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Illinois Democrats determined to use Trump against Republicans

Illinois Comptroller candidates Democrat Susana Mendoza (center) and Republican Leslie Munger (right), the incumbent, are shown earlier this month during a debate on “Chicago Tonight.” Mendoza, like many Democrats in other Illinois races, is trying to use GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump to attack her opponent. | Sun-Times Media.

WASHINGTON – Even though there is not much of a presidential race in Illinois, Donald Trump looms as an important factor in other state and federal November contests — as well as in GOP Gov. Bruce Rauner’s anticipated 2018 re-election bid.

Democrats have an unprecedented opening in Illinois to use Trump as a foil because he is deeply unpopular, especially in Chicago and its suburbs.

Trump pulled 28 percent in Illinois to 53 percent for Hillary Clinton, according to a poll conducted Sept. 27 – Oct. 2 by the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University-Carbondale.

In Chicago, the survey put Clinton at 67 percent to 19 percent for Trump; in the suburbs, Clinton had 56 percent to Trump’s 25 percent. Downstate deadlocked, with Trump at 40 percent to Clinton’s 39 percent.

A Chicago Sun-Times analysis of the Illinois political landscape shows the extraordinary Trump dynamic manifests itself in various ways:

  • Democratic Illinois leaders who formed an anti-Trump federal super PAC in September – it’s called LIFT, for “Leading Illinois for Tomorrow” — have poured almost $6 million into ads against Rauner between Oct. 11 and Friday. Rauner – who will need Trump-friendly Downstate support for a second term – has never disavowed Trump.
  • Major GOP Illinois donors are investing in races rather than Trump’s White House bid – though the GOP presidential nominee is scheduled to hit the Chicago area on Monday for a fundraiser.
  • Sen. Mark Kirk R-Ill., who withdrew his Trump endorsement with great fanfare and regularly denounces him, finds himself on his own in Illinois because of Trump. In other years, Illinois Republicans have run as a unified ticket with the presidential nominee at the top. Not in 2016.
  • The state comptroller’s race – usually devoid of ideological issues – is embroiled in presidential politics. Comptroller Leslie Munger, a Republican, is being hit by Democratic challenger Susana Mendoza, the Chicago city clerk, for not disavowing Trump.
  • Democrats pounce even when Trump is dumped. In the north suburban 10th Congressional District, Rep. Bob Dold R-Ill., the first elected Republican in the nation to disavow Trump (he did so in December), is the target of anti-Trump attacks from his rival, former Rep. Brad Schneider D-Ill.
  • In the downstate 12th Congressional District, Democratic challenger C.J. Baricevic has been using Trump in his battle to unseat Rep. Mike Bost, R-Ill.
  • Democrats are trying to use Trump to pollute several Illinois General Assembly races, most notably state Sen. Seth Lewis, R-Bartlett, and state Rep. Michael McAuliffe, R-Chicago.

Eric Adelstein, the Chicago based Democratic political consultant, is doing the most anti-Trump-related work in Illinois, with his firm representing LIFT, Mendoza and Schneider.

“While Trump allows for a nationalization of message across races, there are different strategic imperatives,” Adelstein said. “In Congressional and legislative races such as [the 10th Congressional District], the Trump connection energizes Democrats to consolidate and turnout.

“On a statewide basis, when much of the narrative is a proxy fight between the governor and Democrats, Rauner’s support of Trump is deflating to moderate Republicans and independents,” Adelstein said, making a reference to Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan, D-Chicago, who is also chairman of the state Democratic Party.

“The same is true on the comptroller’s race, where voters are looking for courage and principle and refusal to stand up to Trump is viewed as political expediency,” he said.

Former Rep. Brad Schneider, D-Ill., (left) is trying to tie Rep. Bob Dold, R-Ill., to Donald Trump, though Dold was among the first Republicans to distance himself from his party’s presidential nominee. |  File photos
Former Rep. Brad Schneider, D-Ill., (left) is trying to tie Rep. Bob Dold, R-Ill., to Donald Trump, though Dold was among the first Republicans to distance himself from his party’s presidential nominee. | File photos

No Rauner spokesman would comment on LIFT or its impact.

