. Rep. Cheri Bustos.

Another big priority: Winning back the governor’s mansion.

Or, as the relatively new Chair of the Illinois Republican Party Don Tracy put it, saving Illinois from “King Pritzker” and the “drunk with power liberals who control his agenda.”

“Under King Pritzker Illinois is woke and weak and falling behind states governed by Republican governors,” Tracy said.

Despite Tracy saying “firing” Pritzker is the first item on the agenda, the trio of candidates so far in the running for the chance to take on Pritzker didn’t get a spot on the rally stage to make their case to highly engaged voters.

Tracy says there wasn’t time at the rally. And he says, there is plenty of time until the primary because Democrats passed a law pushing the primary back about four months, to next June 28, meaning the contest is still some 313 days away. 

The gubernatorial candidates did get to speak at the smaller morning meeting, and reporters caught up with them after that.

Sen. Darren Bailey is a crowd favorite. He’s made a name for himself filing lawsuits against COVID-19 restrictions, but he said he’s not anti-vax or anti-mask; he’s “pro freedom.” 

Bailey, who actively campaigns indoors with crowds maskless, will not say whether he’s been vaccinated for COVID-19.

“If people are concerned, they wear a mask, they stay home. This is a free country,” he said when asked whether that presents a public health issue as he’s on the campaign trail.

Bailey, who served one term in the Illinois House before last year winning election to the state Senate, said that he’s a God-loving farmer who is resonating with people because they’re ready for change.

Suburban business owner Gary Rabine also says he’s not anti-vax, though he is not vaccinated. The Centers for Disease Control encourages those, like Rabine, to get the vaccine after they’ve recovered from COVID-19, Rabine said he has not because he has the antibodies.

“The CDC can say what they want, I listen to scientists all over the world and I believe this: To demand a vaccine in anybody, I think is wrong,” Rabine said.

He’s also breaking with CDC and prominent research by standing by the notion that the vaccine is behind thousands of deaths.

Rabine said he’s unsure how much of his personal wealth he’ll put into his campaign, but said he is not like former GOP Gov. Bruce Rauner, an uber-rich private equity investor who self-financed his campaigns and lost a term after a budget shutdown that critics say was caused by Rauner’s stubborn unwillingness to negotiate.

“I’ve been building businesses from nothing for the last 40 years. I’m a business builder so I’ve got to get along with people, I’ve got to reach across the table,” he said. “I’m not a private equities guy that has leverages on businesses that I might buy. I’m a person that has to build relationships with trust to get things done and that’s a big difference.”

Former marine and former Sen. Paul Schimpf takes another view on COVID-19 public health measures.

“Getting everybody that can take the vaccine vaccinated, I think that’s how we finally move past this. So I am vaccinated and I encourage people to get vaccinated,” he said.

Schimpf says he’s against state vaccine and mask mandates, though — he’s pushing a Parents Bill of Rights, and said the choice should be left to families to make.

He said the coronavirus is different from vaccinations for diseases like polio and the measles, in which children are at severe risk.

Schimpf is also critical of Pritzker for implementing mandates without working in a “transparent” fashion with the legislature.

“A lot of times the mask mandate proponents compare it to seat belt laws, but when they do that, they’re missing the forest through the trees,” Schimpf said. “Because we have seat belt laws. Those are laws that passed through the General Assembly, they weren’t something that was mandated just by executive order or administrative fiat.”

One Republican who previously came up short in his bid to be governor, former state senator and current Regional Transportation Administration Chair Kirk Dillard said of the primary field, “If the election were today, Gov. Pritzker would defeat the candidates for governor.”

Dillard said Pritzker has “unbelievable amounts” of money to spend on his ‘22 reelection, which leaves the Republican candidates at a disadvantage.

He also hinted that positions that may be popular in a GOP primary will cause issues for Bailey, Rabine and Schimpf in a general election, and particularly with people of color.

“The candidates that are running have to do well in the suburbs, that’s going to be the key battleground. The Republican Party has to, has to, have an ability to win back suburban women. We need to get far more Latino votes than we’ve captured in Illinois lately. Clearly, we need to have an immense amount of help in the Black community,” Dillard said. “And then with the new census, the Asian community is massive in places like Naperville, in my backyard, there are literally tens of thousands of Chinese Americans who need to get out and participate in the American political process.”

It’s widely expected the field isn’t yet settled.

Dillard himself is contemplating a run; he says business executives are pushing him to.

Republican U.S. Rep. Rodney Davis has not ruled out a bid.

Others could still enter and with the delayed primary, they’ve got time.

Cook County Commissioner Sean Morrison said that while Democrats may have thought moving back the primary gave them the advantage, he said it’s more advantageous to the Republican Party, because it gives the GOP more “runway” to recruit, organize and most of all, fundraise.

Follow Amanda Vinicky on Twitter: @AmandaVinicky

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