TOPICS > Politics

Miss America, ‘Mitt Romney on steroids’ and more to watch in today’s Illinois primary

BY Domenico Montanaro  March 18, 2014 at 8:35 AM EDT
Republican candidates for governor of Illinois, from left, Bill Brady, Dan Rutherford, Kirk Dillard and Bruce Rauner speak at a public form at the University of Chicago on Tuesday, March 4, 2014. Photo by Terrence Antonio James/Chicago Tribune/Getty Images

Republican candidates for governor of Illinois, from left, Bill Brady, Dan Rutherford, Kirk Dillard and Bruce Rauner speak at a public form at the University of Chicago on Tuesday, March 4, 2014. Photo by Terrence Antonio James/Chicago Tribune/Getty Images

Both sides expect that Republican Bruce Rauner, a wealthy private-equity investor, will win the GOP primary for Illinois governor handily Tuesday. That would set him up to take on vulnerable incumbent Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn.

And it’s shaping up to be a bruising fight even before it begins.

Democrats signal that they plan to paint Rauner as another Mitt Romney, citing his past business and personal affiliations, along with his personal wealth which is pegged at about $500 million.

“We’re going to make sure voters know this guy’s Mitt Romney on steroids,” said Danny Kanner, communications director for the Democratic Governors Association and an Obama campaign alumnus.

Rauner leads the GOP field by double digits, 36 percent to 23 percent in the latest Chicago Tribune/WGN-TV poll released earlier this month over state Sen. Kirk Dillard. (Dillard famously appeared in Barack Obama’s first presidential campaign ad in 2008, talking up Obama’s willingness to work across the aisle as a state senator.)

Rauner has built his lead with the help of a multi-million-dollar ad campaign that he largely financed himself.

In fact, Rauner has already spent more money on the race than anyone who has ever run for governor in Illinois history. He’s already poured in more than $6 million–far more than the record $5.3 million spent in 2006 by Republican Ronald Gidwitz on his failed bid.

Unions have tried to stop Rauner from opening up his checkbook and are promising to spend what they can to thwart his campaign.

Rauner’s signature ad tries to combat the rich-guy stereotype. It features what, he says, is his “old watch” that cost him just $18. “Pretty cheap,” Rauner touts, “but gets the job done.”

He then pivots in the ad to Quinn. “Pat Quinn’s watch in Springfield, just the opposite,” Rauner says. “Record spending, taxes, job losses, and one of the worst-run governments in America.”

Quinn, who succeeded scandal-tarred Democratic Gov. Rod Blagojevich, won election in 2010 with less than 50 percent of the vote and by fewer than 30,000 votes out of 2.4 million. His state suffers from the third-worst unemployment rate in the country at 8.9 percent, and his approval ratings reflect it, sitting in the 30s or worse.

But no one doubts Quinn’s toughness. He has re-branded himself a progressive fighter, channeling President Obama’s reelection message on income inequality. He made pension reform a key part of his legislative agenda and enacted it, but he also signed the legalization of same-sex marriage into law. Quinn wants a more progressive tax code and is also calling for a hike in the minimum wage from $8.25 to $10.10–the same number President Obama has urged nationally.

Democrats plan to hit Rauner for shifting positions on the minimum wage, first indicating he would want to cut the minimum wage before reversing positions and saying he would be actually favor an increase.

The race will be a test of the potency of the income-inequality message Democrats are pushing while Republicans hit back on health care. And an exercise in the Democrats’ ability to turn out Democratic-leaning and minority voters in a blue state when most of the key battles this election season will be fought on Republican turf.

Quinn also staved off–or lucked out, depending on your perspective–primary challenges from popular Democrats with deep Illinois political ties: Attorney General Lisa Madigan and former White House Chief of Staff Bill Daley.

As a result, Quinn faces no serious primary challenge Tuesday. He hopes the Democratic leanings of the state that went for President Obama by 17 points and a full-throated attack of Rauner’s past will put him over the top in November.

Democrats are banking on Illinois’ tendency to lean blue, and the opportunity to paint Rauner as out of touch with the middle class. It’s the next evolution of Obama’s battle-tested campaign strategy against 2012 Republican presidential nominee Romney.

Romney was blasted by Obama’s campaign and Democratic-aligned outside groups for his work in private equity.

Republicans reject that and see the race as a referendum on Quinn’s record. And they cite Rauner’s wealth as a structural strength in a state unhappy with Democratic leadership.

“Illinois is getting close to what Wisconsin, Ohio, and Michigan experienced in 2010–traditional blue states, but fed up with their state government that cannot seem to produce any results other than more debt,” said Jon Thompson, spokesman for the Republican Governors Association. “Those states elected GOP governors in 2010 to see if they could turn those states around, and, for the most part, they have. I think if Rauner can point to those states, and have enough resources to effectively communicate why it’s time for something else in Springfield, he can have a great shot.”

Other races to watch on the ballot:

  • U.S. House: IL-13 GOP primary – Incumbent freshman Rodney Davis (R) vs. Erika Harold (D), former Miss America 2003: This is a highly competitive district come the fall, one Democrats hope to win with Ann Callis, a former judge. Davis is heavily favored in the primary, but Harold has garnered national attention. She is biracial and a Harvard Law graduate running against a freshman–and white–Republican. Harold wanted the job in 2012, but 14 county GOP chairmen picked Davis over her. During this race, she was derided by one local GOP official as a “streetwalker” and a “lovechild” of the DNC — despite her strongly conservative stances. That official resigned and drew a rebuke from RNC Chairman Reince Priebus, exposing a continued rift in the party on race.
  • But the bigger picture here is that between Harold, Mia Love (the likely winner in the fourth congressional district in Utah and likely first black woman Republican member of Congress), Tim Scott (who will be the first elected black senator from South Carolina since Reconstruction), and people like Ben Carson and Herman Cain on a presidential level, Republicans continue to search for black conservatives they hope can expand the base and appeal to minorities. The irony is this year of firsts for Republicans comes after a presidential election that highlighted Republicans’ difficulties in attracting enough minorities to win nationally. But Democrats are dealing with their own demographic problems in 2014–attracting enough white voters or turning out enough of their base. That was laid bare once again after Democrats’ loss in FL-13 last week.
  • U.S. Senate: Two Republicans are vying to take on U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin (D), who is up for reelection, though Durbin is expected to be easily reelected. He won with 68 percent in 2010. Durbin is likely to take on state Sen. Jim Oberweis (R), who leads in money and the polls. Oberweis has run (and lost) five times previously for major office; U.S. House and Senate twice each and governor once. But watch the name Doug Truax in Republican politics Illinois in the future. Truax is expected to lose to Oberweis, but the 43-year-old West Point grad was endorsed by former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich and Rep. Aaron Schock and could use this race to raise his profile. But he has no previous political experience, and Illinois hasn’t voted someone to the Senate without holding prior office since Charles Percy in 1966.

Polls are open in Illinois on Tuesday from 7:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m. ET.