Bruce Rauner out-performed fellow Republican Bill Brady's 2010 gubernatorial-election performance in every region of the state last week. As I write this, with less than half a percent of the vote yet to be counted, Rauner has a 5-point margin over Governor Pat Quinn and appears to have won a majority vote in a three-way election.
The national headwinds against the Democratic Party surely played a role in the Quinn loss. But Rauner did better than other Republicans on the ticket. Comptroller Judy Baar Topinka is widely considered one of the most popular Republicans in Illinois, and yet she under-performed Rauner. At this writing, GOP state Representative Tom Cross and Democratic state Senator Michael Frerichs are just about tied in the treasurer's race. And Republican Supreme Court Justice Lloyd Karmeier appears to have narrowly survived an attempt to oust him.
Rauner scored just above the magic 20-percent number in Chicago, a point at which - with a significant advantage in the rest of the state - a Republican can win a statewide election.
But he didn't really need it. He out-performed Brady's 2010 campaign in suburban Cook County by 6 points, outdid the Downstater in his own region by a point, and dwarfed Brady's 2010 numbers throughout the collar counties.
In the end, Quinn was just too unpopular after six years of not producing enough results on the economy and the budget, and was likely overly reliant on negative campaign ads.
One of Quinn's few positive messages was about raising the minimum wage, but that campaign issue - bolstered by a statewide, non-binding referendum - failed to spark Democratic turnout and may have worked against the governor with suburban women, for whom "minimum wage" has a stigma.
"They didn't want to hear about raising the minimum wage when their grown kids were still living at home and can't find a decent job," grumped one higher-up the weekend before the election. Quinn just never had a message that appealed to the middle class.
A coalition of labor unions and community organizations spent millions of dollars touting the minimum-wage issue with the goal of increasing Democratic turnout by 225,000 votes in Cook County compared to 2010. But it was doomed from the start.
Barack Obama's 2008 presidential campaign increased Democratic voting in Cook County by 189,300 over Democrat John Kerry's 2004 performance. The Quinnsters were hoping to do the same thing Obama did - even though they had a candidate who was a known (and disliked) quantity, was getting the blame for the state's budget problems and economic condition, and was up against a moderate gazillionaire.
It failed miserably. Quinn received 60,754 fewer votes in Cook County this year compared to 2010. They didn't expand the vote; they contracted it.
Even worse, Quinn seemed to build his entire campaign around this crazy tactic. It's apparently why he ran a "base" campaign, constantly talking about raising the minimum wage, bashing Rauner for being a heartless billionaire, etc.
The whole idea, from the TV ads down to voter registration and the minimum-wage ballot initiative, was to fire up the base and jack up turnout. Quinn didn't have to worry about spending too much time and money appealing to suburban women, or Downstaters, or whomever. He could focus almost his entire effort on turning out the base with a couple of strongly populist issues.
President George W. Bush used an anti-gay-marriage ballot initiative in Ohio to successfully bring conservatives to the polls and win the state in 2004. But Bush was a popular war president at the time. And, as with Obama in 2008, that was a presidential-election year, when turnout is much more easily boosted than in off-years such as this one.
Also keep in mind that Quinn preferred to run against Rauner. From the very beginning he wanted to run this sort of populist campaign, and he believed Rauner would be the best opponent to use it against.
Another part of Quinn's strategy was to depress Rauner's Downstate base by funding the pro-life, pro-gun Libertarian Party candidate. Rauner effectively countered with massive mailers and phone calls warning Republicans that Quinn and the Chicago Democrats were trying to "steal" the election by pushing the Libertarian. That message worked.
Overall, Quinn was a flawed, unpopular governor who plotted a doomed campaign strategy against a guy who had a far better message, lots more money, and, perhaps most importantly, a fresh face.
Rich Miller also publishes Capitol Fax (a daily political newsletter) and CapitolFax.com.