Illinois' fall campaign season is officially in full swing, now that Democrats and Republicans have gathered for their traditional Governor's Day and Republican Day rallies at the Illinois State Fair.
For decades now, party faithful have stood under the hot sun of the fairgrounds to drink beer, eat barbecue, and listen to candidates old and new test out their themes and stump speeches. It's an effort to rally the troops for the final push before election day in November.
This year's festivities came in the immediate aftermath of the verdicts in the trial of former Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich and as Republicans are poised to post big gains in mid-term elections nationwide.
Here's a quick recap of themes and notes from each day:
Not surprisingly, Blagojevich was Topic 1 for press corps (no doubt pleasing Blagojevich himself) - but both parties downplayed the verdicts and their impact on the fall campaign. Democrats generally distanced themselves from Blagojevich by reminding voters that the Democrats voted to impeach him (House Speaker Michael Madigan), tried to recall him (Governor Pat Quinn), or never even liked him (State Treasurer Alexi Giannoulias). Others deflected criticism by lumping Blagojevich together with former Republican George Ryan, who's currently in prison for political corruption.
For its part, the GOP also distanced itself from Blago under the old political adage that it's never a good idea to get in the way of someone or something (the Democratic Party?) that's in the process of self-destructing. The notion is that Blago himself will do more than enough to remind voters of his time in office, so why waste time adding fuel to the fire. Gubernatorial nominee Bill Brady called the verdicts a "distraction" and refrained from making an all out Quinn-Blago attack.
Other Republican candidates went a bit further, saying Illinois had become an "national laughingstock" and the punch line to jokes - which hurts the state's image as well as it's ability to attract new businesses. Small business, jobs, and budget balancing were the main themes for GOP candidates throughout.
Dems on Defense
Though more than 1500 Democratic party loyalists packed the conference room at the Springfield Crown Plaza for Wednesday;s Illinois County Democratic Chairmen's Association Governor's Day Brunch, attendance was noticeably thinner at the State Fair rally itself. And the mood was subdued compared to the GOP's. Overall, there's a sense that the dems are on defense this year, fighting national trends & local headlines in an effort to "protect their turf". Lots of reminders that Illinois was a Blue State - and that the party need to work hard to keep it so.
GOP: Yes We Can
Unlike the downcast Dems, the GOP was upbeat, optimistic, and feelin' the mid-term mojo. They've seized the "change" mantra from Barack Obama and are their most unified and enthused in years. The enthusiasm extends beyond the top of the ticket to down ballot races and a belief that recapturing both the U.S Congress and the Illinois House are within reach. Candidates seemed downright giddy at times. No wonder - they confetti blasters and an 80's band, which pumped out Pat Benetar (Hit Me with Your Best Shot), Quiet Riot (We're Not Going to Take It), and yes, even Katrina & the Waves (Walkin' on Sunshine). Reminded us of the nightclub at the Decatur Ramada Inn. But that's another story.
The popular DC newspaper, Roll Call, dispatched a reporter to Springfield, such is the national interest surrounding the Kirk-Giannoulias Senate campaign, which many believe is one of the 3 most important races in the nation this year.
While the GOP kept things local, the Dems brought in both national party chair Tim Kaine and U.S. Senator Al Franken (D-Saturday Night Live). Franken (D-MN) keynoted the Governor's Day breakfast, featuring his impersonation of former Illinois Senator Paul Simon as well as quips about George W. Bush, and U.S. Representative Mark Kirk (R-IL). "We have one candidate who has not just a fuzzy memory of his record, but a fuzzy memory of his whole life.", he said of Kirk
Franken also acknowledged the uphill battle facing the party in this mid-term election year, as most polls predict significant Republican gains in both houses of Congress in November. "It all adds up to a tough year for the Democrats, but that doesn't mean we just give up," Franken remarked. "It means we just fight harder".
He also suggested what could be a rallying cry and common theme for the final stretch of the fall campaign. "Don't take us back to the dark days of the Bush Administration", he warned. Watch for more "Darth Bush" mentions by Dems in the closing weeks of the campaign.