Even as states like Ohio, Iowa and Wisconsin are known as political battlegrounds and bellwethers, Illinois has the reputation for being a solid "blue" state. Illinois sends double as many Democrats to Washington as it does Congressional Republicans. The state legislature tips heavily in favor of Democrats, who hold veto-proof majorities. And it has been more than a decade since a Republican last sat in Illinois' governor's seat. But polls indicate that may be changing -- the governor's race has been called the country's most competitive. Illinois Republicans will gather Thursday in Springfield for a pre-election state fair meeting and rally, but Wednesday was Democrats' turn.
A band played tunes as Illinois Democrats filed onto the director's lawn of the Illinois State Fairgrounds -- where free beer and lemonade were flowing -- for their annual partisan shindig.
Or, at least, the governor's shindig. It's Pat Quinn's event.
Only those with tickets were admitted, evidently to keep out Republican spies.
Though the election is about three months away, the campaign for governor has already gotten heated -- with unceasing commercials, so-called "trackers" following the candidates' every move ... and mascots. Lots of mascots.
Two sent by Republican challenger Bruce Rauner's campaign stood just outside the Governor's Day festivities: a guy dressed like Pinocchio, but called "Quinnochio," ostensibly to draw attention to what Rauner says are Quinn's lies; and someone in a suit and Rod Blagojevich mask -- Quinn was Blagojevich's lieutenant governor before moving up the chain when Blagojevich was ousted.
Not to be outdone, the Quinn campaign debuted a brand new mascot at the rally:
EMCEE: "Excuse me, who are you?
BARON: "I'm with Billionaires for Bruce!"
EMCEE:"Who are you? Who are you exactly?"
BARON: "My name is ... Baron VonMoneybags."
Baron VonMoneybags is mustached man in a top-hat who looks a lot like the Monopoly guy. A less-than veiled attempt to mock Rauner, a multimillionaire who has reached into his pockets to help fund his campaign.
BARON: "Aren't we here to defund public education?"
BARON: "Aren't were here to end collective bargaining for workers' rights? Bruce can do it!"
The mascot antics drive home a point that Gov. Quinn has hammered relentlessly ... and seriously ... in an attempt to paint Rauner as sinister, and out-of-touch. Here's Quinn earlier in the morning, during a breakfast organized by the state's Democratic County Chairmen's Association.
"I have one house; I'm lucky to have one house," Quinn said. "I've had it for 31 years. I'm running against somebody with nine mansions. Okay? I have three credit union accounts and one checking account. I'm running against somebody that's got more money than King Midas and likes to stash some of it in the Cayman Islands. That isn't what Illinois is about." Finely-tuned rhetoric, to be sure.
But Quinn told his audience that a lot's at stake -- from the minimum wage, which he wants to raise, to maintaining strong suport for the Affordable Care Act, to Illinois' finances. Quinn has proposed keeping Illinois' income tax rate at 5 percent. He says Rauner --- who talks about lowering it -- would decimate public education and other services by blowing a hole in the state budget. Of course, it's more complicated that: Rauner hasn't been clear about just, and by how much, the tax rate should go down, and he favors adding a sales tax to services.
Quinn tried to parlay a sense of urgency to the crowd.
The crowd applauded as he said, "I want to be a champion of everyday people who live from paycheck to paycheck. That's what a governor's got to do!"
So far, though, Quinn's message hasn't seemed to resonate with voters beyond the tried-and-true Democrats cheering his speech.
Every poll this year has put Rauner in the lead, even the one commissioned by Quinn's own campaign.
Though his supporters credit Quinn for dealing with Illinois' underfunded pensions, the budget still has problems. And despite framing himself as a reformer, the Quinn administration is under two federal investigations.
Still, Quinn says he's not worried, calling it a long-distrance race.
But one of Democrats' most popular figures, Secretary of State Jesse White, expressed reservations.
WHITE: "I'm concerned about it, this is probably one of the most hotly contested races I've ever experienced.
REPORTER CAROL MARIN: "If the election were held today do you think he could win it?" WHITE: "Uh...it's a dog race."
There's a fear Quinn's weakness could hurt other Democrats, lower on the ballot. Some are pretty safe; White, as well as U.S. Senator Dick Durbin, who is matched against GOP State Senator Jim Oberweis.
"We know it's going to be a hard year for Democrats, and all of us knew that going in," says Lt. Gov, Sheila Simon, who's leaving that post to run for Comptroller against Republican Judy Baar Topinka, the incumbent. So far Simon is coming up short, in both polls and fundraising. Simon says Illinois is still a Democratic state, it's just that "it's an off-year, the President's not on the ticket, and Democratic votes are more likely to not vote in an off-year election, so we know we've got our work cut out for us."
There's also potential for a tight race for Treasurer; Democratic State Senator Mike Frerichs is up against former House Minority Leader Tom Cross.
When a reporter asked Frerichs if Quinn's a "drag" on the ticket, he pretty much avoided the question.
"I think we're going to go out there and we're going to state our case to people, and I think when they see our vision for the state, versus our opponent who has not laid out a vision for where he wants to go, I think we'll be successful," Frerichs said. Perhaps surprisingly, as she had openly explored running against him in the Democratic primary, the strongest belief in Quinn seemed to come from Attorney General Lisa Madigan, who called Quinn a great governor and campaigner.
"I don't think the top of the ticket is going to be a drag. I think the top of the ticket is going to be an exciting place," she said.
Still, the Attorney General's father, Democratic Party Chairman and House Speaker Michael Madigan, was a no-show for the day's festivities. A spokesman says he's out of state, fundraising.
Don't expect Madigan to be absent Thursday, though, at least in name. Republicans will have their turn to gather at the fair -- and criticizing Speaker Madigan is a popular GOP rallying cry.