SPRINGFIELD – Republican gubernatorial candidate Bruce Rauner roared into the state fairgrounds on a Harley Thursday, revving up the party faithful by pledging to help loosen the Democrats' long hold on power in Illinois government.
After removing his helmet, the Winnetka businessman said he would lead an administration that is efficient and transparent. He repeated a vow, made following his primary victory, to sweep Gov. Pat Quinn into "the dust bin of history," adding the GOP could be competitive in races up and down the ballot.
"We can't be a prosperous state unless we are a two party state," Rauner told a crowd of supporters at the GOP's annual state fair event in Springfield.
Shut out of the governor's mansion and statehouse political control for more than a decade, Republicans' acknowledge the impossibility of gaining the immediate upper hand in President Barack Obama's traditionally blue home state. But party officials and volunteers voiced hopes Thursday that Republicans have what it takes this fall elect a Republican governor, a crucial step in evening out the balance of power.
"We have an opportunity this November to end one party rule by electing Bruce Rauner governor of Illinois," former Republican Gov. Jim Edgar said. "We have an opportunity to bring back effective leadership to the governor's office."
Republicans say highlighting Democrats' passage of an unpopular tax increase and failed efforts to revive a lagging economy will be key to their November success.
"People are angry," Senate Republican Leader Christine Radogno told a group of state central committeemen at a breakfast meeting prior to the fairground event. "In that anger there is an opportunity for us."
The party suffered major losses in 2012 followed by a gay marriage flap that prompted the resignation of a GOP chairman last spring.
While officials previously have acknowledged that the party is out of touch with voters, Thursday they expressed confidence that that gap has been bridged.
"This is the most energized that I've seen the party in my decades in politics," said Republican House Leader Jim Durkin, who was first elected during a nationwide Republican wave in 1994.
Rauner has crafted an image as a government "outsider" looking to "shake up Springfield." The wealthy venture capitalist regularly stresses at campaign stops throughout the state that Illinois' economy could be doing much better under a different governor.
He has, at the same time, infused both his campaign and those of fellow Republicans' with millions of his own dollars.
Officials say a "get out the vote" effort will be crucial to Republicans' successes this fall, as the GOP is hoping to capitalize on the typical drop-off in Democratic turnoff that appears during non-presidential elections.
Democrats are seeking to combat that predicted erosion by driving voters to the polls to vote on a number of referendums advancing the party's focus on the working class, at the same time portraying Rauner as an "out of touch billionaire." They're also emphasizing their close ties with labor unions – as Rauner made fighting "government union bosses" a theme during the GOP primary.
Republicans hit back on those criticisms during their day at the fair, the same day Democrats were touting the state's unemployment rate had dropped to a six-year low.
Rauner – who bought a prized steer from a sale of champions hosted by Quinn earlier in the week – cracked that "Pat Quinn and his government cronies know bull."
Republicans, in recent days, have continued their sharp focus on Quinn's scandal plagued 2010 anti-violence program, by bringing attention to a new $20 million allocated for youth programs in this year's budget, claiming they were only given vague descriptions about what it was going to be used for. Quinn, meanwhile, has defended the youth programs and called Republicans' criticisms "just plain wrong."
As Rauner acknowledged the governor's race could be so close that it could come down to a few hundred votes, volunteers and campaign workers were cautioned to remain practical and focused in the months ahead.
"When you're rounding third and heading home, don't look back," state, Rep. Tom Cross, GOP candidate for treasurer, said. "We as Republicans can't look back until we cross the plate on election day."