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Illinois State Fair is back — but not all shake-ups will be lemon: Delta surge cools some pols’ plans

Like corn dogs, lemon shake-ups and the butter cow, Governor’s Day and Republican Day are traditions at the annual fair in Springfield. But Gov. J.B. Pritzker is already scaling back some of his plans.

Gov. J.B. Pritzker waves while walking in the Illinois State Fair’s Twilight Parade in Springfield in 2019.
Gov. J.B. Pritzker waves while walking in the Illinois State Fair’s Twilight Parade in Springfield in 2019.
Ted Schurter/The State Journal-Register via AP

The Illinois State Fair is back after a pandemic-induced hiatus last year, but the deadly virus — and a new, highly contagious variant — is already shaking up plans for politicos who use the event as an unofficial kick-off to the campaign season.

Though the fair begins Thursday, the political fireworks — or lack of them — will likely come next Wednesday on Governor’s Day and the following day, which is Republican Day.

Like lemon shakeups, corn dogs and the butter cow, the two politically themed days are traditions at the fair with events held on the fairgrounds and spilling over into downtown Springfield.

But a spokeswoman for Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s campaign said Wednesday that the Democratic governor won’t attend the Illinois Democratic County Chairs’ Association’s indoor brunch on Governor’s Day at the fair, citing concerns around the Delta variant.

The brunch, which is in its 34th year, is a traditional rallying place for Democrats from around the state.

Then Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate Barack Obama, left, is surrounded by supporters hoping to get an autograph or shake his hand during Democrat Day at the Illinois State Fair in 2004.
Then Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate Barack Obama, left, is surrounded by supporters hoping to get an autograph or shake his hand during Democrat Day at the Illinois State Fair in 2004.
Seth Perlman/AP file

Pritzker plans to host his own get-together for Democrats at noon on Governor’s Day on the Director’s Lawn on the fairgrounds, a campaign spokeswoman said.

Outdoor afternoon political pep rallies are other mainstays of both parties on their respective days at the fair, but it’s still unclear how much the governor’s event will resemble past versions — which typically feature a slew of speeches from office-holders, candidates and other party figures.

“It’s a little more scaled back ... since the brunch is indoors and we’re trying to be very cautious,” Ronja Abel, Pritzker’s spokeswoman said of the governor’s event.

U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin is surrounded by Illinois Democrats as he leads a rally during Democratic Day at the Illinois State Fair in 2001.
U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin is surrounded by Illinois Democrats as he leads a rally during Democratic Day at the Illinois State Fair in 2001.
Seth Perlman/AP file

Abel said the governor’s team will have more details on the get-together and its guest list, “soon.” She did not respond to request for comment about whether or not Pritzker will attend the indoor brunch virtually.

In a statement, Kristina Zahorik, president of the Illinois Democratic County Chairs Association, said the hybrid gathering will still convene to “celebrate the party’s efforts to Build Back Better in a way that is safe and follows the science.

“While we respect the Governor and other Democrats’ decision not to join the event in person, we’d remind individuals that they can participate in our activities virtually,” Zahorik said. “We hope the Governor takes part in the Brunch virtually or sends a video to address the thousands of grassroots Democrats who will be watching, attending, and supporting his reelection.”

Gov. JB Pritzker and first lady MK Pritzker, left, unveil the 2021 Butter Cow at the Illinois State Fairgrounds on Wednesday.
Gov. JB Pritzker and first lady MK Pritzker, left, unveil the 2021 Butter Cow by sculptor Sarah Pratt in the Dairy Building at the Illinois State Fairgrounds as they mark the 100th anniversary of of the Butter Cow at the Illinois State Fair on Wednesday.
Justin L. Fowler/The State Journal-Register via AP

State Senate President Don Harmon plans to attend and speak at the brunch, but a spokesman for the Senate Democratic leader didn’t respond to a question about whether the Oak Park Democrat will attend Pritzker’s event.

Illinois House Speaker Emanuel “Chris” Welch will be out of town, a spokesman for the Hillside Democrat said.

Most candidates running to succeed outgoing Illinois Secretary of State Jesse White still plan to attend the county chairs’ brunch as well as host other events.

Ald. David Moore (17th) plans to attend the brunch, a VIP meeting beforehand as well as events Tuesday night, a spokeswoman said.

