SPRINGFIELD -- Faced with a crucial midterm election where Republicans are seeking to reclaim the governor's mansion, Illinois Democrats used an annual party gathering Wednesday to provide an early look at their strategy for victory this fall.
Hundreds of county party leaders and volunteers had breakfast at a Springfield hotel and later kicked back with beer, barbecue and live music during a picnic at the State Fairgrounds. Because turnout among the Democratic base typically drops off in Illinois during nonpresidential elections, officials reminded the activists of the importance of emphasizing five referendums that will be on the ballot in addition to the candidates.
Ballot questions, approved by the Democrat-controlled Legislature in the spring, largely advance the party's focus on the working class. They ask such things as whether Illinois should raise the minimum wage, require prescription birth control to be covered in health insurance plans and place an additional tax on income over $1 million to fund education.
Attendees were also reminded of importance of emphasizing close ties with labor unions -- also crucial to driving turnout -- as Gov. Pat Quinn is facing a tough, nationally-watched bid against wealth Republican businessman Bruce Rauner. While Quinn has tussled with unions in the past over his support for a pension overhaul cutting benefits for state employees and retirees, Rauner made fighting "government union bosses" a theme during the March GOP primary, bringing labor squarely to Quinn's side.
"Illinois is a blue state and we want to keep it a blue state," Michael Carrigan, President of the Illinois AFL-CIO, dressed in a green Quinn T-shirt, told the group. "You start with your core groups. Your core group is in this room right now. Labor is a part of that, and you are a part of labor."
Quinn told reporters that he expects a "very close race" where tried and true shoe-leather campaigning will help him to emerge the victor over his opponent. He painted Rauner as an out-of-touch billionaire "who has more money than King Midas and likes to stash some of it in a place called the Cayman Islands."
"We have to stand together as a party and a people to do the right thing," he said.
Still, top officials weren't shy about noting the difficulties that lie ahead, in the party retaining its tight grip of power in President Barack Obama's home state.
Secretary of State Jesse White said he is concerned Rauner has made "inroads into the African-American community," shifting reliable votes away from Quinn by spending money in heavily black areas of Chicago.
Lt. Gov. Sheila Simon said Democrats always knew "this was going to be a hard year," noting she and other Democrats "have our work cut out for us."
Along with traditional stump speeches rallying the energy and excitement of the party faithful, the day also included some of the shenanigans that have been a hallmark of the governor's race from both sides.
The Quinn campaign Wednesday afternoon unveiled a mascot nicknamed "Baron von Moneybags" before a cheering crowd -- a character seemingly straight off a Monopoly board poking fun at Rauner. The costumed character joins several others unveiled by the two campaigns, which often make appearances at their rivals' political events.
Despite the positive mood, some evidence of fault lines and intraparty squabbles were still on display. Illinois' Democratic Party Chair Michael Madigan, who has clashed with Quinn on issues ranging from cutting lawmakers' pay to the release of a task force report detailing allegations of patronage at Metra, failed to show at either the breakfast or an afternoon event for the second year in a row. A spokesman later said he was out of town fundraising.
"Sometimes you've just you've got to let bygones be bygones," said Ryan Marucco, a Democratic committeeman from Stonington. "When it comes down to it, all these people are going to get together, work for Governor Quinn to win over Bruce Rauner."
The Illinois GOP will celebrate Republican day with their own breakfast and rally at the fairgrounds Thursday.