Governor Bruce Rauner’s veto of a gun-dealer licensing bill last week took a lot of folks by surprise. It probably shouldn’t have.
We'll get to the politics in a second, but as with HB40, the governor was acting on his beliefs. Rauner is a strong abortion-rights supporter, so he signed HB40 last year to provide public funding for abortions and protect women’s right to choose if Roe v. Wade is reversed by the U.S. Supreme Court.
Governor Rauner also says he’s an NRA member. And he’s been railing against government regulations of business his entire adult life. This licensing bill checked both of those ideological boxes.
Okay, on to the politics.
After the disastrous two-plus-year state-budget impasse, HB40 gave him an opening with suburban women last year – and you can't win statewide without that demographic.
Last week’s licensing-bill veto allowed him to throw some red meat at his GOP base a few days before the primary.
Getting on the front page of every newspaper in the state and leading the local TV news coverage and inserting himself into conservative talk radio shows would tend to help the governor with Republican primary voters.
And the more the Democrats scream about that veto, the more Rauner's base is shored up at an important moment. That may sound cynical, and it most definitely is, but it's difficult to deny. He upset a lot of conservatives by signing HB40. He needed to make it up to them.
Then, the Friday before the election, the Democratic Governors Association dropped almost half a million dollars on two TV ads designed to both help Rauner’s GOP primary opponent Representative Jeanne Ives court conservative, pro-Trump, pro-gun Republican primary voters and hurt the governor with that same Republican base.
As Rauner knows from his own personal experience, primaries often tighten up at the end. His polling had him leading by double digits four years ago at this time. Back then, he pulled down all his negative ads and switched to a fully positive campaign, only to barely squeak by on primary night. He wouldn’t want to make the same mistake twice.
Rauner probably suspected the DGA was about to do something, so his gun-bill veto earlier in the week was perfectly (accidentally, but still perfectly) timed.
It sure seems as I write this that the governor believed the race was tightening by looking at his behavior last week.
He vetoed that bill to regulate gun sellers, then held a hastily arranged press conference at the now-infamous Quincy veterans' home to announce some "options" for the future, pulled down his negative TV ad attacking JB Pritzker, reportedly added $350,000 to his already huge $1.5 million buy for the final week, launched a new and more powerful negative ad against Representative Ives that ludicrously tried to connect her to Speaker Madigan, and quickly put together a new TV spot defending himself against the DGA’s onslaught.
With Republican turnout appearing to tank compared to four years ago (which might give the far-right base an advantage), along with the possibility that at least some Cook County Republicans might be taking Democratic ballots to vote against Cook County Assessor Joe Berrios (a possibility that Rauner himself encouraged with his constant attacks on the Madigan-Berrios combine), and the fact that the governor cannot campaign effectively on a record of accomplishments (his positive advertising just says what he will do in the future, although he does take full credit for proposing a $1 billion tax cut that has no chance of passage), plus the intense national political weirdness, it all adds up to a situation where the governor could not afford to take any chances at all.
But wait. What about the gun-bill veto’s impact on the fall campaign? After all, those crucial suburban women are not known for being pro-gun. Just the opposite.
Well, you gotta win the primary before you can get to the general. Plus, the governor is likely betting that the Democrats will send him more gun-related bills and he can sign some or even all of them once the primary is behind him, so he can balance things out for the fall.
The bottom line is: I don't think this is the end for gun-control legislation this spring. In fact, it could wind up as just the beginning once we get to April. But that will rely on the Democratic leadership wanting to pass laws, not just bills. And I'm not sure yet which path they'll take.
Rich Miller also publishes Capitol Fax, a daily political newsletter, and CapitolFax.com.