By Rick Pearson
Gov. Bruce Rauner kicked off his re-election bid Monday with a campaign video featuring the Republican politician clad in a helmet and black leather motorcycle gear, riding his Harley-Davidson alone past a sometimes-desolate landscape of urban, rural and suburban Illinois.
The lonely ride may serve as a metaphor for the former private equity investor as he tries for a follow-up to a first term that became a tempestuous test of his ability to institute his business-driven agenda, symbolized by a historic, two-year state budget impasse.
Gone are the people who helped Rauner become a Republican governor in a Democratic state a few years ago. They were purged in a summer shake-up, only to see their replacements mostly purged weeks later.
Gone, too, are many socially conservative rank-and-file Republican lawmakers, who had benefited from Rauner bringing to bear his personal wealth in rebuilding a long-in-the-wilderness GOP. Angered most recently by Rauner's signature on a bill expanding taxpayer-subsidized abortions, they are looking to field a challenger to him while discounting the importance of his campaign checkbook.
Gone as well is the ability of Rauner to portray himself as a fresh outsider, a newcomer to the political scene who pledged to work with all parties, use his business skills amid a boast that he had been "successful at everything I've done."
And gone is Rauner's successful 2014 campaign tag line in which he promised to "Shake up Springfield, bring back Illinois." The new catchphrase: "Home is worth fighting for."
Only in the final seconds of the two-minute announcement video does Rauner appear with other people. Stepping off his motorcycle, the governor says, "I choose to fight" rather than "throw in the towel, walk away and leave our future to the same corrupt career politicians."
For Rauner, posting a "post-apocalyptic" video that portrays him as almost superhero-like in riding to rescue a "dark," "bleak" and "negative" state runs counter to the expectation of an elected official surrounding himself with supporters at a carefully choreographed rally, said Chris Mooney, a political scientist at the University of Illinois Springfield.
"Looking at this, you don't think that is an incumbent governor. This is not what incumbent governors run on, generally speaking. They run on their accomplishments: 'Things are doing great. Yes, we've got problems, but by God we've come a long way,'" Mooney said.
"What else is he going to say? What else can he say at this point?" Mooney asked. "They've got certain accomplishments, every administration has one. But this administration has basically been defined by the budget stalemate. It will be defined by that going forward."
Rauner and his campaign counter that under the Republican's leadership the state has saved and will create thousands of new jobs through a new energy law, ended illegal patronage hiring under his two Democratic predecessors, enacted changes to the criminal justice system to help nonviolent offenders and signed a new school funding formula to try to help the state's poorest districts.
Democrats, however, have been quick to point out that while Rauner seeks credit for the schools legislation, he spent months railing against an earlier version as a "bailout" for Chicago Public Schools. The bill Rauner ended up signing actually gives CPS more money.
Rauner, a first-time office holder, has had trouble pushing his agenda through a Democrat-controlled legislature. In the video, he acknowledges "we've won some and we've lost some," providing a sample of familiar themes his re-election bid will feature.
To that point, Rauner says he'll continue to go after Democratic House Speaker Michael Madigan, his favorite political foil, for running a machine that the governor contends doesn't have taxpayers' interests at heart.
Rauner, who has long sought to negatively tie Democrats to the veteran lawmaker, is trying to link Madigan's name directly to the state income-tax hike enacted in July over his veto as part of the spending-and-tax package that ended the budget stalemate. The governor is vowing to "fight to roll back" the income tax increase.
Rauner also is continuing his push for other elements of what he once called his "turnaround agenda."
"Nothing worthwhile is ever easy. Illinois still needs property tax relief, real term limits and a budget that won't bankrupt or break us," Rauner says in the video. "In spite of the odds, millions of us believe. We believe in the future our kids deserve and the possibilities of this great place we still call home."
For months, Rauner has been coy about formally announcing his re-election, even after running recent ads promoting the school funding issue as well as a related income-tax credit program to fund scholarships to private and parochial schools.
Re-election was always going to be a fight for Rauner, who defeated a weakened Democrat Pat Quinn with just 50 percent of the vote in 2014. As Rauner starts campaigning in earnest, he's finding that the fight next year could be coming from all sides -- conservatives in a primary, followed by the winner of a Democratic primary battle in the fall general election.
Republicans are mad that he signed the abortion bill and other measures favored by Democrats, including one on immigration. State Rep. Jeanne Ives of Wheaton has acknowledged she is actively considering a primary challenge to Rauner and may launch an exploratory committee to see if cash is forthcoming to take on the wealthy governor.
Democratic contenders seeking to displace Rauner in 2018 were quick to criticize the Republican governor's announcement and video message, citing the state's budget impasse and its long-term impact on finances and social service programs.
"It's time for Rauner to go," Anne Caprara, the campaign manager for Democratic governor candidate J.B. Pritzker, said in a statement, "and at least we know he already has his transportation."
Regardless of his political standing, Rauner has nearly $66 million in his campaign fund, largely due to an infusion of $50 million of his own cash last December and another $20 million from billionaire hedge-fund founder Ken Griffin.
Before he gets to next year's election, however, the governor who chooses to fight could find he has a couple of short-term bouts on his hands in the coming weeks.
Lawmakers return to Springfield on Tuesday to consider the governor's vetoes of legislation they passed earlier this year. Given the large-scale discontent among Republican lawmakers for Rauner, Democrats are expected to press for overrides on bills in roll calls that could publicly embarrass the governor.
(c)2017 the Chicago Tribune