There’s a lot of political prognostication that Republicans nationally will ride a red wave to tip the balance of the U.S. House and Senate.
In Illinois (where Democrats hold both of the state’s U.S. Senate seats, all statewide executive offices and super-majorities in both chambers of the state legislature), GOP nominee for governor, state Senator and farmer Darren Bailey is hoping to ride in on a tractor.
Bailey and his wife, Cindy, made their grand entrance to a pre-election rally at the state fair on Thursday on a shiny John Deere tractor, where they were greeted by enthusiastic supporters.
Bailey said agriculture is a backbone of Illinois' economy, but that the state is hurting because of Democrats’ policies.
“Our home’s in trouble thanks to fat cat leaders like Joe Biden and J.B. Pritzker. You can’t clear a field of weeds if you don’t pull them out by the roots friends, and the only way to fix Illinois is to fire J.B. Pritzker and get the problem out by the roots,” Bailey said to cheers in his rally speech.
Bailey easily won the GOP nomination in June, getting more than 57% in a crowded field.
Illinois Republican Party chairman Don Tracy said the primary competition was “rough” but the party's now unified, as evidenced by Bailey's top challengers — Aurora Mayor Richard Irvin, businessman Gary Rabine and venture capitalist Jesse Sullivan — having attended a private fundraiser in Springfield Wednesday night.
Their joint goal: to take the governor's mansion from Pritzker.
“(Pritzker) now wants to run for president. Are you kidding me? What a disaster he’s been for Illinois,” Tracy said. “Gov. Pritzker has done nothing to address public corruption, crime or the rising cost of gas and groceries. Governor, how about fixing our state instead of dreaming about the White House?”
Tracy says the GOP used to be considered the party of and for elites, and corporate donors; now he says that's flipped — today’s Republican Party is the party of and for "working families."
And while in the recent past, Republicans didn’t run candidates in dozens of state legislative contests, he said a record number of candidates will be on the ballot this fall — the Illinois House’s political arm is backing 106 candidates, in 118 races.
Illinois will also play a role in determining which party wins control of the U.S. House, with six targeted Congressional seats.
Tracy said for the first time in decades, Republicans also stand a chance to win a majority of seats on the Illinois Supreme Court, based on the outcomes in two key races.
Winning them will require getting swing and independent voters on board.
Senate Republican Leader Dan McConchie charged the crowd of committed Republicans with helping.
“This is what you have to do over the next 80 days,” he said. “J.B. Pritzker's going to dump millions of dollars into TV ads and stuff in the mailboxes and so forth. There is one surefire way to defeat his money. And that is to invite your neighbors, your friends from church, the moderates — even some of those moderate Democrats who used to be Regan Democrats and they left the party — bring them back.”
But there’s a sense among some Republicans that Bailey at the top of the ticket will make winning over moderate, swing voters impossible because, as Pritzker’s campaign puts it, Bailey’s “too extreme” for Illinois, with his anti-abortion views and a long history of controversial social media posts.
While they didn't say anything publicly that was explicitly negative, several prominent Republicans refused to outright endorse Bailey.
When asked directly whether he supports Bailey, House Minority Leader Jim Durkin would only say that he backs the Republican ticket.
Secretary of State Nominee Dan Brady, a longtime state representative from Bloomington, said the media is focusing on his stance on Bailey and President Donald Trump, when the concentration should be on issues that relate to running the secretary of state’s office.
“What I see in my particular race for Secretary of State is that people want to improve services in the Secretary of State’s office, cut wait times, improve technology. And those are the things I’m talking about. And nobody’s talking about my voting record except you folks,” Brady said.
Durkin said voters will make their choices on individual candidates, driven by pocketbook issues like inflation.
But the media isn’t alone in concentrating on the Trump factor.
Illinois’ Republican National Committeewoman, Demetra Demonte, called the FBI retrieval of classified documents from President Donald Trump’s Mar-A-Lago estate an "unprecedented weaponization of law enforcement against its political opponents."
“This is not the first time President Trump, Republicans and conservatives have been unfairly targeted by the D.O.J. and the F.B.I. We need to know why this unprecedented action was taken, we need facts, we need the affidavit, we need transparency, we need accountability and we need it now,” she said.
Demonte said she’s encouraged about Republicans’ prospects in the fall, because support and campaign contributions have increased since the raid.
Republicans are also working to win over voters frustrated with crime.
Bailey said during his rally speech that Pritzker has gone so soft on criminals, he's turned Chicago into a "hellhole,” a descriptor he first made headlines with during a primary debate.
When pressed by reporters, Bailey stood by the characterization and said Chicago residents think so too.
“I believe they do, because it’s unsafe. But it’s going to change. Chicagoans deserve better,” Bailey said. “I call it out, friends, and you know that. You realize the first time on that debate stage, that very night, the homeless man — the ‘Walking Man’ in the Loop — he was set on fire.”
In a seeming attempt to needle Bailey and to minimize coverage, the Pritzker campaign Thursday morning put out word that it will participate in only two debates before the November 8 election — one in Chicago, one in Bloomington.
Bailey didn't immediately say whether he'll also partake in those Pritzker chose.
But Bailey said he will debate Pritzker, because, he says "the people of Illinois need to know that he is responsible for the failures of safety, law enforcement, he has destroyed our schools. He’s destroyed our families. He’s destroyed our businesses.”
WTTW, WBEZ and the Chicago Sun-Times partnered and invited both candidates to a jointly produced gubernatorial forum.
Pritzker on Thursday declined, citing a scheduling conflict; Bailey has not responded.
The media organizations have communicated with the campaigns that there’s an option to hold the forum on other dates.
Follow Amanda Vinicky on Twitter: @AmandaVinicky