Ahead of first GOP presidential debate, Illinois Republicans tread carefully

In Illinois, many current and former Republicans are steering clear of weighing in on Donald Trump’s absence from Wednesday’s GOP presidential debate in Milwaukee.

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MILWAUKEE, WISCONSIN - AUGUST 22: Supporters of Republican presidential candidate former President Donald Trump carry signs around the Fiserv Forum on Aug. 22 in Milwaukee. Tomorrow eight GOP presidential hopefuls square off in the first GOP debate. Trump will not participate. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

Scott Olson, Getty

MILWAUKEE— Former President Donald Trump’s absence at Wednesday’s first Republican presidential primary debate will loom large over the eight candidates slated to be on stage.

But in Illinois, many current and former Republicans are steering clear of wading into the realities of the national Republican landscape. Some are planning to skip the consequential debate entirely.

“I’m not gonna watch it,” former Illinois Gov. Jim Edgar told the Sun-Times.

Edgar, the moderate Republican governor who served from 1991 to 1999, said he hasn’t given much thought to the debate or the primary race — and plans to go to dinner instead.

The lukewarm response was on full display last week at the Illinois State Fair’s Republican Day festivities, where the state GOP took pains to keep from weighing in on Trump’s fourth criminal indictment. Party chairman Don Tracy instead vowed to rebuild the party by gearing up support in Chicago’s suburbs and embracing early voting and vote-by-mail.

For now, Illinois Republicans are treading cautiously into a presidential election that could once again reshape the party after big 2022 losses. Richard Porter, Illinois National committeeman on the Republican National Committee, arrived in Milwaukee Tuesday to attend the debate but declined to comment. Porter published a column last month urging the GOP to move on from Trump and told the Sun-Times he’s supporting Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ presidential campaign.

Darren Bailey, the far right former state senator who led the state GOP ticket last year as its pick for governor, was given a ticket to the debate but opted not to go.

Bailey, who is challenging incumbent U.S. Rep Mike Bost in southern Illinois’ 12th District, said he sees “no purpose in it.”

“I totally support the fact that President Trump is not going to be there. He’s proven himself. He did the job once. I’m looking forward to him finishing the job in four more years,” Bailey said. “I kind of relegate this to the kids table. Let the rest of the guys hack it out and see who comes in second place. But as for me, I am 150% supporting President Trump and expect that he will be our nominee and he will be our next president.”

Bailey said the Illinois GOP’s silence about Trump is glaring.

“Knowing that he is the solid front-runner, it’s a shame that the party, especially here in Illinois, refuses to get behind that,” Bailey said.

The three Republican members of Congress from Illinois, all endorsed by Trump, have backed Trump’s candidacy — and have bypassed comments on the debate. U.S. Rep. Mary Miller has publicly criticized Trump’s Georgia indictment, calling it an “attack from Biden’s DOJ.”

Miller’s campaign website features three photos with Trump — and she lists “pro-Trump” as one of her platforms.

U.S. Rep. Darin LaHood’s office referred the Sun-Times to comments he made last week at Illinois State Fair events. When asked specifically about Trump’s fourth indictment, LaHood touted faith in the “rule of law.” The congressman also hosted DeSantis at the Peoria-Tazewell County Republican Lincoln Day dinner in April.

Bost called Trump’s latest indictment — conspiracy charges for allegedly trying to steal Georgia’s electoral votes after the 2020 election — a “clear witch hunt,” and told reporters at the Marion County Fair he will continue to support Trump’s candidacy, WJBD reported. He did not respond to requests for comment about the GOP debate.

Jeanne Ives, a former state representative who ran for governor in 2018 and for Congress in 2020, said she’ll be watching for candidates to talk about school choice, the free market and the “rule of law, equal under the law.” She called the indictments against Trump “going after your political opponent on the flimsiest of all flimsiest reasons.”

Brian Gaines, Arrington professor in state politics for the University of Illinois, said the candidates expected at the debate — Doug Burgum, Chris Christie, DeSantis, Nikki Haley, Asa Hutchinson, Mike Pence, Vivek Ramaswamy and Tim Scott — must use their air time wisely and focus on unique policies that will stick out to voters.

But there’s no way to avoid the elephant in the room.

“Donald Trump looms like Gulliver over a field of Lilliputians. I don’t think they can collectively tie him down, in his absence, but each of them desperately needs to create separation from the others as the alternative,” Gaines said. “I think distinctive policy — on China, Ukraine, border security, trade, even impeachment of Merrick Garland — should work better than nuanced position taking on Trump’s indictments.”

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