If you were wondering whether the latest NBC/Marist poll showing Governor Bruce Rauner trailing JB Pritzker by 16 points was enough to take the wind out of the incumbent, you only had to look to an event last week for an answer.
Rauner, along with other major statewide candidates, spoke to the Illinois Agricultural Legislative Roundtable near Normal. It’s a rite of passage for statewide hopefuls. They speak and take questions under a large, open-sided tent next to a corn field. The event is not easy to get to and even more difficult to endure because the August heat is rarely kind.
But the context and conditions didn’t seem to faze Rauner. “Everything is on the line in this election,” he told attendees. And as he has for months on end, Rauner warned of JB Pritzker’s ties to Chicago’s “corruption” and Speaker Madigan, which are basically two sides of the same coin to this governor. It was as clear as ever that he truly believes this stuff. He’s the good guy on the white horse (or motorcycle, if you prefer) who was born to save the state from the “evil” machine.
Rauner also unveiled a new TV ad last week with the tag line: “JB Pritzker and Mike Madigan. Higher taxes. More Corruption.”
He may very well go down in flames this November, but he and his people have long made it clear that Pritzker’s win won’t come without a steep price. He appears ready to battle all the way through, even if he isn’t thrilled about the billionaire Pritzker’s ability to outspend him.
Rauner admitted during the Illinois State Fair that Pritzker is out-spending him three to one. The dollar margin may narrow a bit, but I doubt that the overall gap will ever be closed. He’ll have to make up for the cash disadvantage by going over the top with his negative attacks.
Rauner’s tenure as governor and the national political climate have combined to just about destroy his reputation (his unfavorable rating is twice as high as his favorable rating in that NBC/Marist poll). It’s far too late and the national headwinds are far too strong to totally rehabilitate his image with the general public. So Rauner’s best path to victory appears to be to drag Pritzker down as far as he possibly can.
By contrast, “this guy Pritzker,” as the governor likes to refer to him, came across last week as a happy warrior when it was his turn to speak. Few in that heavily Republican Farm Bureau audience will be voting for him come November, but he didn’t behave as if he was in hostile territory. The man has skills.
In person, Pritzker comes across as genuine and accessible, two traits you don’t usually associate with billionaires who are allegedly tied at the hip to a corrupt political machine. He just doesn’t match up with the governor’s negative hype.
He parried Rauner’s attacks with a believable smile and got in some solid jabs of his own as he recounted pieces of the now-familiar story of the years-long governmental impasse. He admitted his ignorance on certain topics instead of trying to bluff his way through and promised to listen and learn, which are not things the governor does on a regular basis.
One concern I’ve heard since the last poll came out is about voter complacency. If the polling continues to show large Pritzker leads, will his campaign lay back and will Democratic voters stay home?
I don’t think the campaign will let up. To illustrate my point, Pritzker’s campaign manager tweeted in all caps the night the NBC/Marist poll was published: “DON’T GET COMPLACENT, PEOPLE.” And in a year like this, defined mainly by opposition to what’s happening in and around the White House, people are probably gonna vote no matter what. Things can always change, but this trend shows no signs of abating soon.
Pritzker’s candidacy is basically billed as the antidote to Raunerism and a protective wall against President Trump. And that’s not a bad idea when every poll including this last one has Rauner doing worse than Trump.
But a win also has to have some meaning outside of “I’m not him.” If he does win, he’ll have to govern.
Pritzker has to show legislators that he took some risks with policy ideas so that they will, too. Otherwise, they’ll behave in Springfield next year the way he’s been on the campaign trail this year and stick to only poll-tested ideas that won’t rock the boat.
Rich Miller also publishes Capitol Fax, a daily political newsletter, and CapitolFax.com.