Joe Biden’s lightning-fast comeback and the suddenly shrinking Democratic presidential field is setting the stage for a showdown with Bernie Sanders in the March 17 Illinois primary.
Sanders is throwing a spotlight on Illinois: He will rally supporters at 2:30 p.m. Saturday at the Petrillo Music Shell in Grant Park. The expected thousands of Sanders backers in the large venue will be a show of his political muscle in Illinois Biden would have a hard time duplicating.
But big rallies may not matter that much in the coming weeks. The Super Tuesday results showed Biden winning in states where he barely campaigned.
On March 10, Sanders is rallying backers in Rockford at the Coronado Performing Arts Center.
Biden hits Chicago on March 13 for a midday fundraiser and is likely to do public campaign events.
On Wednesday, following a dismal Super Tuesday showing — and seeing no path ahead to accumulate delegates — ex-New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg folded his bid and endorsed Biden. Biden even beat Sen. Elizabeth Warren in Massachusetts, her home state, and she is assessing whether to push forward in the wake of Biden and Sanders growing insurmountable delegate leads.
Former Vice President Biden and Sen. Sanders, the Vermont independent, each have strong roots and relationships in Illinois. Sanders almost beat Hillary Clinton in the 2016 Illinois primary, where she won 79 delegates and Sanders earned 77.
Looking ahead, the operatives I talked to Wednesday gauged that with the new political landscape, neither Biden or Sanders start this phase of the primary with a decisive edge in Illinois.
In some ways their ideological battles mirror local struggles playing out in the past years within the Democratic Illinois family between the establishment and progressive wings.
Following Biden’s Super Tuesday wins — giving him a delegate lead over Sanders — his campaign is “reworking everything with a different mindset,” said Sheila Nix, the top Biden campaign leader in Illinois.
Biden is no longer looking at a catch-up strategy. He’s caught up.
“The landscape is so different this morning,” said Nix, who was Jill Biden’s chief of staff during the Obama administration.
Sanders’ top backer in Illinois is Rep. Jesus “Chuy” Garcia, who is a national surrogate helping turnout the Hispanic vote for him in Nevada and California.
Garcia said he is “optimistic” about a Sanders-Biden contest in Illinois “with the field significantly reduced. It could be said with a race between those two, the ability to choose has been simplified and they will get a brand new chance to make their cases to the voters.”
In 2016, Garcia said Illinois was the state where Sanders won “the highest proportion of African American votes.” Also, in Illinois, “the Latino community has engaged very clearly with the Bernie Sanders campaign” for a long time, Garcia said.
The Sanders Illinois 2016 campaign in a sense never ended; it evolved into new multi-ethnic and multigenerational groups active in local political races — Our Revolution Illinois and Our Revolution Chicago, a group backing Lori Lightfoot in her mayoral race last year.
Sanders has four campaign offices in Chicago with the Illinois headquarters at 606 W. Roosevelt Road — the same building housing his 2016 operation. He also has outposts in Urbana, Carbondale, the Quad Cities and Schaumburg.
Biden comes to Illinois as the favorite of the Democratic political establishment. His delegate slate is packed with party regulars. On Wednesday, he gained the endorsements of Democratic Reps. Mike Quigley, Robin Kelly and Bill Foster. That’s on top of earlier backing from, among other elected officials, Sen. Tammy Duckworth; Secretary of State Jesse White; state Sen. Iris Martinez, the assistant majority leader; Melissa Conyears-Ervin, the city of Chicago Treasurer; and Reps. Brad Schneider and Danny Davis.
The politically potent Chicago Teachers Union is officially neutral in the primary, following both Sanders and Warren coming to Chicago to support their 11-day strike last year. On Wednesday, Sanders got the personal endorsements from the top two CTU leaders, President Jesse Sharkey and Vice President Stacy Davis Gates.
In politics, nothing begets winning like winning, so the Illinois outcome may be influenced by the results of the March 10 Democratic primaries in Idaho, Michigan, Mississippi, Missouri, North Dakota and Washington.
There is also another debate in Phoenix on March 15 — the eleventh in this cycle, but the first time Sanders and Biden likely have the stage to themselves.
Sanders backer Clem Balanoff, chairman of Our Revolution Chicago, said, in Illinois, “We’re hoping to build on what we did in 2016. We’re seeing the same people and the same energy levels that you saw in 2016. When you open up an office, the magic is still there.”