Illinois Governor's Race to Be Big on Populism
By Monique Garcia and Rick Pearson
The fall campaign for Illinois governor between Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn and Republican challenger Bruce Rauner will feature dueling brands of populism, campaign bankrolls in the tens of millions of dollars and plenty of scorched-earth attacks from groups with a vested interest in the high-stakes race.
Indeed, even before Rauner had eked out a tougher-than-expected primary victory Tuesday, Quinn was up on TV with an ad attacking the wealthy Winnetka venture capitalist for his shifting positions on raising Illinois' minimum wage.
The tactic showed Quinn’s street-fighting political acumen and displayed his brand of populism that's aimed at the working stiffs. Quinn is pushing a minimum wage increase.
“I'm here to fight for working people who deserve a fair shake,” said Quinn, who easily dispatched nominal primary opposition. “I'm here to fight for students all across Illinois to make sure they have a good public education. Not just for the elite and the well-connected. Education is for everybody.And I'm here today to fight for an economy that works for everyone not just for the billionaires but for everybody.”
Rauner's style of populism is the classic throw-the-bums-out. He's pushing term limits for lawmakers and vowing to serve only two himself.
“(Quinn) has jacked up our real estate taxes while our home values were going down,” said Rauner after narrowly defeating state Sen. Kirk Dillard. “(Quinn) has shredded our social services safety net and he's defunded our schools while thousands of school children are trapped in failing schools. He's a failure. We're gonna get him gone.”
With the general election not until Nov. 4, Illinois voters can expect a long, bruising fight where Quinn plays the Democratic class warfare card and Rauner sticks to the Republican playbook of pro-business agenda he says would lead to more jobs and lower taxes.
After spending much of the primary campaign being battered by Rauner attack ads, Quinn fired back Tuesday night with an ad of his own. The 30-second spot features footage of Rauner on the campaign trail in which he takes two different positions on the minimum wage: one in which he says he would roll the state's rate back to match the federal rate, and the other in which he declares he is “adamantly, adamantly against” raising it. The ad ends with a question in white text against a black background: “When you see billionaire Bruce Rauner on TV ask yourself who is the real Bruce Rauner?”
Rauner, who has said he is not a billionaire, struggled with the issue during the primary campaign. In December, he declared that the state's minimum wage should be rolled back to match the federal rate, which is a $1-an-hour cut. He then offered a variety of permutations, before saying he would back an increase in Illinois' minimum wage if it was coupled with several pro-business regulatory and tax reforms.
Quinn wants to raise the state's minimum wage from $8.25 an hour to at least $10 and contends Rauner should support that “without conditions.” While it's an issue being pushed nationally by Democrats, it will play into Quinn's campaign efforts to paint the race as between the haves and the have-nots.
In addition to minimum wage, the governor might prefer to talk about social issues — during his first full term, he's outlawed the death penalty, legalized gay marriage and allowed medical marijuana. But Rauner, a social moderate, says those kinds of issues are a distraction to the state's real concerns: a high unemployment rate, stagnant economy and unsustainable government spending.
Indeed, the campaign is expected to quickly focus on taxes, which puts Quinn in a tricky spot. Next week, the governor will deliver a budget speech with an expectation that he'll take a stand on whether the 67 percent income-tax rate increase he signed into law should start to expire in January. Rauner has said the tax hike should go away but hasn't spelled out how he'd patch together a state budget in the absence of the $4 billion a year the state would lose.
Even before his primary victory, Rauner looked to take the fight directly to Quinn and largely bypassed his GOP rivals. Rauner rolled out a series of TV ads blasting Quinn's record in Springfield, declaring him a “career politician who failed to deliver on term limits.”
Quinn's new ad references Rauner's near nonstop advertising blitz during the Republican primary contest, in which he sunk a record-setting $6 million of his own money as he introduced himself to voters. All the money Rauner poured in lifted contribution limits for all candidates in the race.
But Rauner's wealth won't be the only big-dollar driver. Outside groups also are poised to spend millions in an effort to influence the race.
Quinn will once again receive help from the Democratic Governors Association, which has formed the Jobs and Opportunity for Illinois PAC to assist Quinn in his bid for a second elected term in office. The political action committee will be allowed to raise and spend unlimited amounts of money in independent expenditures.
While public employee unions are upset with Quinn over his backing of a law curbing worker pensions, he'll still get help from trade unions and perhaps other labor groups opposed to Rauner's frequent attacks on “government union bosses” he blames for many of the state's problems.
Rauner, who frequently cites union-opposed laws backed by Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker as political inspiration, was the subject of DGA and union-backed attack ads during the primary as they sought to suppress his momentum. The state's largest teachers and employee unions piled on, throwing their support behind Dillard in an effort to prevent Rauner from winning the Republican nomination.
Meanwhile, Rauner, who has been able to tap into a vast network of well-heeled donors, can expect financial reinforcement from the Republican Governors Association. The RGA in 2010 spent nearly $6 million on behalf of then-nominee state Sen. Bill Brady trying to flip the governor's office from Democratic to Republican control. This fall’s campaign could mark the first time in Illinois since 1998 that the Republican candidate has more campaign money to spend than the Democrat.
There will be plenty of fodder for TV attacks. Quinn will have to answer for the state's dire financial state despite signing a major income tax increase into law in 2011, while Rauner has had to defend a number of controversial business deals.
“A lot of money will probably translate into a lot of negativity because they both have significant weakness that the other one can exploit,” said Chris Mooney, director of the Institute of Government and Public Affairs at the University of Illinois. “It's not like two philosophers battling it out on ideas here, right? It's Illinois politics.”
A significant side issue to Rauner's campaign — and one which also could help him generate turnout in the fall — centers around his efforts to get a question on the November ballot asking voters if they want to amend the state constitution to impose term limits on lawmakers.
While the change would not impact other officeholders, Rauner has vowed to serve for only eight years — two terms — should he be elected. Two decades ago, the state Supreme Court struck down Quinn's attempt to get a legislative term-limit amendment on the ballot. Quinn, who took over as governor after Rod Blagojevich's 2009 impeachment, won election in 2010 but has refused to say if his second term would be his last should he be re-elected.
Tribune reporters John Chase and Jeff Coen contributed.
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