Will Pat Quinn’s Luck Run Out Against Bruce Rauner?

The Illinois governor has escaped political death before. But a wealthy GOP businessman poses his biggest threat yet.

National Journal
Scott Bland
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Scott Bland
March 19, 2014, 1 a.m.

Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn has been one of the na­tion’s least pop­u­lar chief ex­ec­ut­ives dur­ing his time in of­fice. Des­pite the state’s blue tinge polit­ic­ally, the Demo­crat’s polit­ic­al prob­lems have put him in ser­i­ous jeop­ardy of los­ing reelec­tion in 2014, with Re­pub­lic­ans ready and eager to lam­bast his hand­ling of the state’s budget, eco­nomy, pen­sions, and a host of oth­er is­sues.

“If Re­pub­lic­ans don’t beat him on the is­sues, then we should just pack up our bags and go to Iowa or something,” said Pat Dur­ante, who chairs the Ad­dis­on Town­ship Re­pub­lic­an Or­gan­iz­a­tion in Chica­go’s sub­urbs.

But as Hil­lary Clin­ton noted last year, Quinn has a well-earned su­per­lat­ive: He may be Amer­ica’s luck­i­est politi­cian, hav­ing already man­aged a string of polit­ic­al es­cape acts over the last few years. Des­pite his troubles, Quinn could do it again in 2014 against wealthy Re­pub­lic­an Bruce Rau­ner, at once a strong yet flawed op­pon­ent who nar­rowly won the GOP nom­in­a­tion Tues­day night.

Quinn is com­ing off two straight elec­tions won by less than a per­cent­age point. After he suc­ceeded Gov. Rod Blago­jevich, Quinn barely fought off state comp­troller Dan Hynes in the 2010 Demo­crat­ic primary be­fore go­ing on to face Re­pub­lic­an Bill Brady in the fall. Though Quinn re­mained un­pop­u­lar throughout the cam­paign, get­ting Brady as an op­pon­ent was a bless­ing. The state sen­at­or — who won the GOP nom­in­a­tion by less than 200 votes out of over 767,000 cast — was too con­ser­vat­ive for Illinois, and Quinn beat him 47 per­cent to 46 per­cent in Novem­ber, de­fy­ing many pro­gnost­ic­at­ors.

Still, Quinn’s dis­ap­prov­al rat­ings fol­lowed him in­to his first full term, and an­oth­er ser­i­ous primary chal­lenge seemed a sure thing. But both At­tor­ney Gen­er­al Lisa Madigan and former White House Chief of Staff Bill Da­ley de­cided not to run, giv­ing Quinn a free pass — and again show­cas­ing his re­cent abil­ity to bend fate in his fa­vor.

“In that sense, you could cer­tainly ar­gue that Quinn’s lucky,” said Dav­id Yepsen, the dir­ect­or of the Paul Si­mon Pub­lic Policy In­sti­tute at South­ern Illinois Uni­versity. “But he made them both think about the task ahead and what would have come up in a primary cam­paign.” (Da­ley star­ted a cam­paign but dropped out last sum­mer.)

It didn’t al­ways work this way for Quinn. He had a long-de­veloped gad­fly repu­ta­tion in Illinois polit­ics, and he won just one of five bids for statewide of­fice in the ‘80s and ‘90s, for state treas­urer in 1990. He lost Demo­crat­ic primar­ies on three dif­fer­ent oc­ca­sions, in­clud­ing de­feat by less than two-tenths of a per­cent­age point in the 1998 lieu­ten­ant gov­ernor’s primary.

The next time around, in 2002, Quinn’s luck changed: He man­aged to se­cure the Demo­crat­ic lieu­ten­ant gov­ernor’s nom­in­a­tion with a 42 per­cent plur­al­ity and then joined a tick­et for vic­tory in Novem­ber. Blago­jevich mar­gin­al­ized Quinn dur­ing his time in of­fice, but the No. 2 slot turned out, to use the ex-gov­ernor’s word, to be “golden” for Quinn. When Blago­jevich was ar­res­ted, im­peached, and re­moved from of­fice for try­ing to sell Pres­id­ent-elect Obama’s Sen­ate seat in 2008, Quinn was next in line. He be­came gov­ernor in Janu­ary 2009.