“We’re not going to pass up an opportunity of being downstate and meeting additional people,” Delmarie Cobb said.

Ald. David Moore (17th), left, in June of 2020; Ald. Pat Dowell (3rd), center, in 2019; City Clerk Anna M. Valencia, right, in 2018. 
Ald. David Moore (17th), left, in June of 2020; Ald. Pat Dowell (3rd), center, in 2019; City Clerk Anna M. Valencia, right, in 2018.
Ashlee Rezin Garcia; Rich Hein/Sun-Times file

Cobb said the campaign feels the measures the county chairs’ association has taken to try to mitigate the spread of the virus are “satisfactory at this point, and they’ve been very vigilant about making sure that they are flexible and responsive.”

Chicago City Clerk Anna Valencia will attend the brunch and give a speech, and plans to host a fundraiser the night before headlined by U.S. Sen. Tammy Duckworth.

Ald. Pat Dowell (3rd) will also attend the brunch as well as other events Tuesday night, her spokesman said.

Then Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Alexi Giannoulias speaks during a rally on Democrats Day at the Illinois State Fair in 2010.
Then Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Alexi Giannoulias speaks during a rally on Democrats Day at the Illinois State Fair in 2010.
Seth Perlman/AP file

The remaining Democratic candidate for secretary of state — former Illinois Treasurer Alexi Giannoulias — plans to host a free, campaign event next Tuesday at a craft beer brewery in downtown Springfield, an event that will largely be outside and will follow protocols on masking, a spokeswoman said. She didn’t provide any details on his plans for Governor’s Day.

The following day, the state’s Republicans will rally outdoors at noon on the Director’s Lawn of the Illinois State Fairgrounds.

Speakers for the roughly hour and a half program that day will include Illinois Republican Party Chairman Don Tracy, Republican National Committee Co-Chairman Tommy Hicks and Committeeman Richard Porter as well as the General Assembly’s Republican leaders, House GOP Leader Jim Durkin of Western Springs, and Senate Republican Leader Dan McConchie of Hawthorn Woods.

U.S. Rep. Rodney Davis, R-Ill., addresses the crowd at the Illinois State Fair in Springfield in 2019.
U.S. Rep. Rodney Davis, R-Ill., addresses the crowd at the Illinois State Fair in Springfield in 2019.
Justin L. Fowler / The State Journal-Register

Republican U.S. Representatives Darin LaHood, Rodney Davis, and Mary Miller are also planning to attend.

Davis, considered a potential candidate for governor, is also expecting to attend a breakfast that day with members of the Republican Party’s state central committee and the party’s county chairs’ association, where he’ll deliver a speech.

But his spokesman punted when asked if the Taylorville Republican is planning to attend as a candidate for governor.

U.S. Rep. Darin LaHood, R-Ill., speaks during Republican Day at the Illinois State Fair in 2019.
U.S. Rep. Darin LaHood, R-Ill., gets a standing ovation from the crowd as he takes the podium during Republican Day at the Illinois State Fair in 2019.
Justin L. Fowler/The State Journal-Register via AP file

“His intent and preference is to run for Congress again, but at end of the day it depends on the political landscape that the Democrats give him based on however they approach redistricting,” Aaron DeGroot said.

Regional Transportation Authority Chair Kirk Dillard, who said last week he was weighing a third run for governor, said if he goes to the Republican Party’s event he’ll just be an observer.

Republicans who’ve already announced their plans to try to unseat Pritzker will also be present.

Suburban businessman Gary Rabine, left, in March; State Sen. Darren Bailey, R-Xenia, center; former state Sen. Paul Schimpf, right.
Suburban businessman Gary Rabine, left, in March; State Sen. Darren Bailey, R-Xenia, center; former state Sen. Paul Schimpf, right.
Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times file; Facebook

State Sen. Darren Bailey, R-Xenia, plans to attend Republican events Wednesday night, the Republican Party chairman’s breakfast on Thursday and Republican Day at the fair.

Suburban businessman Gary Rabine will also attend Republican Day events, his spokesman said.

Former state Sen. Paul Schimpf, of Waterloo, said he’ll walk in the Illinois State Fair Twilight Parade on Thursday. He’ll also attend Republican Day and may host something informal for supporters of his gubernatorial bid, though details are still being worked out.