Illinois Governor Bruce Rauner denied that his two-day tour of the state last week had anything to do with the 2018 election, but it was pretty darned clear that he and his team were tuning up the band for the big show down the road.
Campaign funds not only paid for the tour, but political money was used to promote in it advance. I'm told Rauner's advertising on social and online media served more than a million impressions in the days leading up to the fly-around.
Rauner played up his latest hits. The “Chicago Machine Democrats” just want to “duct-tape” the state's problems instead of fixing them. Rauner's latest TV ads, paid for by a "dark money" subsidiary of the Republican Governors Association, feature him in a pristine workshop using duct tape to explain how Springfield politicians don't fix problems.
Whatever he lacks in governing abilities, there's no doubt that Rauner is a master at laying out a simple, popular, and easy-to-understand message and then staying on that message no matter what. During his Peoria appearance, Rauner slammed the House Democrats' stopgap budget as just "taping over our problems -- duct-taping cracks in our system." The only thing missing was the bright, pressed flannel shirt he wore in the TV ad.
The governor also played popular tunes from his recent albums. Since about the beginning of the year -- when he was asked by a reporter to grade his first two years in office -- Rauner has repeatedly pointed to his own successes at unilaterally cutting unspecified waste from the system (which plays right into the popular notion that waste is the state's biggest problem) and then contrasted that with the obstructionism of the "Madigan Democrats" in the General Assembly.
"They've created the worst crisis of any state in America," Rauner said of the Democrats while speaking in Springfield. "On things that I can control, we've done wonderfully. Where the General Assembly has blocked progress, they've made the problem worse.”
Rauner even brought back a line from his February budget address, when he encouraged the Senate's leaders to hammer out a grand bargain. He spoke about that effort as if he'd never actually knocked the grand bargain off the rails in March.
And, of course, he brought out the old standards that he's been playing for years: property-tax freeze, term limits, and becoming "much more pro-growth, pro-business, pro-investment, pro-job-creation," as he said in Rockford.
The Democratic candidates, for their part, stuck to their #DoYourJob theme in response to Rauner’s tour, saying the governor should be getting a budget deal done rather than campaigning. None mentioned that the House and Senate are in the midst of a two-week spring break, so doing a deal or even meeting with the other leaders probably wouldn't be possible. Also, governors often use spring breaks as an opportunity to hit the hustings. This is nothing new.
Much of the Chicago-based print media focused on the fact that Rauner denied he was campaigning while obviously campaigning. But they never put that into the broader context of the governor’s habit of saying one thing (cheerleading the Senate's grand bargain) while doing another (killing the Senate's grand bargain).
Channel 7, the most-watched television station in Chicagoland, ran a purely positive piece.
"I want all of you to have a better future, I want your children to have great schools, and I want your salaries to go up," Rauner said during the Chicago station's report. There was no mention of the fact that none of that has happened since he became governor, and there is no foreseeable time when any of it will happen as long as we have this perpetual gridlock.
Rauner also appeared via phone on several talk-radio programs during his tour and faced mostly softball questions from conservative hosts. Even conservative activist Dan Proft, who has sharply criticized the governor on his radio program since the start of the year, allowed Rauner to endlessly rattle on about his main talking points, duct tape and all, without much of a peep.
For those on Rauner's side, this was a good tour. For those on the other side (and polls show there are a lot of them), well, they wouldn't like it anyway. Those in the middle probably got the message that the governor and his team wanted to send, with a big assist from the media.
Rich Miller also publishes Capitol Fax (a daily political newsletter) and CapitolFax.com.