Dems Go Where Republicans Won't: Mentioning Trump

Aug 19, 2016

Can Democrats convince voters to see Donald Trump as an albatross around the neck of Illinois Republicans?

TRANSCRIPT: Earlier this week, when Republicans rallied at the Illinois State Fair in Springfield, it was as though they were on that classic game show Password, where no one was allowed say the name of their party's presidential nominee.

Thursday, however, Democrats took the opposite tack, saying the name again and again.

This is NPR Illinois, I'm Brian Mackey, and today I'm going to tell you about what you might call the Democratic Party's Donald Trump strategy.

Listen to this and tell me if you don't hear a certain amount of glee:

DURBIN: “Here they were, the party of Abraham Lincoln … unwilling to say publicly the name of their own presidential nominee. I’ll say it: Donald Trump."

It really is remarkable. Redirection. Obfuscation. Republicans have deployed any number of strategies to avoid talking about He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named.

They have good reasons: despite having a Republican governor, Illinois is still a state that favors Democrats, and that's especially true in presidential election years like this one. A number of Trump's recent controversies have sent blue-state Republicans running for the hills.

As you might expect, this widespread show of discomfort is basically serving as a neon sign to Democrats saying, "Hey, over here, talk about this!"

And one by one, Democrats did. Up and down the ticket, whether running for office this year or in 2018, Illinois Republicans are getting Trumped.

Among the most obvious targets is U.S. Sen. Mark Kirk. To be fair, Kirk was one of the first high-profile Republican candidates to renounce Trump. But his opponent, Congresswoman Tammy Duckworth, isn't letting that inconvenient fact get in the way of her talking points.

DUCKWORTH: "You know, he started off by saying that he would support Donald Trump for president if he was elected as the Republcan nominee. He even said that he looked forward and was best-positioned to be the steady, conservative hand advising a Trump administration."

Next up was Leslie Munger, the Republican whom Gov. Bruce Rauner appointed to be Illinois comptroller after Judy Baar Topinka died in office. Munger says her opponent, Susana Mendoza, is a product of the Chicago Democratic machine, aligned with men like House Speaker Michael Madigan and Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel.

At the Democratic breakfasat, Mendoza not only rejected the charge, but turned it into an opportunity to mention you know who.

MENDOZA: "The sexist notion that any one of us was put into a position of power — like, say, being appointed to a statewide spot? I don't know, only through the power of men? — you know, that has no place in 2016 and it's something that's straight out of the Donald Trump playbook on women."

Some of the Trump comparisons were a bit of a stretch. Others, however, just write themselves. And that seemed to be the case with the many Democrats suggesting a Trump-Rauner nexus.

Senate President John Cullerton mentioned it in the context of urging Democrats to make sure they vote.

'We woke up the day after the elections to find a right-to-work, hedge-fund billionaire had been elected governor.'

CULLERTON: "We saw what happened two years ago, when some Democrats stayed home. We woke up the day after the elections to find a right-to-work, hedge-fund billionaire had been elected governor."

Technically Rauner worked in private equity, not hedge funds. And he says he's a multi-hundred-millionaire, not a billionaire. Despite those misstatements, you see where this is going.

CULLERTON: "Think about it: an outsider with no practical experience or interest in governing — someone with no real understanding of the consequences of his rhetoric let alone his actions. Is this starting to sound familiar? I don't want to wake up on Wednesday, November 9, to find the same thing has happened to our country."

Across the aisle, Republicans are trying a version of the same tactic: using an unpopular party leader as a way to try to sink down-ballot candidates.

That leader is Speaker Madigan. But there's at least one obvious difference: While it seemed many Illinois Republican office-holders would rather eat a sack of Hillary Clinton campaign buttons than talk about Donald Trump, Democrat after Democrat said they were grateful to have Speaker Madigan on their side.

I'm Brian Mackey.

Brian Mackey covers state government for NPR Illinois. You can follow his reporting on Twitter and Facebook. A version of this story was first broadcast on Illinois Edition on August 19, 2016.