To keep that post, he’ll have to go through Rau­ner, a ven­ture cap­it­al­ist who spent over $6 mil­lion of his own money (and raised an­oth­er $8 mil­lion) to cap­ture the Re­pub­lic­an gubernat­ori­al nom­in­a­tion. So­cially mod­er­ate and well-fun­ded, Rau­ner checks plenty of boxes for a suc­cess­ful blue-state Re­pub­lic­an cam­paign. He and Quinn were stat­ist­ic­ally tied in re­cent polling.

“The dif­fer­ence this time is go­ing to be re­sources, and I think Rau­ner has proven that he is will­ing to spend whatever it takes, if you look at the primary,” said John McGov­ern, a Re­pub­lic­an strategist in the state.

Yet Rau­ner also might be the one op­pon­ent who could unite di­vided Demo­crats be­hind Quinn this year. Part of Quinn’s un­pop­ular­ity stems from the severe budget cut­ting he’s had to do since tak­ing of­fice, in­clud­ing sign­ing a con­tro­ver­sial pen­sion-re­form law that an al­li­ance of labor uni­ons called “at­temp­ted pen­sion theft.” But Rau­ner, who has fo­cused some of his cam­paign, in­clud­ing his massive spend­ing on TV, against labor and “gov­ern­ment uni­on bosses,” could push the Demo­crat­ic co­ali­tion back to­geth­er.

“Labor has no reas­on to trust Quinn, but they have every reas­on to strenu­ously op­pose Rau­ner,” said Thomas Bowen, a Demo­crat­ic strategist and former polit­ic­al dir­ect­or for Chica­go May­or Rahm Emanuel. (Bowen worked for Da­ley’s brief, abor­ted primary cam­paign.)

In­deed, labor has already moved against Rau­ner, spend­ing over $6 mil­lion against him dur­ing the primary in the hope of cut­ting off his can­did­acy be­fore he got too close to the gov­ernor’s man­sion. It nearly worked, con­trib­ut­ing to Rau­ner’s sur­pris­ingly small mar­gin of vic­tory Tues­day night, and that in­tens­ity would likely carry through to the gen­er­al elec­tion.

“A race with Rau­ner would make Wis­con­sin look like a merry-go-round,” said Dur­ante, ref­er­en­cing the pro­trac­ted, ex­pens­ive battle over col­lect­ive bar­gain­ing rights sparked by GOP Gov. Scott Walk­er there. Rau­ner has cited Walk­er as an ex­ample of the type of lead­er­ship Illinois could use.

Demo­crats also hope to turn Rau­ner’s wealth, busi­ness re­cord, and own­er­ship of nine homes against him, mir­ror­ing the party’s 2012 strategy against Mitt Rom­ney, and cap­it­al­ize on his shift­ing po­s­i­tion on rais­ing the min­im­um wage. And though Rau­ner’s lack of polit­ic­al ex­per­i­ence may be a re­fresh­ing as­set at times, it can also cause him trouble, as when he re­cently cla­ri­fied to the Chica­go Sun-Times that his wealth put him in the top “.01 per­cent,” not just the top 1 per­cent.

That gives Quinn, who has a repu­ta­tion as a strong cam­paign­er, plenty to work with, and he’s get­ting star­ted right away: Cap­it­ol Fax re­por­ted Tues­day that the gov­ernor would start TV ad­vert­ising that night. The spot hits “Bil­lion­aire Bruce Rau­ner” for not sup­port­ing a state min­im­um wage in­crease and even say­ing he would move it down. Quinn’s ads star­ted be­fore the Re­pub­lic­an primary had even been called.

“He’s made his own luck but also his own prob­lems,” Bowen said, point­ing to man­age­ment is­sues dur­ing Quinn’s gov­ernor­ship. But, Bowen con­tin­ued, “He’s made a habit of clos­ing cam­paigns pretty well.”

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