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What do the Illinois primaries tell us about the 2018 midterms?

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By Robert Costa

Primary season kicked off in Texas a few weeks ago and continued on Tuesday in Illinois, a deep blue state but where the governor is a Republican. The primary contests there revealed some of the emerging political dynamics that are shaping this year’s midterm elections.

To learn more about the results in the Windy City and its suburbs, I called up Paris Schutz from WTTW, the PBS station in Chicago.  He’s a political correspondent for “Chicago Tonight.” (You can take a look at the program’s analytical dive into the primary results by clicking here). And as you'll see later, he’s an accomplished musician. We even share an appreciation for certain bands. 

Check out our conversation below.

Robert Costa:  The Democratic primary in Illinois’ Third Congressional District certainly got a lot of attention nationally, more than most House primary races usually do.

Paris Schutz: It did. This is kind of where the Trump factor plays into it. Marie Newman, a progressive candidate supported by a pro-choice group and Planned Parenthood, taking on Dan Lipinski, a long-time congressman there and a “blue dog” Democrat. Actually, probably more of a conservative Democrat. Pro-life, anti-Obamacare.

Newman tried to paint him as Trump's favorite Democrat. And Lipinski is not used to being challenged. He didn't really start responding and putting ads up and sending out mailers until a few weeks ago.

She came within about two points. He held on. It is a scare for him, because like I said, he's not used to being challenged. I think these progressive groups thought they might be able to pick this district off, but they're going to run someone against him in two years, probably, and he might have to tack a little bit to the left.

RC: What did you make of the voters you've been talking to over the last few weeks? Are voters in the Democratic Party really energized? Are the Republicans as energized? Are we going to see a huge turnout this year?

PS: No. I think, surprisingly, we're not going to see a huge turnout if Tuesday was any indication. It was about 30 percent. The Chicago elections board said among millennials ages 18 to 34, it was like 5 percent. It was anemic. If you look at the vote total, in the governor's race, it was about a two-to-one advantage in terms of people pulling Democratic ballots versus Republican ballots.

Obviously, as you know, that portends to mean that Democratic voters are far more motivated. You have Gov. Bruce Rauner, a Republican, being so unpopular. So, it's sort of a Trump and Rauner effect that's going to drive people to the polls in the fall. It doesn't look like turnout's going to be astronomical, but it looks like Republicans just are not motivated. Democrats are far more motivated than Republicans, if yesterday is any indication.

RC: And President Trump, is he a dominant theme in most races, whether they're for him or against him? Or is it really more about state and local issues?

PS: I think the general election might be about Trump. Bruce Rauner has done his best to run away from Trump. He kind of hesitates to even mention the guy's name, but there's no doubt his opponent, Democrat and billionaire J.B. Pritzker, is going to try and tie him to Trump.

And in the third Congressional district, Trump is part of it. They try to paint Lipinski as Trump's favorite Democrat, but I think it's really about the changing demographics of that district. It's becoming more progressive. It's becoming more Latino.

Long answer to your question, all politics is local. It's about the changing demographics of these districts here. It's about the power dynamic in Illinois, with the state House Speaker Mike Madigan, a Democrat, and whether or not he's going to allow the party here to sort of become more progressive, or it's going to stay that old, Chicago machine Democratic Party.

Then on top of that, Trump is sort of is the icing on the cake. It certainly pervades these races, but not as much as the local issues.

RC: We could talk all day, Paris, about politics. But real quick, I hear you're a piano player, too.

PS:Yeah, I am a piano player and a songwriter. I played in a Phish and Grateful Dead cover band.

RC: Wow. My favorite bands.

PS: Yes, your bands. My bands, too.

RC: My favorite Phish line is, "Whatever you do, take care of your shoes," from “Cavern.” It’s a good line for anyone who’s traveling around the campaign trail in Iowa in the winter.

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.