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Dems Vow Down-Ballot Effort, Red-State Reach

Thousands of Illinois Democrats met Thursday in Springfield for the party’s annual state fair brunch.

Candidates repeated familiar attacks on Republicans. But some say they need to do more.

The state fair brunch meeting is typically Illinois’ largest annual gathering of Democrats.

They began by stressing how united they are as a party heading into the fall campaign.

“There’s a basic rule in Illinois politics: The political party that remains united wins the election,” said Speaker of the Illinois House and chairman of the state Democratic Party Michael Madigan.

Michael Madigan
Credit Brian Mackey / NPR Illinois
NPR Illinois
House Speaker Michael Madigan, who is also chairman of the Democratic Party of Illinois, was first to speak at the event, and first to leave.

“Look around the room. We are different, but we are Democrats. And if we stay together, we will win the general election — every Democrat’s going to be elected,” he said.

And with a quick “thank you very much,” Madigan was gone.

Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner has spent millions of dollars portraying the speaker as the worst person in the state, and succeeded to the extent that Madigan has become a liability for fellow Democrats.

Madigan left the event after his brief remarks and was not mentioned again.

Although Republicans tried to sound a similar theme of unity at their State Fair rally, Democrats have a better case. Near-billionaire Rauner barely won the primary election, defeating his poorly-funded conservative challenger by just three percentage points.

Meanwhile, the Democratic primary yielded a winner who came out 18 percentage points over the runner-up.

J.B. Pritzker
Credit Brin Mackey / NPR Illinois
NPR Illinois
Democratic gubernatorial nominee J.B. Pritzker speaking at the Illinois Democratic County Chairs' Association annual State Fair brunch.

J.B. Pritzker introduced himself as “the Democrat that’s going to beat Bruce Rauner.”

Pritzker, like most of the other Democrats who spoke, spent a significant portion of his speech criticizing the policies and personalities of both President Donald Trump and Gov. Rauner.

“When Bruce Rauner speaks up, it’s an attack on the people of Illinois. Bruce Rauner called teachers ‘virtually illiterate,’ and school principals ‘managerially incompetent,’” Pritzker said. “Well let me tell you who’s managerially incompetent — it’s a governor who can’t pass a budget and wasted a billion dollars of your taxpayer dollars.”

Pritzker was speaking at an event where a record number of tickets had been sold — more than 3,000. The surge in interest came after the Illinois Democratic County Chairs’ Association announced former Vice President Joe Biden would be the keynote speaker.

But Uncle Joe, as some Democrats call him, came down with laryngitis. So the Illinois Democrats turned to Pete Buttigeig (pronounced BOOT-ih-jehj).

“It is a great honor to be invited here, even knowing that I may have been invited here as an act of desperation,” he said.

Buttegieg is the mayor of South Bend, Indiana, and a rising star in Democratic politics. He ran for chairman of the Democratic National Committee last year.

Like just about everyone else who spoke at the rally, he got in his share of jabs at Gov. Rauner and President Trump. But he had another message, too: that Democrats need to start competing in more elections: not just for president or Congress, but “getting in on school boards and building up statehouse majorities.

“Now is the time for Democrats to stop treating the presidency like it’s the only office that matters,” he said.

Buttigeig says while Republicans have “lost their minds,” Democrats have lost their voices.

Pete Buttigieg
Credit Brian Mackey / NPR Illinois
NPR Illinois
Pete Buttigieg, the Democratic mayor of South Bend, Indiana, was asked to fill in as keynote speaker after former Vice President Joe Biden fell ill.

“When we knock on those doors and make those phone calls, on our lips there must be not just the failures of those in power today — though they be many, so many — but we’ve got to talk about our values, Democratic values, which are American values,” Buttigeig said.

He says Democrats need to reclaim the mantle of “freedom” from Republicans — like the freedom to start a business or change jobs because you know you won’t lose your health care.

“How about that kind of freedom? Or the freedom to drive in a car or walk in your own neighborhood or browse through a department store without worrying you will be made to feel unwelcome because of the color of your skin,” he said.

Democrats in Illinois, like those across the country, see the possibility of a “blue wave” this fall.

And it won’t be all that surprising if they can defeat an unpopular Republican governor.

But as we’ve heard, their ambitions extend much further down the ticket.

Whether they can compete in farm country — Trump country — flipping red Congressional districts to violet or even blue — that’s the real test Democrats have set for themselves this November.

Brian Mackey formerly reported on state government and politics for NPR Illinois and a dozen other public radio stations across the state. Before that, he was A&E editor at The State Journal-Register and Statehouse bureau chief for the Chicago Daily Law Bulletin.
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