Republicans held their annual rally at the Illinois State Fairgrounds in Springfield Wednesday with a message of party unity. Bruce Rauner still holds the top office in state government. But as he pushes for re-election, he’s trying to appease conservatives who feel betrayed and whose support he needs to win a second term.
Rally goers in navy blue t-shirts with ‘Rauner’ written on them received the incumbent candidate as he rode up to the rally point on his black Harley — his usual ensemble.
The governor’s supporters chanted “four more years!” as he worked the crowd.
The fair has traditionally been the unofficial kickoff for campaign season. But in this governor’s race featuring two ultra-wealthy candidates, the gloves came off months ago. Rauner and J.B. Pritzker have battled through attack ads that have filled TV sets and social media accounts. But while Rauner faces a formidable opponent, his biggest challenge might be within his own party.
On primary night, GOP insurgent Jeanne Ives walked away with 48% of Republican voters, leaving Rauner with a narrow win. Rauner realized without those far-right voters, he would not win come November. That might explain why he offered praise to President Donald Trump at the Wednesday rally — someone he normally distances himself from.
“The president in doing great work and I support that,” the governor said.
Despite the divisive primary, party leaders said they’re optimistic. Party co-chair Mark Shaw said he’d never seen a more united party. “Republicans are united in making sure that J.B. Pritzker and Mike Madigan are taken out,” he said.
Shaw and Rauner’s pick for party chair, Tim Schneider, agreed to share the job duties as a way to appease some of the division.
Schneider said he’s confident in the Republican party despite the rhetoric and called on supporters to show their unity. “All the press out there says we’re not together, let’s let them know we’re all together now,” he said.
And while voters like Kathy Nelson of Henry County said the rally has left them energized, they recognize the outcome they’re hoping for in November is still an uphill battle.
“I do think there are people who are still fractured from the primary election and I really think we have to put aside whatever differences we have and whatever opinions we had in that primary — that ship is out of harbor,” she said. “We need to get onboard because there’s too much at stake here.”
Rauner seemed to agree with that idea: “This is one the most important elections in Illinois history — certainly one of the most important in my lifetime, in my 62 years in Illinois. Nothing more important in this election. Everything is on the line,” he said.
In addition to Democratic J.B. Pritzker, Rauner is also facing Libertarian candidate Kash Jackson and Conservative Party candidate Sam McCann who Rauner says is a pawn of House Speaker Michael Madigan.
“He’s a plant by Madigan and Pritzker to try and siphon votes off. He’s a phony, he’s bought by the political insiders,” Rauner said.
McCann has denied any connection to the democrats.
Despite the political discourse, voters say they see the work party leaders are putting in. Wheatland Township precinct committeewoman Raquel Mitchell says the party is trying to come together on issues they do agree on.
“There’s an effort to mend broken fences. There’s an effort,” she said.
But another Republican voter, Denis Fisher from Ford County, still questions how that will actually happen.
“Whether or not we can pull it all back together that’s the big question, I think. And working toward that goal, I think that’s a must.”