Illinois Primary Preview: Democratic Candidates Go Toe-to-Toe in Obama's Home State

PHOTO: Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt, speaks, as Democratic presidential candidate, Hillary Clinton listens, during the Univision, Washington Post Democratic presidential debate at Miami-Dade College, March 9, 2016, in Miami.PlayWilfredo Lee/AP Photo
WATCH Bernie Sanders Looks to Upset Hillary Clinton in Midwest Primary Contests

On the eve of the Illinois primary, Hillary Clinton started her day in Chicago and that’s where Bernie Sanders will end his.

Both candidates’ decision to be in Illinois -- one of five states voting on Tuesday -- highlights the importance of the state at this point in the contest.

The story of this Democratic campaign is who will take up the mantle of President Barack Obama. As such, winning Obama’s home state -- rich with Democratic Party history, labor unions, and progressive grassroots organizations -- has become symbolic as well as vital for final delegate count.

Both Clinton and Sanders have connections to the state.

“I feel particularly emotional ... I am a child of Chicago and the suburbs. I was born in Chicago; I grew up in Park Ridge,” Clinton told a large crowd that showed up to see her at a recent campaign event in the Chicago suburbs.

Although Sanders was born in Brooklyn, he too says he first “became involved in the fight for social and racial justice” in Illinois, specifically while he was a student at the University of Chicago. In ads and on the road, Sanders and his campaign have reminded audiences in the state that he was arrested fighting against housing segregation in Chicago in the 1960s.

Sanders knows that winning the state would be huge for him, not only in terms of delegates, but maybe more importantly, for momentum and meaning. Speaking to a Sanders’ crowd this week, one of his backers, former head of the NAACP Ben Jealous, argued Chicago was a direct link between Obama and Sanders.

“I was reminded that Bernie Sanders is another organizer who cut his teeth in Chicago,” Jealous said. “Why don’t we send one more organizer who cut his teeth in Chicago back to the White House?”

A win in Illinois would likely mean a breakthrough for Sanders in the African-American vote and would limit the Clinton campaign’s ability to spin victories in Ohio or Missouri as related to the trade issue -- a topic Sanders has been attacking Clinton on repeatedly in these Midwest states.

Clinton, however, has made an effort to reach out to black neighborhoods in Chicago and pledged to enact new gun control measures. During a swing through the city last year, she met for the first time with some of the "Mothers of the Movement" -- a group of women who have lost children to gun violence or police brutality. And today, she joined many of those women, as well as Rev. Jesse Jackson, at a memorial in the south side of Chicago for children who have been killed by gun violence.

Meanwhile, as part of Sanders' strategy, the Vermont senator's former Iowa State Director Robert Becker has been camped out in Illinois since he lead the senator’s campaign to victory in Michigan last week. And the campaign this week released a powerful, documentary-style web ad about a Chicago teacher who was moved by the photos of Sanders’ arrest in his hometown. The ad went viral and has almost 3 million views on Sanders’ Facebook page.

America Beyond | Bernie Sanders

Take two minutes and watch this video on why Troy LaRaviere, a Chicago school principal, supports our campaign for president.

Posted by Bernie Sanders on Saturday, March 12, 2016

The same teacher stood by the senator’s side as he made news this week leaning into his criticism of Chicago’s Democratic mayor, Rahm Emanuel, who served as a senior adviser to Bill Clinton during his administration.

Emanuel, who is widely unpopular in the city as a result of racial tensions and school budget issues, endorsed Clinton before she even announced her run for the presidency, and Sanders has urged Clinton to reject his support. Clinton has not done so, however, and now finds herself in a tricky situation. While she has not disavowed him, she’s notably not highlighting her ties to him -- or campaigning alongside him -- either.