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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