A “Trump Democrat” and a heated governor’s race: What to know about the Illinois midterms

The 2018 midterms in Illinois are kicking off on Tuesday.
March 19, 2018, 7:05pm

The 2018 midterms in Illinois are kicking off Tuesday with primary elections for the governor’s house, an attorney general, and 118 House seats, which could switch control of the state legislature from Democrat to Republican.

Among those races is the highly contested 3rd District, which has two Democrats grappling with their party’s identity crisis and how to run under President Donald Trump.

Despite the big stakes, the lead-up hasn’t gone as smoothly as the state had hoped: Worried about election hacking — like what happened to Illinois in 2016 — the attorney general has assigned 178 teams of assistant attorneys general and investigators to monitor the election.


Here’s what you need to know:

Challenging a “Trump Democrat”

Illinois’ 3rd District, in the Chicago suburbs, has drawn national attention as one of the most contested races in the primary.

The two candidates, Democrat Marie Newman and Democrat incumbent Dan Lipinski, mirror the identity struggle that’s rocking the Democratic Party, especially under Trump. Lipinski is one of the few House Democrats who’s voted consistently against abortion rights and has a history of opposing LGBTQ rights — issues that have been at the forefront of the primary debate, along with a slew of other social issues the two candidates disagree on.

In an effort to sway the vote her way, Newman has attempted to paint Lipinski as a “Trump Democrat.” After that, Lipinski listed all the ways he’s voted against the president.

In his seventh term, Lipinski is leading the race, according to Public Policy Polling. But it’s expected to be a close one — in the 2016 presidential election, the district favored Bernie Sanders over Hillary Clinton.

This race is just one of 118 that could tip the Illinois House in favor of Republicans, who only need to gain 10 seats to take control. Democrats already have control but need just four seats to have the three-fifths majority needed to override gubernatorial vetoes.

To Trump or not to Trump

The hotly contested 3rd District race isn’t the only one in which candidates have introduced the specter of the president.

In 2016, Trump lost Illinois but still swept up more than 2 million votes and won 91 of the state’s 102 counties. Those numbers left Republicans questioning whether the enthusiasm Illinois voters had for the president will carry into their primary fights. At the same time, Democrats hope the momentum for the resistance will help them win.


Chicago resident Sonja Russell walks up to a voting machine to cast her ballot in Illinois primary elections at the city's new early voting super site in downtown Chicago on Tuesday, March 13, 2018. In Illinois, attempts by hackers in the summer of 2016 to alter information were ultimately unsuccessful, although voter data was viewed. (AP Photo/Kiichiro Sato)

Trump has also been making waves in the campaign for attorney general. One candidate, Renato Mariotti, said he was running explicitly to “stop Donald Trump in his tracks.” Another, Sharon Fairley, said she plans to “stand up to Trump’s attacks on women, immigrants, and people of color.” Under Trump, attorneys general have wielded enormous power to resist the administration’s policies, especially with regard to immigration and drug laws.

But despite his apparent involvement, Trump has steered clear of the election. The last time he publicly supported primary candidates was in Texas last week.

A complicated governor’s race

Democrats are also taking an unusual stance in the gubernatorial race: running ads that essentially back the Republican candidate that the party would rather run against.

The Democratic Governors Association released an “attack” ad against Republican State Rep. Jeanne Ives, who’s running for governor, that calls her too conservative. It’s an apparent strategy to not only make her more appealing to Republican voters in the state but also take votes that would normally go to her opponent, billionaire Republican incumbent Gov. Bruce Rauner. He’s seen as a much more difficult adversary for Democratic candidates come November.

“Ives wants to ban abortions,” the narrator says in the ad. “She has an 'A' rating from the NRA, pushing to arm teachers and stop new gun laws. And on immigration, Ives marches in lock-step with President Trump, trying to eliminate protections for undocumented immigrants.”


But Ives doesn’t shy away from the controversy. She ran her own attack ad against Rauner widely condemning him as transphobic, sexist, and racist. Titled “Thank you, Bruce Rauner,” the ad features various constituents expressing their gratitude to the current Illinois governor: a transgender woman for expanding her rights, a woman in a pink pussy hat for paying for her abortions, and a man in a hooded jacket for protecting “illegal immigrant criminals.” The Republican Party in the state eventually asked Ives to take down the ad.

Rauner does have a bit of a liberal voting history. But not even a week ago, he also vetoed a bill that would require the state to license and regulate gun shops that he said would “do little to improve public safety.”

The Democratic Governors Association also released an ad directly against Rauner, in which the narrator blames the governor for the state’s “worst unemployment rate in the Midwest — and the worst credit rating of any state in the country.”

Still, Ives is unlikely to win the primary. Rauner has enough money to shift the tides, and his campaign just released another last-minute attack ad against Ives.

Cover image: Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner speaks to the media outside the Supreme Court, in Washington on Monday, Feb. 26, 2017. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin, File)