Illinois Budget State Fair

Gov. Bruce Rauner (center) greets visitors Friday after opening ceremonies at the Illinois State Fair in Springfield.

AP

SPRINGFIELD — Gathering in Springfield for Governor’s Day at the Illinois State Fair, Republicans attempted to frame November’s election as a simple choice between reform and the status quo.

That was Illinois GOP Chairman Tim Schneider’s message to the party faithful at a breakfast Wednesday morning at a downtown hotel and later during a rally at the state fairgrounds.

First-term Gov. Bruce Rauner “stands for reform; (Illinois House Speaker) Mike Madigan and Democrats in the Legislature stand for the status quo,” Schneider told reporters. “That’s what we need to deliver, that message. I think it’s that quick, that concise: Either you want status quo, business as usual, or you want a change.”

But coming off a yearlong budget impasse that has done severe damage to the state’s public universities and social service network and with divisive presidential candidates topping both tickets, the months leading up to the November balloting are shaping up to be anything but simple.

Illinois House Minority Leader Jim Durkin, R-Western Springs, summed it up this way: “Every (election) cycle gets stranger than the past, and this will be one that is going to be crazy because of what’s going on in the state, the legislative races, but also at the top of the ticket.”

Rauner, a wealthy venture capitalist before being elected governor in 2014, has brought unprecedented campaign cash to the state Republican Party, which has used the windfall to target several incumbent Democrats in the General Assembly who it sees as vulnerable. Republicans say the money puts them on equal footing with the majority Democrats, who’ve long enjoyed a fundraising advantage thanks in large part to labor unions, and will help elect lawmakers who will back the governor.

Meanwhile, Rauner and his supports have galvanized organized labor behind Democrats in opposition to the governor’s pro-business, union-weakening “turnaround agenda.” Members of the Service Employees International Union and supporters protested across the street from the Republican rally at the fairgrounds.

Rauner, who never mentioned his political nemesis Madigan by name, vowed to take the fight to the “corrupt political machine” that he said has taken over the city of Chicago, the Illinois Democratic Party and “much of our state government.”

“We are going to stand against that machine, and we are going to beat that machine,” he said at the breakfast meeting.

At the fair later, he promised GOP efforts this fall will be the “biggest ground game (that’s) ever been done for legislative races in state history.”

Madigan, who chairs the state Democratic Party in addition to having served in the House since 1971, was the target of frequent jabs throughout the day, and Republicans even passed out buttons promoting term limits for elected officials that featured a picture of a young Madigan.

Rauner has been campaigning around the state and appearing in TV ads promoting term limits even though the issue can’t be put to voters until 2018, and even then it would require legislative action. But the governor argues that it’s part of a package of political reforms needed to spur economic growth in Illinois and that he’s putting pressure on Democrats to vote on the issue.

Also appearing on stage throughout the rally were U.S. Reps. Rodney Davis of Taylorville, Darin LaHood of Peoria and John Shimkus of Collinsville, U.S. Sen. Mark Kirk, and Illinois Comptroller Leslie Munger, all of whom are on the ballot in November.

Seldom mentioned throughout the day was the name at the top of the ticket: Donald Trump.

One speaker who did mention the presidential candidate was Illinois Senate Minority Leader Christine Radogno, R-Lemont, who urged members of her party to turn out and vote for other Republican candidates up and down the ballot, regardless of their feelings about Trump, and to encourage others to do the same.

“We need you to engage to make sure that change happens all the way down the ballot,” Radogno said.

Despite appeals for unity, Trump remains a divisive figure in the Illinois GOP, as evidenced by the positions of some central Illinois lawmakers.

For example, state Rep. Tim Butler, R-Springfield, said he stands behind his party’s nominee despite not backing him in the primaries, whereas Rep. Avery Bourne, R-Raymond, said she’s not yet ready to back Trump because of some of the controversial statements he’s made throughout the campaign.

But like many of their fellow Republicans, they agree on at least two things: They don’t want Hillary Clinton to be the next president, and they want to weaken Democrats’ grip on the General Assembly.

The Democrats will have their day at the fair Thursday.

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