Illinois Republicans stay course, fight Madigan and not Trump



Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump speaks at the 11th annual Values Voter Summit on Friday, Sept. 9, 2016 in Washington, D.C. (Olivier Douliery/Abaca Press/TNS)

After a tumultuous weekend for Donald Trump, the Illinois Republican Party plans to stay the course for now and focus on legislative attacks against Democratic House Speaker Michael Madigan rather than work to distance itself from the controversial GOP presidential nominee.

Republican campaign strategists and activists said the reason is twofold: Trump is highly unlikely to defeat Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton in Illinois, a traditional blue state in presidential years; and they contend any Trump tarnish won’t extend all the way down to the General Assembly campaigns at the center of the Nov. 8 state GOP strategy.

Yet they also admit there’s the unknown, including whether there will be more damaging disclosures about Trump and whether there will be diminished Republican turnout amid enthusiasm gaps for both major White House contenders. By later this month, they said, some of those X factors may become more readily apparent in surveying the mood of voters.


While some Republicans maintain Trump’s Sunday night debate performance against Clinton provided a much-needed campaign reset, the fallout of the GOP candidate’s graphic remarks involving women that invoked sexual assault may still be a developing issue.

During the debate, Trump denied engaging in the behavior he talked about in a leaked “Access Hollywood” recording from 2005 that became public Friday. That’s not to say the release of the recording has not created more Trump defections in Illinois, however.

Downstate Republican U.S. Rep. Rodney Davis, of Taylorville, seeking re-election against minor Democratic opposition, rescinded his support for Trump on Friday, said he won’t vote for the candidate and asked that his name be removed from the GOP candidate’s agricultural advisory committee.

And in far west suburban St. Charles, Republican state Sen. Karen McConnaughay issued a statement Friday on Facebook to say she would not vote for Trump. McConnaughay’s Senate seat is not up for election next month.

“Trump has clearly demonstrated that he is not a role model for a world still dominated by so much violence against women. I cannot support a candidate for president whom I would not want my own daughters or granddaughters to ever come in contact with. Sadly, for the first time in my life I will not be voting in the presidential election,” she wrote.

The two join prominent Trump Republican defectors U.S. Sen. Mark Kirk, facing a difficult second-term bid in a challenge from Democratic U.S. Rep. Tammy Duckworth; and U.S. Rep. Bob Dold, who is seeking re-election to his North Shore congressional seat against former Democratic U.S. Rep. Brad Schneider.

For his part, Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner has frequently sought to avoid any discussion of Trump, even though he said in March that he would back the Republican White House contender and the rest of the GOP ticket in his stated role as “leader of the Republican Party in Illinois.”


Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner speaks at the Illinois State Fair in Springfield on Aug. 17, 2016. (Anthony Souffle/Chicago Tribune/TNS)
Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner speaks at the Illinois State Fair in Springfield on Aug. 17, 2016. (Anthony Souffle/Chicago Tribune/TNS)

On Monday, Rauner took the rare step of directly criticizing Trump, though once again not by name.

“The rhetoric, the language, the statements in that tape that’s recently come out, disgusting, appalling, outrageous, beyond any reasonable bounds of decency,” Rauner told reporters after appearing in Chicago’s Columbus Day parade. “I’ve said that I’m not endorsing him. And you know what? His statements, the rhetoric, appalling.”

Rauner’s handpicked state GOP chairman, Cook County Commissioner Tim Schneider, has not issued a formal public statement about Trump’s leaked comments. Email requests to the Illinois GOP for comment since Saturday gained no response.

But Republican leaders nationally repudiated Trump’s leaked remarks, including Reince Priebus, the national Republican chairman.

Republican House Speaker Paul Ryan, of Janesville, Wis., uninvited Trump to a scheduled Saturday event, and on Monday told GOP House colleagues he would not campaign for or defend Trump and said candidates should do what’s best for their districts. Ryan’s strategy is already in play in Illinois politics, reflected not only by Rauner and GOP chairman Schneider but the political and geographical diversity of the state.

Rauner has contributed nearly $21 million in campaign funds to the Illinois Republican Party this year, much of which has been funneled to assist GOP legislative candidates as part of his effort to erode Democratic supermajorities that Madigan controls in the Illinois House and President John Cullerton leads in the Senate.

Rauner and Madigan are the public faces of a budget stalemate, with the Republican governor’s demands for changes in state laws affecting Democratic allies in labor unions and among workers’ compensation lawyers.

By spending most of the campaign avoiding talking about Trump, Rauner acknowledges that the Republican presidential nominee could be helpful to some GOP legislative candidates, particularly those in more conservative Downstate legislative districts, while also being toxic to those in the suburbs.

“For the party, it’s tough. The people, the (party) rank and file … they expect loyalty (to the nominee) and you have to respect that,” said Pat Brady, a former state GOP chairman and long a Trump objector. “The governor understands that too. The only issue we’ve got is with the budget. The state is so diverse that Trump polls OK in southern Illinois. For (Rauner), why get into it? We’re only four weeks out. They are focused solely on those legislative races.”

One Republican legislative campaign consultant, who was not authorized to speak publicly about strategy, said he believes no one knows about the extent of a Trump factor on down-ballot races for a few more weeks “when the wind blows and people start to move.”

At the same time, however, he said efforts by Democrats to connect local Republican legislative candidates to Trump lack the “realness” factor compared to GOP efforts to link Madigan to Democratic legislative candidates because the speaker “is a leader and he runs the place.”

Mark Fratella, of Elmhurst, who was a Trump delegate at the party’s national convention in Cleveland, said that because the Republican presidential contender has shifted resources away from Illinois, “now it’s time to just focus on the local races and look at getting rid of the supermajority that Madigan has.”

“Hopefully, there aren’t that many voters who were so disillusioned by what has happened recently from Mr. Trump that they stay home locally on Nov. 8. I’m still hoping that Mr. Trump wins on Nov. 8 because that’s the only way to prevent Hillary from getting in,” said Fratella, who added that he already cast an early vote for the GOP nominee before the leaked recording of Trump’s comments. “But it’s getting harder and harder to justify some of the distractions. And from a policy standpoint, I agree with him 100 percent. But the packaging sometimes, it’s getting tough. There is no explanation for it. There is no defense for it.”

All politics may be local, but timing also can be a factor.

The Sangamon County Republican Party sent fliers to mailboxes in Springfield on Saturday soliciting vote-by-mail for the GOP ticket, political literature that featured Trump. But the mailer, arriving only hours after the release of Trump’s recording, also had photos of Sen. Kirk and Rep. Davis, who by then had called for Trump to drop out.

Chicago Tribune’s Kim Geiger contributed.


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