Illinois Republican leaders are trying to show a united front, and to build a bridge between two islands: that of party mainstays and Donald Trump-invigorated newcomers.
Opening night of the Republican National Convention, and Mari Carlson, a 67-year-old retired educator, is thrilled.
She’s on the convention floor, as a delegate for Donald Trump.
“It’s exciting, it’s exhilarating. And it’s … at my age, it’s really something on my bucket list," she said, holding a red "Keep America Safe" sign. "So it’s wonderful to be part of making history, and doing something wonderful for the country.”
She's just the kind of person State Party Chairman Tim Schneider was targeting at a breakfast meeting of the delegation. Schneider says he wants everyone fired up to win races this November, from the top of the ballot on down.
“Particularly all you new Trump delegates, I mean this is your first convention. Raise your hand if this is your first convention," he said.
Hands sprung up all over the room; the first-timers easily outnumbered RNC veterans.
That’s an anomaly – normally, the big wigs rule. But this time most of the delegates are Trump supporters. Thus, most have few ties to the GOP establishment. They were plucked from political obscurity by Trump's campaign.
“Guess what it’s mine too. First convention. I’m a newbie too," Schneider said.
Schneider may be a convention “newbie,” but he’s not new to Illinois politics.
Gov. Bruce Rauner helped boost Schneider to his state party perch. And Schneider’s been involved in politics since the early ‘80s, albeit at the hyper local level: He was a township trustee, then a highway commissioner, and now he’s in his third term as a rare Republican Cook County Board commissioner.
But in his remarks, he was clearly trying to be relatable, like he was courting the Trump faction.
“We need to work together," he said. "All of us together as the Illinois Republican Party. We’re not your enemy. We’re your friend. We’re the balance, we’re the structure, we’re the backbone of the Illinois Republican Party. That’s going to help you elect your candidates, along with our candidates. Our combined group of all Republicans.
Schneider says that sort of talk was purposeful; he says he’d noticed something at the state party convention in Peoria this past May --- that the Trump delegates were, "standoffish."
“They don’t think that we’re with them. And we want to dispel that because we’re 100 percent behind Donald Trump. He’s our nominee. And four more years of what we’ve had for the eight years is simply not acceptable to us," Schneider said.
Getting Trump delegates on board is important. If the party really is changing, if this is a new face of the GOP, they’ll be crucial to helping Republican Mark Kirk hang on to his U.S. Senate seat, even as Kirk withdrew his support for Trump. And they’ll be essential if Republicans are to have any chance at cutting into Democratic supermajorities in the state legislature.
Schneider says he can trace his own involvement in politics back to the motivations he sees in Trump supporters.
“So instead of just sitting back and letting government just run as usually I decided to stand up and do something about it," he said. "And I think that’s what a lot of these folks are doing here in the room. I believe in this guy. I mean he touched a nerve with me. And I want to get involved. I’m telling them: I’d like you to get involved, just like I got involved 25 years ago. And then we’re not your enemy.”
In some cases, that could be a tough sell.
Hours after the morning breakfast, a conservative Chicago Tribune columnist had already taken top GOP brass to task for squandering a “chance to court Trump delegates.” She accused party elite of staying in their fluffy hotel beds, rather than connecting with the fresh faces over breakfast.
And that’s just among the elite who came to Cleveland in the first place — plenty of party leaders are staying far away. Not that that bothers Mari Carlson.
She says the Illinois Republican Party has been totally inclusive, and everyone – mostly everyone, anyway – coming together to nominate the man she says is the best candidate for President of the United States: Donald Trump.