SPRINGFIELD — When Republicans convene in Cleveland beginning Monday to make Donald Trump the party’s official presidential nominee, only a handful of GOP members of the Illinois General Assembly will be there.
The real estate mogul and reality TV star has largely received a tepid response from the Republican establishment in the Land of Lincoln, with elected officials from U.S. Sen. Mark Kirk and Gov. Bruce Rauner on down the line keeping their distance and skipping the Republican National Convention.
As Rauner and his fellow Republicans seek to cut into the Democrats’ supermajorities in the Illinois House and Senate this fall, what impact, if any, Trump’s presence at the top of the ticket will have on races down the ballot remains a major question.
State Sen. Jason Barickman of Bloomington appeared on the March Republican primary ballot as a delegate candidate for U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida. Barickman said that if Rubio had won the nomination, he would be making the trip to Cleveland, but he planned to stay home otherwise.
He’s never been to a national convention, he said, and with two small kids at home, he tries to limit his time away.
But Barickman does have some concerns about Trump becoming the party’s standard-bearer.
“He campaigned in the primary on a message of anger and divisiveness, and that is not a message that’s going to resonate with the general election,” Barickman said.
As the campaign moves forward, he hopes to see Trump become “a voice for Republicans and conservatives,” something he hasn’t always been thus far.
“I hope that he becomes the leader that our party needs to have,” Barickman said.
State Rep. Tim Butler, R-Springfield, a former chief to U.S. Rep. Rodney Davis of Taylorville and former U.S. Rep. Ray LaHood of Peoria, also will be skipping the convention. He last attended in 2008 and said he made up his mind not to go this year “well before even the primary,” adding that attending costs a lot of money.
Butler said that despite some misgivings about Trump’s rhetoric and policy positions, he respects the will of Republican primary voters.
“I wish he would change his tone on some issues,” Butler said. “There’s things I’m going to disagree with him on, but I respect the will of the people. … I’m a Republican, and I’m going to support our party.”
Like Barickman, state Rep. Terri Bryant of Murphysboro was a delegate candidate for Rubio and is skipping the convention. Her decision has nothing to do with Trump, she said, adding that he’s “fine with me. He is very popular in my district.”
Rather, Bryant is staying home to focus on her re-election campaign against Democrat Marsha Griffin of Jonesboro.
One Republican lawmaker who will be in Cleveland is state Sen. Chapin Rose of Mahomet, who was elected in the March primary as a delegate for U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas.
Rose believes Trump will do well in November throughout downstate Illinois, noting that he and Cruz each received more votes in Macon County than presumptive Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton.
Rose said that “when you walk around Decatur, Illinois, and hit the coffee shops in Sullivan and Shelbyville and Paris and talk to people and ask them, ‘Are we heading the right way or the wrong way?’ ” most will reply, “The wrong way.”
“People think that it needs shook up, and I agree with them,” he said, adding that Trump can do that in Washington.
Rose said he sees a big enthusiasm gap between Trump supporters and Clinton supporters that strongly favors the Republican.
As for Trump’s impact on state legislative races, lawmakers and observers say it could vary widely by region.
While his presence on the ballot might help Republicans in Southern Illinois, it could hurt them in the Chicago suburbs, said Chris Mooney, director of the Institute of Government and Public Affairs at the University of Illinois.
The key will likely be which candidate and party inspires more voters to come to the polls – or to stay home, Mooney said.
“It’s not about changing people’s minds,” he said. “It’s about motivating your people to come out to vote and demobilizing the opponent’s voters.”
Butler, who is running unopposed in November, said he thinks factors other than the top of the ticket will determine who wins state races.
“The races in Illinois are going to be a lot more about what’s going on under the Capitol dome,” he said.