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How to Win Reelection When Your State Hates You

A case study in Illinois

Brendan Smialowski / Getty Images

A year ago, Illinois Governor Pat Quinn’s chances at re-election looked so bleak that Hillary Clinton called him the world’s “luckiest politician” when his Democratic primary challenger withdrew. He had barely held onto his office in 2010, and since then, he’s done little to endear himself to the state. In November 2012, he took the prize for the most unpopular governor in the country, with an approval rate at 25 percent. The governor's administration also became entangled in two corruption investigations

Meanwhile, his Republican challenger this fall, wealthy businessman Bruce Rauner, is unsullied by the state’s culture of political corruption (both of Quinn’s predecessors went to prison). Rauner could also look forward to higher Republican turnout for midterm elections. And Rauner, who made his fortune in private equity, could dig deep into his own pockets to outspend the sitting governor. Illinois might be a deeply blue state, but Rauner seemed poised to win it. In one poll last August, Rauner had a comfortable lead of 13 points. But then, in September, his edge began disappearing. Some polls even showed Quinn up a little. And now, days before the election, Quinn and Rauner are statistically tied. What happened? 

In the earlygoing, Rauner tried to portray himself as a reformer who would finally sort out Springfield’s historic corruption, but Quinn responded with a blitz of ads depicting Rauner as Romney 2.0: wealthy and out-of-touch. Quinn highlighted Rauner’s membership in a six-figure-priced wine club and his business history outsourcing jobs. Perhaps most powerfully, Quinn’s ads have criticized GTCR, a firm where Rauner was managing partner, which is facing trial in Florida to determine its role in the neglect and death of elderly patients at a nursing home chain that the firm co-founded. And even as Rauner tried to run as an economic moderate, Quinn’s camp made ads highlighting an interview in which Rauner admitted to once supporting the total elimination of the minimum wage.

Rauner might have responded effectively to Quinn’s attacks, but his campaign has “missed openings and made some mistakes,” said University of Illinois political science professor Brian Gaines. Two weeks ago, when a federal judge appointed a monitor to oversee hiring in the Department of Transportation, Rauner ran an attack ad consisting of a limp supercut, his voice barely audible over the background noise. On the first day of the state Legislative Audit Commission’s hearings investigating the Neighborhood Recovery Initiative, Rauner's ad vaguely condemned Quinn for “misuse of taxpayer funds” and neglected to specifically discuss the Neighborhood Recovery Initiative, which a state auditor said had "pervasive deficiencies." Ad executive Tom O’Keefe put it this way to the Chicago Business Journal: “A mud-slinging campaign is like a street fight—somebody challenges you, and you can't walk away, whether you like it or not. In this case it feels like Gov. Pat Quinn is the street fighter, and Bruce Rauner the successful businessman who's been lured into a street fight, reluctantly and uncomfortably.”

In his campaign, Rauner has directed much of his energy to wooing voters who will not support him and ignoring those who might. As Barnard political science professor Michael Miller put it, Illinois is seven-hours long, and outside of Chicago, the state leans conservative. In 2010, Republican Bill Brady captured 98 of Illinois’ 102 counties (and lost anyway). Brady was a hardline social conservative: pro-life, pro-guns, anti-same-sex marriage. Rauner, who doesn’t tote the same conservative credentials, hasn’t found a way to appeal to “downstate” voters—meaning, basically, voters from outside of Chicago. His wife is a self-admitted Democrat, and Rauner once skipped a pro-life dinner for a pro-choice one. “He’s had this balancing act ever since getting into the race: not too right, not too left,” said political blogger Rich Miller. He doesn’t seem to be balancing well: Recent polling is showing Rauner neck-and-neck with Quinn in Southern Illinois, which should be his stronghold. 

Instead, Rauner’s been focusing his campaign on winning voters in minority wards of Chicago, saying that Quinn is taking his African-American supporters for granted. Republican voters are so unheard of in those wards that a South Side pastor, who was part of a group of ministers who endorsed Rauner, received death threats and had his church burglarized. “The fact that he’s a white millionaire makes people on the South and West side pretty hesitant,” Rich Miller understated. In an October Chicago Tribune poll, Rauner clocked in at three percent of the African-American vote. It’s possible the unconventional tactic might warm collar-county moderates to Rauner, but he’ll have to win more than the Chicago suburbs to claim the governorship.

Quinn’s approval rating is still an abysmal 36 percent, but Illinois is a blue state. Democratic Chicago’s turnout will be formidable, even for a midterm election. And in the absence of an effective challenge, Quinn has made the election about Rauner’s business deals rather than his own sorry performance as governor. Rauner could still win, but it is going to be close. “In any other state, Pat Quinn is toast,” Michael Miller said. And with a more effective opponent, he might have been.

Correction: The article originally stated that Governor Quinn was the subject of two corruption investigations. It was his administration, not the governor personally, that was subject to the investigations.