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Unity – not Trump – is the message at Illinois State Fair Republican Day

John Curran
Jerry Nowicki/Capitol News Illinois
State Senate Republican Leader John Curran, of Downers Grove, speaks to the crowd during Illinois State Fair Republican Day festivities in Springfield.

During Republican Day at the Illinois State Fair Thursday, state party leaders sought a message of unity ahead of the 2024 presidential election.

One apparent strategy in driving home that message was to not mention former President Donald Trump, who is facing four criminal indictments. While Trump’s name and political slogans were visible on signage and clothing at the fair rally, the speakers generally kept their focus on the policies of Democratic Gov. JB Pritzker.

Senate Republican Leader John Curran, R-Downers Grove, criticized several Pritzker policies, alluding to the passage of a criminal justice reform law that eliminated cash bail and the governor’s recent veto of a bill that would have allowed construction of new nuclear power in Illinois.

“Gov. Pritzker thinks he, not judges and our heroes in law enforcement, should decide which victims deserve justice and which criminals walk free,” he said, later adding Pritzker is “more concerned about special interests than reducing energy costs for families and businesses.”

Illinois' Republican National Committeewoman Demetra DeMonte, of Pekin, speaks to the crowd at the Republican State Central Committee meeting in Springfield prior to Republican Day festivities at the Illinois State Fair.
Jerry Nowicki/Capitol News Illinois
Illinois' Republican National Committeewoman Demetra DeMonte, of Pekin, speaks to the crowd at the Republican State Central Committee meeting in Springfield prior to Republican Day festivities at the Illinois State Fair.

Curran’s Senate Republican Caucus holds just 19 seats compared to 40 for Democrats. The state House has a 78-40 Democratic majority, and Democrats hold all statewide elected offices.

Curran contended that the way to turn the tide in the General Assembly is “one seat, one door, one new voter at a time.”

“We don't need everyone to agree with us on every issue. We just need them to vote Republican,” he said. “Because the only way to really change anything is by winning general elections and getting more people, good people in our Statehouse.”

With “better teamwork and less infighting,” state Republican Party Chair Don Tracy said during a speech to the Republican State Central Committee prior to the rally at the fair, the GOP can be “the voice of fiscal sanity, common sense and reason.” He contrasted that to Democrats, who he claimed are touting an “exceedingly radical agenda.”

House Minority Leader Tony McCombie, of Savanna, echoed that sentiment.

“I think it's extremely important that Republicans don't spend time beating up on other Republicans,” McCombie said at the committee meeting.

But the minority party is navigating a political landscape that, for many voters, still revolves around Trump, who is once again seeking the GOP presidential nomination – and leading in many polls.

The former president was most recently indicted this week in Fulton County, Georgia with 18 other individuals for allegedly leading a criminal conspiracy to overturn the 2020 presidential election.

While the GOP General Assembly leaders didn’t mention Trump in their speeches, they were asked about the former president’s role in the party by reporters.

Regarding Trump’s indictments, Republicans often pivoted to corruption charges faced by Democratic Illinois politicians. Former House speaker and Democratic Party chair Michael Madigan awaits trial on charges that he ran a criminal enterprise through his various positions of power, exchanging legislative wins in Springfield for benefits to his law business and his associates. His chief of staff, Tim Mapes, is currently on trial in Chicago on perjury and obstruction of justice charges.

“It's gonna play itself out in the court system,” Curran said of Trump’s legal cases. “Like we're seeing the corruption trial coming out right now with the Madigan machine. So, I mean, that'll play itself out. We have a process going on right now, in the primary, you know, we'll see where that ends up.”

Tracy questioned the timing of the Trump indictments and the party of the prosecutors that brought them.

“I can't figure out what these Democrat prosecutors are trying to do with Trump,” Tracy said. “I can't figure it out. They're trying to take him down or promote him by helping him raise money and be in the news all the time.”

But he appreciated the prosecution of Illinois Democrats.

“With Madigan and Tim Mapes, you know, I'm so grateful that they are doing that prosecution, which was started by a Republican appointee, a Trump appointee, John Lausch, started all that and fortunately, it has continued. But it sure does seem to make a difference if you're Democrat if your last name is not Biden.”

President Joe Biden’s son Hunter is facing criminal charges for firearm possession and receiving more than $1.5 million annually in 2017 and 2018 on which he did not pay income taxes. U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland appointed a special counsel in the case last week.

U.S. Rep Darin LaHood, who hails from the Peoria area, suggested the younger Biden received different treatment in the legal system than Trump has.

“I'm not in the business of saying who should run for president and not run for president,” he said when asked if the party would have a better chance with someone other than Trump as nominee. “I will say this as a former federal prosecutor, I believe in the rule of law, but I don't believe in the unequal application of the law.”

Other party leaders also deflected on the question of whether Trump’s presence on the ballot would hurt the party in 2024.

“That remains to be seen,” Tracy said curtly.

Illinois’ National GOP Committeewoman Demetra DeMonte, meanwhile, strategized on how to deal with the issue of abortion.

“Abortion is a topic that kind of sounds tough to talk about,” she said. “And that's pretty much what our candidates did in 2022.”

While the U.S. Supreme Court overturning Roe v. Wade put the decision on abortion rights back to the states, DeMonte said, Republicans should push back against claims that it did more than that. And they should pressure Democrats to define the acceptable limits for abortion, she said.

“The Democrats won by spewing lies in 2022,” she said. “Make no mistake, abortion will be their number one on their playbook in ’24. Why change a winning strategy? We are the ones that must change – we Republicans must put Democrats on the defensive on abortion.”

In another apparent shift from past elections, Republican rallygoers embraced vote-by-mail strategies – a component of recent elections that Trump has repeatedly cited in his debunked voter fraud claims.

“We will be working hard to bank as many pre-Election Day votes as possible next year, because the political party that votes for weeks and months will mathematically beat the party that only votes for one day,” Tracy said.

Later he contended it wasn’t a shift in party strategy and Republicans had embraced vote-by-mail in previous elections, even though “it's really hard to have a safe or secure election vote by mail.”

“But that is the rule in Illinois,” he said. “We gotta live by the rules before we can change it to a more fair, secure election system.”

Capitol News Illinois is a nonprofit, nonpartisan news service covering state government. It is distributed to hundreds of print and broadcast outlets statewide. It is funded primarily by the Illinois Press Foundation and the Robert R. McCormick Foundation, along with major contributions from the Illinois Broadcasters Foundation and Southern Illinois Editorial Association. 

Jerry Nowicki is bureau chief of Capitol News Illinois and has been with the organization since its inception in 2019.