SPRINGFIELD — Democrats’ annual Illinois State Fair rally day in Springfield on Wednesday featured all the usual trappings of the affair: a well-attended brunch program in the morning, barbecue and beer out at the state fairgrounds in the afternoon, and antipathy for Republicans throughout.
The GOP will perform that sentiment in reverse during its political day Thursday, but Wednesday was reserved for top Illinois Democrats ginning up the party faithful ahead of Election Day in November. While professional political predictions had for months indicated 2022 would likely be a Republican wave year, Democrats are banking on hugely increased voter engagement after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade earlier this summer.
Though Illinois is a reliably blue state, Gov. JB Pritzker and other Democrats told the hundreds of local party leaders at the Illinois Democratic County Chairs Association brunch that the next 83 days were crucial for increasing voter turnout and energy before the Nov. 8 election. Though voters in reliably blue Illinois won’t determine whether the U.S. House and Senate are returned to Republican hands, they still framed this election season through the lens of national issues, including abortion, voting rights and civil rights for people of color and the LGBT community.
“The lunatic fringe has taken over their party and they’ll say anything, do anything, destroy anything to get elected,” Pritzker told the crowd on Wednesday. “You see, the Donald Trumps and the Darren Baileys of this world want us to feel alone in the struggles that we’re all facing together. They want to distract us into believing that marriage equality, Black history, Disney World and library books are more of a threat to our children than AR-15s.”
Pritzker’s comments came one day after his Republican challenger, State Sen. Darren Bailey (R-Xenia) spoke to a small rally organized by a “parental rights” activist group that earlier this summer called the governor a “groomer” for signing new sex education standards into law. Also on Tuesday, a contentious school board meeting in the wealthy Chicago suburb of Barrington ended with the approval of LGBT-themed books in District 220’s libraries — a loss for activist group Moms 4 Liberty, which had mobilized opponents by likening the literature to pornography.
The governor said he believed in reaching across the aisle “to build a better, less rancorous political climate.” However, Pritzker said, the stakes are too high to not prioritize scoring political victories.
“In the face of what the Supreme Court and radical right wing are trying to do to the fundamental rights of every American, we — the coalition of the sane — owe something better to our children and our grandchildren,” Pritzker said. “We need to win.”
Pritzker, whose out-of-state trips this summer have both raised his national political profile and suspicion of a possible 2024 run for the White House, ran through the list of progressive ideals he said needed protecting from conservatives, who in recent years have co-opted the label “patriot” for their movement.
“Folks, ours is the real patriotism,” Pritzker said. “For free and fair elections. For a constitutional right to reproductive freedom. For a system that makes it easier to vote, not harder.”
Playing the hits and resurrecting Rauner
One of the most repeated names during Democrats’ rally day wasn’t anyone currently on the ballot in Illinois, but rather one-term Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner, whom Pritzker defeated in 2018 amid a “blue wave” election year.
House Speaker Chris Welch (D-Hillside) pointed to a novel legislative candidate recruitment program organized by the Chicago-based libertarian think tank Illinois Policy, whose leaders had ties to Rauner and even briefly ran the former governor’s office after a mass exodus of his original staffers in 2017.
‘We won’t see anyone fighting for the rights of working families because nearly half of [Republican] candidates [for the Illinois House] were recruited by Bruce Rauner’s buddies at the Illinois Policy Institute,” Welch claimed.
Comptroller Susana Mendoza, who frequently locked horns with Rauner during the state’s two-year budget impasse that ended in 2017, invoked the former governor’s name several times during her speeches Wednesday. She recalled the time in 2015 when Rauner froze state funding to the state’s support program for those with autism — on World Autism Day.
“This is who Lord Voldemort, also known as Bruce Rauner, was,” Mendoza said, referring to the villain in the Harry Potter series.
Mendoza boasted about — “metaphorically speaking” — “kick[ing Rauner] in the groin with much joy and pleasure” while he was still in office, and the state’s six credit upgrades in the last year or so, though Illinois still has the lowest credit rating in the nation. Even during the uncertain early days of the pandemic, Mendoza said she was never worried about Illinois’ finances.
“When my colleagues in other states would ask, ‘How do you seem so calm?’ I would say, ‘Well, it’s easy. The worst virus to ever hit Illinois’ finances wasn’t COVID, it was Bruce Rauner and thank God we now have JB Pritzker.”
Mendoza and other Democrats listed accomplishments since Pritzker’s inauguration, including raising Illinois’ minimum wage to $15 an hour in 2025, expanding abortion access in Illinois and passing a major climate and energy law last year — essentially playing the hits for the party faithful.
And elsewhere during Wednesday’s brunch, a three-minute video played a literal hit, underlying Billie Eilish’s breakout 2019 song “Bad Guy” underneath a highlight — or lowlight — reel of Rauner’s time in office.
The video featured a National Review article from 2017 wherein the conservative magazine named him the “worst Republican governor in America” and said “This much is clear: Illinois hardly could do worse.” At that point, the video pans to black and white photos of Bailey overlaid with text that reads, “Meet Darren Bailey. He’s worse,” synching with the part of the chorus in Eilish’s song when she sings, “I’m the bad guy…duh.”
Bailey, his wife Cindy, and his running mate, Stephanie Trussell, have all come under fire this month for recently unearthed social media posts, including homophobic, racist and Islamophobic rhetoric from Cindy Bailey and Trussell. The Pritzker campaign quickly turned a 2017 Facebook Live video from Bailey into an ad featuring the then-legislative candidate’s comparison of abortion to the Holocaust.
The video featured that footage, plus a Facebook Live gaffe from earlier this summer when Bailey said “let’s move on and celebrate freedom” in the hour after a mass shooting at the Highland Park Fourth of July parade, when details about the shooting and its victims were scarce.
Bailey courted former President Donald Trump’s endorsement during the six-way Republican primary, and finally received it the weekend before the June 28 election, delivering him an easy victory despite being way outspent by hedge fund owner Ken Griffin, who backed Aurora Mayor Richard Irvin for the GOP nomination.
But that endorsement isn’t likely to win Bailey many crossover voters — a phenomenon that’s increasingly rare in a polarized political climate anyway, but one that’s required for Republicans to win statewide in Illinois.
Lt. Gov. Juliana Stratton on Wednesday sought to make that obvious in her speech Wednesday, calling Bailey a “Trump-endorsed MAGA extremist” who “will do everything in his power to try to turn back the clock on our progress.”
“Are we gonna let Darren and his extreme MAGA ideology get anywhere near the governor’s office?” Stratton asked the crowd, who in turn roared back, “No.”
Republicans, including Bailey and the conservative GOP operatives who have nearly wrested control of the Illinois Republican Party from the long-running moderate establishment GOP, will have their chance to respond to Democrats’ existential worries on Thursday.