Against the Grain

Why Bruce Rauner Is the Most Vulnerable Governor

Alienating suburban and blue-collar voters in equal measure, the Illinois Republican failed to appreciate how dramatically his party has changed since he’s been in office.

Illinois Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner
AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh
March 25, 2018, 6 a.m.

The struggles of Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner should serve as a cautionary tale to Republicans who believe that, in a post-Trump universe, the party can return to being the party of Paul Ryan: business-friendly, more moderate on social issues like immigration, and deferential to its donor class in shaping policy. In reality, appealing to conservative cultural grievances and winning support from blue-collar laborers is likely to be the future of the Grand Old Party—long after President Trump departs from the political stage.

When he first ran for office, Rauner was something of a dream candidate for Republican reformers. Pledging to “shake up Springfield,” he ran on business-friendly economic reforms, criticized the influence of unions, and touted his executive expertise. He frequently said he “had no social agenda,” in order to reassure suburban women that they could support a Republican candidate. Covering him in 2014, I wrote about his surprising focus on school choice in the election, taking time to campaign in majority-black precincts of Chicago to demonstrate an inclusive message in a solidly Democratic state. Boosted by his personal wealth and the unpopularity of his predecessor, Democrat Pat Quinn, he pulled off the stunning upset—with suburban Chicago voters providing his margin of victory.

Fast-forward four years, and he’s the most vulnerable governor in America—by far. He’s a man without a party, alienating his partisan allies without winning independent-minded suburbanites in the process. His turnaround agenda ran head-first into concerted Democratic opposition, miring the state in endless gridlock for most of his tenure so far. He failed to appreciate the influence of private-sector trade unions when he aggressively lobbied for a right-to-work policy that couldn’t get through an overwhelmingly Democratic state legislature. He signed a bill expanding taxpayer funding for abortions, alienating social conservatives and nearly costing him the GOP nomination in last Tuesday’s primary.

Even school choice, once a bipartisan cause célèbre, has become more unpopular, with polarizing Education Secretary Betsy DeVos acting as a leading face of the movement. Instead of spending time promoting charter schools, Rauner has clashed with Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel over public-school funding and saw his veto on an education-funding plan overridden by the legislature.

“If you’re going to govern in Illinois, alienating a large segment of blue-collar workforce is going to make your job that much more difficult,” said Rauner’s former deputy chief of staff Lance Trover. “If you’re going to be a Republican governor in a state like Illinois, you can’t just rely on the business community and their money.”

Tuesday’s primary election results served as a stinging rebuke to Rauner’s record—from within his own party. Remarkably, Rauner lagged behind little-known conservative state Rep. Jeanne Ives in many of the suburban Chicago collar counties (DuPage, Will, and McHenry) that gave him widespread support in his first campaign. Rauner’s apostasy on abortion was a much bigger deal than his aggressive push for economic reforms. Meanwhile, more than 1.3 million Democrats cast ballots in Illinois, nearly three times as many as showed up in the Democratic primary in 2014, when Rauner was last on the ballot.

Rauner’s rebuke from voters doesn’t mean Republicans should stop pushing economically responsible reforms—especially in a state as chronically mismanaged as Illinois. It’s a reminder that they’ll need to recognize cutting public spending is a difficult sell, and any leader will need to spend political capital to build public consensus for such an agenda. Rauner faced a Democratic supermajority in the state legislature, yet picked needless fights with possible trade-union allies at the beginning of his governorship.

“Rauner didn’t use the playbook that every Republican governor used in the past—divide the teachers’ unions from the trade unions. The trade unions are private-sector unions—they’re more conservative, they care about taxes. They’re not wedded to the pension issue,” said one Illinois Democratic strategist. “But the first thing he did was attack the trades in his push for right-to-work [legislation]. It was a gift to [state House Speaker] Mike Madigan.”

There are larger lessons for the Republican Party from Rauner’s struggles. Trump’s takeover of the GOP was accomplished, in part, because he didn’t subscribe to the entitlement-trimming principles that defined the party for decades. Trump pledged to protect Social Security and Medicare, and promised everyone would have health insurance (even though repealing Obamacare would have moved in the opposite direction). Rauner’s political playbook took the more traditional Republican path: pick fights with Democrats on economic issues and take moderate positions on the culture wars.

But Republican voters in Illinois turned out to be much more exercised over cultural issues than economic ones. One of Ives’s most prominent advertisements attacked Rauner for supporting abortion rights, sanctuary cities, and protections for transgender individuals. The ad featured a man in a hoodie “thanking” Rauner for protecting illegal immigrants and a man in a dress “thanking” Rauner for supporting transgender people. Despite the widespread disgust from the Illinois GOP establishment over the ad’s message, Ives nonetheless ran competitively among Republicans in the Chicago suburbs.

Rauner will be facing Democrat J.B. Pritzker, a billionaire businessman, in the general election in what could become the most expensive governor’s race of all time. In many ways, the race is a perfect example of the shifting priorities of both national parties. Democrats, traditionally the party of the working class, are perfectly fine with nominating a plutocratic politician who spent nearly $70 million of his own money in the primary, as long as he doesn’t stray from party orthodoxy. Polls show Pritzker with a sizable early lead.

If those results hold, Rauner will be a victim of the GOP’s identity crisis in the age of Trump. He’s a GOP donor-turned-governor still chasing after affluent suburban voters when they’re increasingly disillusioned by the Republican Party—without offering much to working-class voters in return. All the money in the world can’t change that reality.

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