SPRINGFIELD — The state’s top Republican leaders spoke of strength and unity — and a hefty flow of cash for November elections — on Governor’s Day Wednesday at the Illinois State Fair.
They vowed to go “toe-to-toe” with Democrats to oust the “political machine” crippling the state, amid uncertainty over Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump’s effect on high-stake Illinois races.
And without uttering Trump’s name, or the name of state House Speaker Mike Madigan, Gov. Bruce Rauner — the man who has contributed more than $10 million from his campaign fund to help Republicans gain seats this November and reshape the state’s Republican party — launched an attack on the “machine” he said is ruining the state.
“The machine has pounded with their power in the past. They have outspent us two, three, four-to-one. Not this time. Not this time. We’re going toe-to-toe — and, in fact, we’re going to do better than them,” Rauner said of the well-funded campaigns, which already include TV ads and mailers.
Rauner is in a deep fight for Republican seats in the House and Senate, where Democrats hold a supermajority in both chambers – in the House 71-47 and in the Senate 39-20.
He’s also in a big push for two of his key reforms, term limits — seen as a way to oust Madigan and other longtime Democrats — and a redistricting referendum, which a Cook County judge knocked from November’s ballot last month.
Rauner, whose own fortune helped to fuel his governor’s campaign, continues to push for his reforms, despite a constant battle with state Democratic leaders. Although Rauner didn’t mention Madigan during a Governor’s Day breakfast, party organizers handed out a button featuring a picture of a young Madigan that included the words “career politician since 1971.”
Rauner spoke of a state “taken over by a machine, a political machine that doesn’t care about people,” saying it’s also taken over Chicago, the Democratic Party and the Illinois General Assembly.
“We are going to stand against that machine and we are going to beat that machine,” Rauner said to cheers, saying the machine is behind job losses, lower family incomes and the highest property taxes in America.
At the fairgrounds, U.S. Sen. Mark Kirk spent much of his short speech talking about the inventions that have come out of the state, instead of his campaign against Democratic challenger U.S. Rep. Tammy Duckworth.
But during that speech, a man pointedly held up a Trump-Pence sign, showing a bit of discord among some state Republicans. Kirk has repeatedly disavowed Trump over his rhetoric and his temperament.
There were Trump stickers handed out, and buttons and T-shirts to buy, but many speakers didn’t mention the GOP presidential nominee, including Rauner.
Speaking with reporters before the rally, Kirk reiterated that he’d write-in embattled former CIA director David Petraeus as his choice for president, although he noted write-in votes for people who aren’t candidates won’t count in Illinois.
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Asked about whether his lack of support for Trump might alienate state Republicans, Kirk said the “bad choices” in the top tickets only give more reasons to re-elect him.
“I think right now with such bad choices on the presidency, we’ve got to pick our senator candidate very carefully to make sure the person we send to Washington is the best, pro-Illinois advocate we can get,” Kirk said.
The Trump factor was on the minds of other key state Republicans, too.
State House Republican Leader Jim Durkin spoke of an unprecedented time for Republicans in the state: “The fact is [Democrats have] never had this competition before. They’ve run the state and they don’t like to be challenged, and that’s what’s going on in Springfield.”
But Durkin said Trump might hurt in some races this November, and help in others. And Durkin said he’s still not ready to support the GOP presidential nominee.
“I’m not there yet,” Durkin told reporters. “I want to hear someone talk like a president and act like a president before I vote for one.”
State Senate Republican Leader Christine Radogno warned that a vote against Trump shouldn’t mean a vote against Republicans across the state. And she argued that members of both parties have doubts about their presidential nominees.
“We’d be silly not to say there’s mixed feelings about the top of the ticket. The great news is, though, that the other side has the same problem. I think we’re starting on kind of an even basis here,” Radogno said. “We may have people that love Trump and want to go out there and just vote for him. Our job is to say that’s great but don’t forget the rest of the ticket.”
On her own feelings about Trump, Radogno called her ballot “private,” but vowed that she wouldn’t vote for Hillary Clinton.