Why Illinois Has the Least Predictable Governor's Race in the Country

Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn, who carries clear liabilities on his record, has kept the contest a dead heat by attacking his opponent.
by | October 27, 2014

Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn is ending the election year the same way he began it, as one of the nation's most vulnerable incumbents.

The Democrat carries clear liabilities on his account sheet. Economic performance has been disappointing on his watch, although employment picked up quite a bit in September. The state's chronic budget woes continue, illustrated by its inability to pay vendors on time and its massive unfunded pension liabilities.

Quinn's opponent, Republican businessman Bruce Rauner, has done all he could to tie the governor to the "corrupt" cabal of Illinois Democrats, including his convicted predecessor, Rod Blagojevich, and longtime state House Speaker Mike Madigan.

But Quinn has castigated Rauner as an investor who did little to create jobs while intimidating associates and underlings. Rauner may wear a cheap wristwatch and campaign in an old van, but he owns seven houses and belongs to a wine club that costs $140,000 to join.

"Clearly, he’s being Romneyized -- the rich guy who doesn’t understand your problems," said David Yepsen, who directs the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University, referring to 2012 GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney. "It worked against Romney and it’s working against him."

Both men have talked about tax increases, with Quinn wanting to extend a big income tax increase enacted in 2011 and Rauner hoping to find a way to tax a broad range of service industries, which has been an elusive goal in many states.

Rauner has tarred Quinn over a patronage scandal at the state Department of Transportation, while Quinn likes to point out that his opponent has taken different positions about the minimum wage at different times.

Both candidates have stopped short of being entirely specific of the types of spending cuts they think are necessary in the next administration, said Kyle Moore, the Republican mayor of Quincy. "There's a feeling in the state that we need to have a new direction, but there's some uncertainty about what that direction is," he said.

Quinn has sought to exploit the anxiety people feel about where the state may be heading, even if they've been unhappy with the status quo. In a largely Democratic state, he has shored up support among unions who haven't always been happy with his approach to pension issues.

"You have to keep in mind that Illinois has been a blue state for a while, and you have to say that the governor has done a good job of tying up endorsements important for that base," said Dennis Culloton, a public relations consultant and former Republican gubernatorial aide.

And it works hard. "Quinn is a great campaigner," said Paul Green, a political scientist at Roosevelt University in Chicago. "Four years ago he won and the Republican wave stopped here. This year, in the battle of the 30 second commercials, he clearly is winning that."

As well-financed as the Rauner campaign is, it largely went dark over the summer, perhaps missing an opportunity to cast Quinn in a negative light before all the negative ads of the fall became so common.

Rauner, who won the primary with a plurality, has struggled to win over at least some conservatives due to his moderate stances on gun control and abortion. In a Chicago Tribune poll released Thursday, Chad Grimm, the Libertarian candidate, was at 4 percent. In such a tight race, Grimm getting that large a share of the actual vote could tip the race to Quinn, Yepsen said.

But the same poll showed that Rauner was making inroads among women in the suburban counties around Chicago. With Chicago overwhelmingly Democratic and most of the state voting the other way, suburban voters will be key.

Four years ago, Quinn's margin of victory was less than 1 percentage point. He lost all but four of the state's 102 counties, racking up his winning margin in the populous Chicago area.

"Turnout is going to be huge," Culloton said. "That is something that Gov. Quinn has always done a nice job of. Rauner is doing something that Republican candidates haven’t done in years in Illinois -- investing a lot of money in the get out the vote effort."

Polling leads have seesawed in the race, with Rauner enjoying the slightest of advantages in recent surveys.

"This election is going to be one of the few where the campaign in the last few days will make a difference," said Roosevelt University's Green. "Anyone who tells you they know what’s going to happen is guessing."