Republicans call for unity at convention ahead of important November election

Two hours before Illinois Republicans convened their convention in Peoria Saturday, vendors sold hats, shirts, signs and buttons blazoned with “Trump” as the party gets set to nominate the billionaire for president in two months.

One man standing behind his table of merchandise motioned toward a pile of T-shirts bearing the name of Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, who quit the race for president weeks ago.

“The clearance aisle,” he called it.

The state's Republicans elected the final slate of delegates to their Cleveland convention Saturday. The group of 12 party leaders are obligated to vote to nominate real estate mogul Donald Trump on the first ballot in a state where Trump's opponents previously were backed by Illinois' highest-profile party leaders.

One of the at-large delegates picked was Todd Ricketts, of the family that owns the Chicago Cubs, who once called Trump a “horrific candidate” and helped lead an effort against him in the primary. Another is former Cook County GOP chairman Aaron Del Mar of Palatine, who ran in the March primary as a backer of Ohio Gov. John Kasich.

Getting Trump supporters and the so-called Republican establishment to get along and get to the polls in November could be critical for the party's efforts to make gains in Springfield and send U.S. Sen. Mark Kirk back to the Senate.

“If you have cracks at the top, they just widen down the ballot,” former candidate for governor and Regional Transit Authority Chairman Kirk Dillard of Hinsdale said.

Gov. Bruce Rauner received a standing ovation in advance of a speech hotly critical of Democrats at a time when he faces trying to cut a budget deal with leaders of the party in Springfield and another budget deadline in less than 10 days.

Kirk, a Highland Park Republican, who grabbed headlines when he decided he won't attend the party's national convention in Cleveland, didn't speak at the convention's main event Saturday. Campaign manager Kevin Artl said Kirk spoke at an event Friday night, but had fundraisers elsewhere scheduled Saturday.

Jonathan Radke, a convention delegate from Dundee Township in Kane County, said he was happy to talk to Rauner before his speech and disappointed not to see with Kirk Saturday.

“Even though I have some disagreements with Kirk, I will stand by him,” Radke said.

Democrats have attacked Kirk for muted comments supporting Trump, hoping controversies surrounding the candidate could help U.S. Rep. Tammy Duckworth's race against Kirk this fall.

“Republican Mark Kirk has offered up himself to be Donald Trump's ‘steady conservative hand,' and is apparently angling for influence in a Trump administration,” Democratic Party of Illinois spokesman Sean Savett said.

The most significant conflict of the convention came when delegates overwhelmingly rejected changing the party's platform to soften its position on same-sex marriage.

The proposed change would have removed language referring to marriage as between only one man and one woman.

State Sen. Dan McConchie of Hawthorn Woods and Rep. Peter Breen of Lombard were two of the three speakers that supported sticking with the party's 2012 platform and rejecting the change.

“There's no groundswell out there among Republicans to change the definition of marriage,” Breen said.

On the other side, Ryan Higgins, leader of the Schaumburg Township Republican Organization, defended the change recommended by a Republican committee as one that strengthened religious liberty principles in the platform.

As Higgins finished his speech, some delegates at the large convention gathering booed and shouted “go home.”

“Are you prepared to remove the notion that … Republicans may have a diversity of views on this issue?” Higgins said in part. “And if so, are you prepared to defend that exclusion to fellow Republicans?”

Delegates voted on the issue by standing or sitting, and the final tally was 782 votes of the 968 in favor of keeping the 2012 platform.

Illinois Republican Party Chairman Tim Schneider of Bartlett urged a calm debate on the matter. To open the convention, he told delegates “we must be organized and united” to repeat the party's 2014 election success in 2016.

Trump won Illinois' primary in March and will appear at the top of the ballot in November.

“United, the impossible is possible,” Schneider said. “But divided, the possible is impossible.”

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