Illinois Republicans, Democrats focusing on building party up from the bottom

Both parties are jumping into smaller and local races. This is an unprecedented move, but perhaps we’re in unprecedented times.

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Candidate campaign signs outside the Chicago Public Library’s Clearing branch on Feb. 18 in the Clearing neighborhood.

Candidate campaign signs outside the Chicago Public Library’s Clearing branch on Feb. 18 in the Clearing neighborhood.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

Gov. J.B. Pritzker told reporters a few weeks ago that he was concerned about some local school and library board races.

“There are organizations that are anti-LGBTQ, that are racist, they’re anti Muslim, that are supporting candidates for these local boards. And they’re trying to take over at a local level and build up candidates at the local level that they can then run for the state legislature and for other offices.”

Far-right groups like Awake Illinois morphed from fighting school-based COVID mitigations into battling so-called “woke” ideas like Critical Race Theory (which isn’t taught anywhere), sex education and local drag queen story-reading. The group once referred to Pritzker as a “groomer.”

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Awake Illinois claimed last week that they’ve identified more than 70 candidates, although the group’s political committee reported having just $100 in cash in January and it often grossly exaggerates its real-life prowess.

But the environment out there is hot right now, with national activists like Charlie Kirk holding local events and stirring up passions. The Illinois Policy Institute has a private “Parents Union” Facebook group that focuses on school board elections and sharing information and ginning people up as much as possible.

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Local Republican Party organizations are also jumping into races, including in McLean County, which has become a hotbed of radicalization. Palatine’s high school district is also attracting local GOP assistance, where some residents are up in arms about the local school board adopting sex education standards. “Together we can gain a majority on the board and put a stop to the sexualization of children in our schools,” read one recent door-hanger.

When told of local Republican Party support for some of these candidates and asked what he intended to do about it, Pritzker said, “We are supporting candidates that are standing up for freedom.” But with an April 4 election date looming, that plan hadn’t yet been in plain sight.

The plan is now coming into more focus. The Democratic Party of Illinois began by initially looking at 400-some races and then identifying more than 100 what they call “fringe” candidates in 60 different school board districts. All of those districts and most of those candidates will be targeted in what party officials say will be a “robust” campaign.

“It’s going to be very much a voter education program,” explained a Democratic Party of Illinois official. The state party will be “shedding light on the fact that there are candidates supported by these national extremist groups that are on their ballot.”

“We want to make investments that actually have some real effect at spreading the word about these extremist candidates,” the official said.

The party’s preferred candidates will receive on-the-ground help, like “cutting turf” for door-to-door canvassers. But they’ll also receive assistance with their messaging, plus the state party will sponsor or help with direct mail and digital ads, as well as opposition research.

The state party has been working on this plan for weeks and has reached out to local county parties, state central committeepersons, grassroots groups and unions (mainly the teachers unions and AFSCME), not only for help with candidates and identifying the radicals, but also with knowledge of important issues in the targeted districts.

These races are not partisan in the traditional sense because candidates often run on local slates. So, mailers paid for by the Democratic Party of Illinois could generate a backlash. But DPI is saying that they’ll mainly be communicating “to a base audience” of fellow Democrats. The party also says they’ll be deferring to local “partners” on “where to be involved louder than other areas.”

“A lot of these people, this was their first time running for office,” the party official said. While some have political experience, they are “looking for some guidance on how to structure their campaign, what kind of timeline to follow, how to target voters. So, we’re providing them with that sort of campaign expertise.”

Without intervention, the party official said, “We could easily see ourselves electing numerous extremist folks to these positions that have a ton of power.”

“Our values are on the line,” the official claimed.

This is an unprecedented move, but perhaps we’re in unprecedented times. And it’s exactly the sort of thing the governor has been saying for years that the state party should be focusing on: Building the party up from the bottom and focusing resources on much more than legislative and statewide contests.

Rich Miller also publishes Capitol Fax, a daily political newsletter, and CapitolFax.com.

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