SPRINGFIELD, Ill. (NEXSTAR) — Illinois Republicans rallied around a battle cry to “Fire Pritzker” in the 2022 elections, but they haven’t come anywhere close to hiring the candidate they’d like to replace him.
“Let’s fire Pritzker,” new ILGOP party chairman Don Tracy said at Republican’s Day at the Illinois State Fair on Thursday. “Under King Pritzker, Illinois is woke and weak.”
Later, when reporters asked who could be the party’s champion to defeat the billionaire incumbent, Tracy said, “It’s early. The primary’s not until June 28th.”
His answer was neither an endorsement nor an outright dismissal of the three candidates who have jumped into the race for governor, but other party organizers and campaign staffers chafed at Tracy’s decision not to allow their candidates on stage to address the crowd.
So far, state senator Darren Bailey (R-Louisville), businessman Gary Rabine, and former state senator Paul Schimpf (R-Waterloo) have launched primary campaigns targeting Pritzker’s use of executive power during the pandemic, but each of them faces significant hurdles before they can claim support of a majority, or even a plurality, of support within the party.
“I think the silent majority is out there,” Bailey said. “We just got to find them.”
“If the election were today, Governor Pritzker would defeat the candidates for governor,” former state senator Kirk Dillard, chair of the Regional Transportation Authority, said on Thursday. “You’ve got to run somebody as a Republican in Illinois who can actually win a general election.”
The Illinois Republican Party is desperate to find a winner. Their party’s nominees haven’t won a statewide election since 2014 when Republican Bruce Rauner ousted incumbent Democrat Pat Quinn. The closest they came to victory in the years that followed was in 2018 when GOP nominee Erika Harold lost to Democrat Kwame Raoul in the race for Attorney General. He beat her by 12% with a margin of more than half a million votes.
Congressman Darin LaHood (R-Illinois 18th District), acknowledged that defeating Governor Pritzker would be a “tough, uphill battle in Illinois.”
“We are going to take back Illinois by taking out the Democrat constitutional officers,” Republican Congressman Rodney Davis (Illinois 13th District) told the crowd of a few hundred Republicans. However, the event didn’t feature a single candidate running for any of those offices.
By contrast, Illinois Democrats stood on the same stage at the fairgrounds the day prior and presented their party faithful with a full slate of incumbent candidates who have already won statewide elections, many of them with campaign coffers flush with cash.
“I never take anything for granted,” Comptroller Susana Mendoza (D-Illinois) said when asked if Democrats are overconfident heading into next year’s election. “That’s the first mistake that you make on your way to losing. And so you always got to run like your back’s against the wall, and you’re gonna have the most popular person in the world running against you.”
The most popular politician in the state, Secretary of State Jesse White, 87, has coasted to comfortable, double-digit re-election every year since 1998. He will not seek re-election next year. His exit from of the most coveted positions in state government has drawn early interest from a field of ambitious Democrats who are already racking up endorsements and campaign donors.
Chicago Alderwoman Pat Dowell, former state treasurer Alexi Giannoulias, Chicago Alderman David Moore, and Chicago City Clerk Anna Valencia, each addressed a crowd of roughly a thousand supporters at the Illinois Democratic County Chairs Association brunch on Wednesday with hopes to replace White. No Republican has officially announced a primary campaign for Secretary of State, though state representative Dan Brady (R-Bloomington) is mulling a run.
Instead of promoting individual campaigns or candidates, Republicans are banking on the political pendulum swinging against Democrats who hold the House and Senate in Springfield, the House and Senate in Washington, D.C., and the executive branches in both capital cities.
“I think [donors] have a lot of remorse over the election,” Tracy said. “Some people might call it Biden buyer’s remorse. They don’t like the ‘defund police’ movement. They don’t like what’s happening in our schools. And they don’t like this crazy leftist Democrat agenda that seems to be overtaken by the progressive liberals.”
Republicans also pointed to electoral victories over a graduated income tax ballot question and the retention of a Democratic state Supreme Court judge in 2020 to buoy their spirits and project a sense of momentum, but unlike the upcoming 2022 races, neither of those contests required Republicans to field a candidate who could attract voters to their cause. They merely had to oppose something without presenting an alternative.
Dillard, who has run in two of the last three GOP primary races and lost, claims Republican donors and party leaders have courted him to try a third time. But as he surveys the field, he sees a gauntlet of candidates with short-term strengths in a GOP primary that could sour into long-term liabilities before next November.
“You have the issue of of President Trump, and how close you are to President Trump in a general election, which could be problematic, especially with suburban women,” Dillard said.
Tracy said he was “neutral” on whether the party’s nominee should rally the far-right pro-Trump base, or lean into the more moderate middle. Bruce Rauner, the last Republican to win statewide in Illinois, was a pro-choice businessman who shunned Trump’s rise within the party.
Democrats used the political events at the Illinois State Fair to test their 2022 messaging, which will likely feature a heavy dose of former President Trump and the January 6th riot at the U.S. Capitol.
“The Illinois Democrats like to nationalize their message,” House GOP leader Durkin said. “You know what? We can do the same.”
Durkin and other Republicans pinned inflation, supply chain shortages, and labor issues on the federal stimulus spending in President Biden’s American Rescue Plan, while Democrats highlighted the benefits of the relief package and GOP opposition to it.
“It wasn’t one Republican vote that sent the resources back to every state, even though they’re taking credit for it,” Illinois Democratic Party Chair and U.S. Rep. Robin Kelly (D-Illinois 2nd District) said, “because their states and their towns and their mayors and governors are getting the resources, too.”
Tracy said he didn’t think the images of insurrection, which are likely to come up in Democratic campaign ads, would cast a shadow over Republicans’ chances to win statewide.
“That was a mistake. It was a bad day,” the party chairman said. “But you know, we’re moving on.”
Congressman LaHood, who represents the second-most Republican district in the state, encouraged GOP voters to take hope in other blue states that have elected Republican governors.
“Vermont, Bernie Sanders home, has a Republican governor,” LaHood said as the crowd cheered. “Massachusetts has a Republican governor. Maryland has a Republican governor. We can have a Republican governor in Illinois if they can have it.”
LaHood left out some telling specifics. He didn’t tell the crowd how those governors — Phil Scott (R-VT), Larry Hogan (R-MD), and Charlie Baker (R-MA) — won their elections by appealing to Independents and Democrats, how cautiously they governed their states during the pandemic, or how fiercely and vocally they opposed the former president.
On January 6th, 2021, Vermont Governor Phil Scott tweeted, “Make no mistake, the President of the United States is responsible for this event.
He said, “President Trump should resign or be removed from office by his Cabinet, or by the Congress.”
Scott and Baker both publicly declared they would not be voting for Mr. Trump before the 2020 election.
Hogan, who enjoys some of the highest approval ratings of any governor in the country along with Baker and Scott, said he would’ve voted to convict former President Trump in the Senate impeachment trial and remove him from office.
If LaHood’s examples offer a blueprint of electoral success in Illinois, then there’s only one Republican member of Congress from Illinois who fits that mold: U.S. Rep. Adam Kinzinger, who voted to impeach former President Trump. He was absent from the political rally at the fairgrounds on Thursday. His aides said he was on duty at his post in the Air Force National Guard.