Adelstein said LIFT is determined not to let Rauner have it both ways. “If your opponent doesn’t want to talk about something, it’s usually a good strategy to force them to talk about it and Trump is that thing they don’t want to talk about.”

A Democrat familiar with Trump-related Illinois polling described the Trump factor as potentially depressing “turnout among good GOP constituencies in Illinois, like affluent, white college-educated voters.

“It means that GOP winners must over perform the top of the ticket by 15 points rather than 10. It means the suburbs are in play for statewide candidates and it means that GOP candidates must alienate their base or risk losing the middle, and even then it might not work,” the source said.

In the Downstate 12th House race, “Our polling reflects what national trends have shown, (Trump is) a drag in areas with higher concentrations of college educated voters while (Trump is ) holding his own with non-college white voters,” said Baricevic consultant Tom Bowen.

Trump’s Downstate support is a reason why Munger’s refusal to denounce Trump has been a key attack from Mendoza’s campaign, most recently in a WTTW debate.

“She refuses to denounce Donald Trump, and takes millions from his billionaire buddies,” a Mendoza ad posted on Oct. 20 says. That ad has been viewed more than 277,000 times on YouTube.

But Mendoza herself said she’s not sure how Trump will factor into her race.

“I believe that Illinois is smart enough to under no circumstances actually elect or choose him as our president. I think the polling probably shows that because otherwise Republicans would not be running away from him as quickly as they are,” Mendoza said.

In the Senate race, Democrat Rep. Tammy Duckworth took on Trump in her Democratic national convention speech – “You are not fit to be Commander in Chief” but is not running any paid ads linking Kirk and Trump.

Duckworth has spent much of the campaign sitting on her lead over Kirk.

U.S. Rep. Tammy Duckworth, left, and U.S. Sen. Mark Kirk, right, debate in Springfield. Sun-Times Media.
U.S. Rep. Tammy Duckworth, left, and U.S. Sen. Mark Kirk, right, debate in Springfield. Sun-Times Media.

“The Trump factor is so baked in, there’s not a lot we can do for good or for ill on it,” said Duckworth spokesman Matt McGrath.

Kirk campaign manager Kevin Artl said “It’s not just a Trump factor. It’s a Trump-Hillary factor.” Kirk’s geographic and ideological base are the suburbs – turf he shares with Clinton- and Trump makes it more “challenging” to get his messages out.

Dold and Schneider are battling for the third time in the 10th District, where Trump “has been toxic since the beginning,” said Dold campaign manager James Slepian. Trump’s unfavorable are running at 66 percent in the district.

Dold has been decisive and early in denouncing Trump and “voters are aware of that,” Slepian said.

Schneider is pressing the case anyway. He is running an ad slamming Dold for attending a Lake County GOP September fundraiser to “Beat Hillary at the Distillery.”

As much as Dold has done to distance himself from Trump, he is still a Republican – and the Lake County Republican Central Committee – which Dold supports – is backing Trump.

Schneider spokesman Steve Kirsch said, “Dold is trying to have it both ways.”

At the start of the 2016 campaign season, much of the Illinois Republican establishment donor community threw in with former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush or Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and migrated to others as the primary GOP field shrunk.

Cubs Board member Todd Ricketts, who oversees the GOP wing of the Ricketts family political funds, is running anti-Clinton ads which benefit Trump through a super PAC largely bankrolled by the family.

John Rowe, the Exelon chairman emeritus and a major GOP donor, said he and his wife are “uncomfortable” with Trump and Clinton “and instead we have invested heavily – heavily for us – in the races of House and Senate candidates that we really like. … We are doing everything we can to help maintain the Republican majority in Congress.”

There is some thought that Trump will depress voter turnout throughout Illinois. Said Sen. Dick Durbin D-Ill.: “The honest answer is … we don’t know how many Republicans will stay home.”