Last week, Governor Bruce Rauner's campaign fund transferred $4.45 million to the Illinois Republican Party to bankroll a new effort to focus voters' attention on House Speaker Michael Madigan.
The state party unveiled its "2018 Madigan Retirement Plan," which it claimed was designed to "specifically target members of the Illinois House and Senate who empower their political boss, Mike Madigan." The party said the governor's money would supply "unprecedented support to local GOP organizations by providing innovative grassroots tools, enhanced digital and data integration, and targeted support for local Republican candidates in an effort to defeat Democrats at every level who empower their party leader, Mike Madigan."
A few things are going on here. First, "Blame Madigan" has been Rauner's main theme song since the 2014 campaign. This is a continuation of that effort. It has worked in the past, so they're betting it'll work again.
Second, talking about Madigan means he can deflect attention from his own problems.
And that brings us to the third reason. The governor is being criticized loudly and harshly by members of his own party for signing HB40 into law, which legalized taxpayer-funded abortions. Shoveling some cash out the door, or at the very least holding the cash out there as a potential carrot, might help calm some tempers. Running it through the state party means there are no direct Rauner fingerprints on the money, so accepting it gives Republican candidates and organizations some deniability. Not much, but some. They can just say the new cash in their accounts is all about defeating that bad ol' Madigan.
The governor's campaign operation long ago successfully injected the "Madigan Question" into just about every significant political race. Pretty much all Democratic candidates and incumbents are now asked how they plan to remain independent of the House Speaker, or if they support term limiting him out of office. And they are asked that question just about everywhere they go. It's inescapable, and botching the answer can have serious consequences.
But a new candidate question has emerged since Rauner signed HB40. Republicans are now being asked whether they're supporting Governor Rauner's re-election.
When Christian County Republican Party Chairman Seth McMillan announced he would run against Senator Andy Manar (D-Bunker Hill) last week, he was asked where he stood on the intra-party schism. According to the Decatur Herald & Review, McMillan said he would support whoever won the primary and stated, "Right now, I support the governor's re-election."
Okay, so he's with the governor, which is good news for Rauner, but those questions wouldn't even have been asked before the HB40 explosion.
Representative Dan Brady (R-Bloomington) was asked during a local radio talk show last week whether he was endorsing Rauner's re-election.
"Asking me, 'Would I still support the governor?' I'd have to know who's running," Brady said, later clarifying that the governor hadn't yet asked for his endorsement.
As the numerous Republican legislative primaries start heating up between incumbents and others supported by the establishment and those backed by conservative activist Dan Proft and his cohorts the Rauner questions will naturally become more frequent.
And if Governor Rauner winds up facing state Representative Jeanne Ives (R-Wheaton) or somebody else in the Republican primary, questions about where folks stand will be everywhere, constant and inescapable.
And that means some Republicans are going to be put into a trick bag. Most Republicans with far-right primary opponents can't embrace the governor, for obvious reasons. And if they embrace Rauner's primary opponent they could risk losing out on the so-called "Retire Madigan" money. Attempting to remain neutral comes with its own likely risks.
The Democrats barely used Rauner as an issue in targeted legislative races last year. But that likely won't be repeated next year as Rauner's polling numbers continue to slide ever downward.
As I've told you before, once it became clear to the Democrats that there could be no budget deal with the governor, the plan was to drag him down to a point where he was almost as unpopular as Speaker Madigan. That would put Rauner's re-election in peril as well as harm Republican legislative incumbents and the Democrats’ GOP challengers.
So Republicans will undoubtedly be put on the spot with questions next fall about whether they can remain independent of an unpopular governor with a reputation as a control freak who backs that up with a fat wallet.
What goes around comes around, I suppose.
Rich Miller also publishes Capitol Fax, a daily political newsletter, and CapitolFax.com.