Gov. Bruce Rauner may be about to make history — but it won’t be in a way he wants to.
The most recent polls show Rauner trailing his Democratic opponent JB Pritzker by 17 percentage points. If that margin holds up, Rauner will suffer the worst defeat ever by an incumbent Illinois governor, surpassing Dwight Green’s 14-point loss to Adlai Stevenson in 1948.
Rauner knows he’s losing badly. Lately, he’s been apologizing for the obstinance that led to the state going two years without a budget, and he’s promising to do better if Illinois gives him a second chance. “The simple fact is I’ve learned,” Rauner told the Tribune’s editorial board. “I was highly successful in business by being very aggressive, very dynamic, very quick to act, innovative in thinking. I’ve tried to be the same in government and what I’ve learned is that doesn’t work very well in a political process where we are in the super-minority and now the minority.”
So why is Rauner’s campaign for a second term tanking so unprecedentedly? Turns out, it may be the perfect storm.
In 2012, Governing magazine published a story titled, “What It Takes for a Governor to Lose Reelection,” which offers a lot of insight into Rauner’s present problems. It first points out that incumbent governors are reelected more than 80 percent of the time, which would place Rauner in a small subset of first-term failures. The magazine then laid out the reasons governors lose. Almost all of them apply to Rauner.
“Troubles for the state combined with ineffectual leadership”
Illinois has $16 billion in unpaid bills. Our credit rating is close to junk bond status. The state is losing population so rapidly that we dropped from the fifth-largest to sixth-largest state in 2017, falling behind Pennsylvania.
Much of this can be blamed on the fact that Rauner refused to sign a budget until the Democratic legislature restricted the power of public employee unions. Eventually, House Speaker Michael Madigan stepped in and built a coalition of Democrats and Republicans who passed a budget over Rauner’s veto — without any of his reforms, and with an income tax hike he opposed. Burn.
“Long-term partisan trends in the state shifting away from the governor’s party”
Illinois, which used to be politically competitive, has turned bluer and bluer in recent years. Both our state senators and a majority of congressmen and members of the General Assembly are Democratic.
Rauner’s 2014 election can be attributed more to Gov. Pat Quinn’s unpopularity than a statewide endorsement of Rauner’s policies. This can be overcome — Republican Charlie Baker is about to win a second term in Massachusetts — but only by governors willing to compromise with the majority party.
“Poor campaign skills”
Before he was elected governor, Rauner had never held, or even run for, political office. He tries to cover up the fact that he’s a multimillionaire with faux folksy behavior such as dropping his g’s, riding a Harley-Davidson, and wearing a cheap watch and Carhartt jacket.
Voters, though, can spot a phony. JB Pritzker doesn’t try to pretend to be anything other than a rich kid. With that last name, how can he?
Interestingly, this is the one category that trips up most Illinois governors but is not a factor in Rauner’s unpopularity. Otto Kerner, George Ryan, and Rod Blagojevich all went to federal prison for political corruption. Even Pritzker is in hot water, as of last night, for allegedly working with former assessor Joe Berrios to avoid $330,000 in property taxes on his Gold Coast mansion.
Give Rauner credit for not being a crook in an office with such a high rate of criminal behavior.
“A bad national electoral environment for the governor’s party in that election cycle”
Rauner chose a terrible year to run for re-election as a Republican. According to FiveThirtyEight, President Donald Trump’s approval rating in Illinois has dropped 31 points since his inauguration, as much as in any other state. The president’s approval rating in Illinois is 37 percent, while 59 percent disapprove of his performance. Besides the governorship, Republican congressmen Peter Roskam and Mike Bost are in danger of losing their seats.
Those are Rauner’s problems. He may not be corrupt, but he’s ineffectual, unloveable, and a member of a party his constituents can’t stand. At the very least, the millions he’s spent on two campaigns will earn him a portrait on a wall in the Capitol — right between the man he beat, and the man who’s about to beat him.