The in-person Republican National Convention kicks off Monday with the nomination of President Donald Trump for a second term in the White House, but the week ahead for Illinois Republicans eager to push their own agendas is going virtual.
The COVID-19 pandemic has squashed any hope of the state’s 64 Trump delegates traveling en masse to the party convention in Charlotte, N.C., which now appears to be only a one-day gathering, followed by speeches later in the week by Trump, Vice President Mike Pence and others.
Only three senior Republicans from Illinois will go to North Carolina for Monday’s symbolic act of committing the state’s GOP delegates to Trump, and then they’ll fly back to Illinois afterward.
As with Democrats, that means Illinois’ contingent of Trump delegates will be missing out on the parties, the networking, the speeches, the convention-floor balloon drop and all of the other accompaniments that are part of any normal political convention.
Plans are still in the works, but party officials on Friday said they intend to stage a series of virtual delegation events spread out during the coming week.
“The Illinois Republican Party will host some Facebook Live or Zoom meetings highlighting some of our local luminaries, congressional candidates, congressional members and so forth, who will be talking about and amplifying the message that’s being conveyed by the presidential campaign on those dates,” said Richard Porter, the Illinois GOP national committeeman, who is in Charlotte to deliver the party’s support to Trump.
Porter said the state party events also will highlight “some of the local issues that resonate and connect with issues that are being discussed nationally.”
Illinois Republicans have a lot riding on the Nov. 3 election.
Besides trying to prevent a Trump wipeout in Illinois that could damage down-ballot races, the party has a slew of fertile topics to talk about: the corruption investigation surrounding Democratic House Speaker Michael Madigan, Gov. JB Pritzker’s graduated income tax amendment, a GOP challenge to embattled Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx, a bid to block Democratic state Supreme Court Justice Thomas Kilbride from another 10-year term and the civil unrest that has accompanied multiple rounds of looting in Chicago.
That last issue is one that could boost the party’s hopes in suburbia, Porter said.
Democrats “just don’t have the moral strength to defend people and property, because they are in fundamental agreement with the ideology of the people who are looting. So it’s sort of, like, hard to be tough on your people,” Porter said. “It’s a crazy situation.”
Virus throws wrench into national convention logistics
Heading into the weekend before Monday’s kick off, the actual mechanics of how Illinois Republicans will complement the convention were still being worked out, Porter said.
Porter, state party Chairman Tim Schneider and National Committeewoman Demetra Demonte will be the ones in Charlotte, casting Illinois delegates’ votes by proxy. A prerequisite to attending the scaled back convention, Porter said, was taking COVID-19 tests. He said he and his two colleagues did so last week and again Friday, and they tested negative, leaving him with no apprehension about being at the convention hall with as many as 300-plus other Trump acolytes.
“I think the level of anxiety is inconsistent with the evidence of what the danger of this is at the moment,” Porter said. “It’s still very dangerous for people who are very sick or very old or who have other conditions. I’m not worried about it.”
The state party enters the convention in an unusually weakened position.
Illinois Republicans are bereft of any statewide offices, stuck in legislative super-minorities and lacking any real statewide, political star power. The last Republican with that kind of gravitas was former Gov. Bruce Rauner, who took power in 2014 with 1.8 million votes but lost to Pritzker in a 2018 drubbing. Rauner now appears to have left the state, having registered to vote in Florida in late May.
“They have been so decimated that they are having trouble recovering. I mean they’ve just been wiped out,” said David Yepsen, who directed the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute in Carbondale between 2009 and 2016. The former Des Moines Register political reporter is now affiliated with Iowa public broadcasting.
The state Party is in precarious financial straits, particularly for an election year. It reported having roughly $107,000 on hand as of June 30, compared to nearly $3 million for the same period four years ago. The past largesse came mostly from Rauner, who steered $29 million of his own fortune to the state party during his governorship, but that funding stream has dried up.
While Porter acknowledges the need for more fundraising, he said the state GOP is still robust, partly because it still maintains control of data compiled under Rauner that will help the party reach voters this fall.
“Our overall health is actually surprisingly strong,” he said. “The Republican Party is a grassroots-up party, not a top-down party. The grassroots passion for the Republican Party is as great as it’s ever been, but it’s just in different parts of the grass. If we can bring back our traditional base in the suburbs, and combine it with the enthusiasm of Republicans elsewhere in the state, we can win back the state. We can turn the state from blue to red.”
What Trump’s style and Dems’ scandal could mean for Illinois GOP
But heading into the convention, Yepsen said Illinois Republicans are facing an identity crisis, noting the stark differences between the bombastic president who is wildly popular downstate and the urbane, former four-term Republican governor, James Thompson, a social moderate who died a little over a week ago.
“The moderate Republican history [of Illinois] doesn’t square with all the Trump and ultraconservative people who are active. You can’t sell Trump Republicanism in the state of Jim Thompson or Jim Edgar,” he said, referring to two moderate Republican governors who held power between 1977 and 1999.
But State Senate Minority Leader Bill Brady, a Bloomington Republican who said he has attended six GOP national conventions, said the president’s record still has resonance in Illinois.
“The policies of the Trump administration — bringing health care to a new generation and protecting our economy and jobs and taking on China and fighting for safe streets — those policies, I think, history will prove there were a lot of great things done,” said Brady, who is an at-large Trump delegate who is casting his vote for the president by proxy.
But the Senate GOP leader acknowledged that while the Trump brand is wildly popular downstate, it isn’t doing well in vote-rich suburban Chicago, a swath of once-reliable Republican territory now dominated by Democrats. With the exception of McHenry County, four of the five collar counties voted overwhelmingly against Trump in 2016.
“I think the suburban mindset has real trouble with some of the personality of Donald Trump, without looking at the policy,” he said.
Brady said he thinks the Illinois GOP’s political fortunes will be “more driven by local issues,” and there is plenty of fertile material from which to draw, starting with the federal bribery investigation into Commonwealth Edison’s bribery-tainted lobbying in Springfield.
The scandal has put Madigan under more intense scrutiny than at any point in his long career and threatens his hold on the speakership. In a federal filing announcing a $200 million settlement with ComEd, investigators dubbed Madigan as “Public Official A,” the alleged beneficiary of utility company jobs and contracts in exchange for favorable legislative treatment.
Madigan hasn’t been indicted or charged, and he has denied any wrongdoing.
“When you are implicated as ‘Individual A’ in an indictment of one form or another that leads to a $200 million settlement from the largest utility in the state of Illinois, that puts real juice behind the message,” Brady said.
Messaging like that will be woven into the overarching themes being promoted by the Trump campaign and convention planners, and a week that’s normally full of political adrenaline for local partisans will simply play out in delegates’ living rooms.
“We won’t have a big group of people cheering and wearing funny hats. We will try to organize watch parties, and there will be groups getting together. It won’t be as visible. They won’t all be on TV. We’re going to tap into the enthusiasm that’s there at the grassroots and bring people together,” Porter said.
“But it’s not going to be the same as it was or we were hoping it was going to be,” he said. “But we’re going to make it as good as we can, as exciting as we can.”
Dave McKinney covers Illinois politics and government for WBEZ. Follow him on Twitter @davemckinney.