CHICAGO — Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner unveiled a new campaign TV ad last week that could symbolize the state of Illinois’ governor’s race as the Labor Day holiday marks the traditional start of an intense closing stretch toward the Nov. 6 election.
Against a leafy green backdrop, a mustachioed Ron Wilson, wearing a cap proclaiming “Vietnam Veteran,” says Democratic House Speaker Michael Madigan has been holding power “since Moby Dick was a minnow” and accuses Democratic governor candidate J.B. Pritzker of being one of Madigan’s “lackeys.”
Rewind the tape to October 2014. First-time candidate Rauner runs an ad featuring a mustachioed Wilson, wearing the same cap and framed against a similar leafy background. Wilson lauds Rauner as a man with “drive and a motivation — the ability to accomplish.”
The Rauner camp’s use of Wilson in both ads is illustrative of the political rule that in campaigns, everything old can become new again — particularly barring any major developments in what so far has been a lengthy, expensive contest for the state’s highest office.
The major themes for the governor’s campaign have been established for months, if not more than a year. For Rauner, Pritzker is an agent of the governor’s chief political nemesis, Madigan, and has promised to raise state taxes. For Pritzker, Rauner’s first term has been a failure and the governor serves as a local political emissary for President Donald Trump.
But the current contest also has parallels to the 2014 race for governor when Rauner took on and defeated Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn, said Christopher Mooney, a political scientist at the University of Illinois and part of the school’s Institute of Government and Public Affairs.
“This looks a lot like the Quinn-Rauner race in a sense that neither one of them really had a lot positive to say. When you’re the challenger without a record, and sort of a rookie candidate, all you’ve got is promises that anybody can make. So really, the only thing that has any meat to it typically is reading the record of the incumbent. That’s what this is all about, being in office and being held accountable,” Mooney said.
“In both (2014 and 2018), the incumbent has little to show for and the challenger is a neophyte candidate who had nothing except promises to offer,” he said. “You knew at the beginning of that 2014 race, as soon as Rauner won the nomination, it was going to be just terrible negative ads the whole time because both sides, that’s all they got. And at this point, this time around, it’s probably going to be very similar.”
Gone this time is Rauner’s 44-point “turnaround agenda” as a major campaign theme — something largely disregarded throughout his first term — though his calling for term limits and moving to remove much of the political considerations of redrawing districts remain. But instead of using the bullet-pointed reference to “turnaround,” his “agenda” remains, though he calls it “structural changes” that seek laws favorable to business and designed to weaken organized labor.
Despite millions of dollars spent on advertising by Rauner and Pritzker attacking each other’s record, the recycling of earlier campaign themes is viewed as appropriate for a general election audience that has not been tuned in to the daily back-and-forth — or for independent voters who tuned out negative ads dating to before the March primaries.
For Rauner, it’s also a time to attempt a crucial reunification of a social conservative base that split from him in the March primary after he approved laws expanding abortion, immigration and gay rights. He also faces a challenge from state Sen. Sam McCann of Plainview, a Republican running a third-party bid under the Conservative Party label.
That prompts concerns about GOP motivation and turnout for the governor, who is escalating his efforts to demonize Madigan as a result.
Rauner has spent tens of millions of dollars in his own campaigns and in prior legislative campaigns to savage Madigan and tie Democrats across the ballot to the veteran House speaker. But there are questions of whether Rauner’s repeated theme of blaming Madigan for the state’s ills has reached the saturation point with voters.
Rauner has “spent so much money burning that (negativity about Madigan) into the consciousness of people, it may be done,” Mooney said. He also said attempts to shift blame run counter to the way people try to look to the chief executive as a “parental figure.”
“You imbue them with all sorts of the qualities that you imbue in your parents: They’re strong, they’re smart, they’re looking out for your own good. When they say something, it’s good and we want to go along with it,” he said. “But things like blaming others, things like not accepting responsibility — that cuts into that parental figure image.”
There are two potent areas of attack for Rauner. His call for an independent map-making process, while wonky, could also lay out to disaffected Republicans what’s at stake. A Democratic governor and legislature would be able to sign congressional and legislative maps with no Republican input, threatening to further exile the GOP as a political force in the General Assembly for the next decade. But Rauner has used that rationale only sparingly.
Rauner has instead focused on Pritzker’s call for a graduated income tax to replace the state’s constitutionally mandated flat-rate tax. Such a tax would carry various rates based on income earned.
Pritzker has said his proposal would raise taxes on the wealthy and lower them on the middle class — but the Democrat has repeatedly declined to provide suggested tax rates on specific income levels saying they are subject to negotiation with lawmakers.
Rauner, meanwhile, has filled the Pritzker void in the proposed tax change by contending taxes would be raised on everyone under the Democrat’s scenario, providing an anti-tax message that Pritzker has been forced to try to rebut, though again offering no specifics.
For Pritzker, the response to Rauner’s tax hike charges has been to echo the Democrat’s constant campaign theme. In one ad, a narrator says of Rauner, “When you’re a failure, you lie.” In another ad, Pritzker doesn’t use the “lie” word, but says that because Rauner’s “a failure … he distorts” the Democrat’s message.
Perhaps Pritzker’s most potent message is the problems that social service providers and state institutions faced during Illinois’ historic budget impasse, including racking up a $16 billion backlog of bills owed to state vendors that carried a $1 billion interest penalty. The impasse was the result of the ideological divide between Rauner’s agenda and the Democrat-controlled General Assembly.
While the impasse was the result of dysfunctional state government, the problems created provide a constant source of information to attack Rauner’s leadership.
With Pritzker ahead in a recent NBC News/Marist poll by 16 percentage points — though much time remains until Election Day — there also are inclinations to try to coast toward election and not engage in events that could bring new negatives to the Democrat’s campaign. As of now, the two men are only scheduled to debate three times.
At the same time, while Pritzker’s TV ads attack Rauner, the Democrat’s YouTube campaign channel’s most recent videos feature Pritzker and running mate, state Rep. Juliana Stratton, answering “important questions” such as favorite dad jokes, dance moves, karaoke songs and the first words they uttered.
But complacency can be dangerous.
“‘You’ve got to play to win,’ is the old saying in sports. Play to win. Don’t play to not lose,” Mooney said. “But he’s been playing this same game from day one. He had pretty good (Democratic primary) challengers. He handled them very well, kind of cleverly.”
Which brings things back to the 2014 Rauner ad featuring Wilson, who served briefly as a local union president at the Vandalia Correctional Center.
“Tell me what you got done. I see zero,” Wilson said then of Pat Quinn. Such lines are a constant reminder that elections serve as a referendum on an incumbent.