Illinois primary puts Midwest's last Democratic bastion in peril (+video)

The Illinois primary Tuesday set up a fall election between an unpopular Democratic incumbent governor and a multimillionaire Republican. Illinois has been the Midwest's last fully blue state.

By , Staff writer

The race for Illinois Governor has started and both candidates have come out swinging.

[Updated 11:30 a.m. EDT] The same fiscal problems that have ushered in Republican executives across the Midwest could turn one of the region's last blue governorship red.

Illinois held its primary Tuesday, and Bruce Rauner, a private equity manager from the Chicago suburbs, won the Republican nomination. He will take on Democratic incumbent Gov. Pat Quinn, who has a 60 percent disapproval rating, according to a November Public Policy Polling poll.

In his acceptance speech, Mr. Rauner called Governor Quinn a “failure” and said he would work to return prosperity to the state.

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Quinn is vulnerable because Illinois suffers from problems like the ones that brought Wisconsin Republican Gov. Scott Walker to power in 2010: Illinois has an unfunded pension liability of $100.5 billion and a budget deficit of $47.8 billion, which is triple what it was seven years ago. Rauner, a multimillionaire, promises an overhaul of the state’s finances.

The race is attracting national attention because all the states bordering Illinois except Missouri are run by Republican governors (and that has an overwhelmingly Republican legislature). Alone of all the Midwestern states, Illinois has been fully blue – with Democrats controlling both houses of the legislature and the governorship – throughout the past several election cycles. For that reason, capturing the governor’s seat in Illinois would be a symbolic victory for the national party, especially as it prepares for the 2016 national election cycle. [Editor's note: The original version did not mention Missouri as a state bordering Illinois with a Democratic governor.]

“Republicans would love the narrative of having Lincoln’s state two years from now," says Andy Civettini, a political scientist at Knox College in Galesburg, Ill. "It would allow them to cut into [political] coverage during the [presidential] election. It becomes a psychological nod that the party is capable of sound executive leadership.”

It would also play into the Republican claim that 2014 will be “a tsunami-type election,” sweeping in Republicans nationwide, as Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus said at a Monitor breakfast Tuesday. The next steps, he said, will be to take the “positives and benefits that [the party has] been able to provide in 2014 and build on that to have success in 2016.”

The state of the Illinois economy will certainly be a plus for Rauner, who won 43 percent of Tuesday’s vote, narrowly topping state Sen. Kirk Dillard, who earned 40 percent.

“Republicans have a leg up because the economy in Illinois is dong quite poorly. A Republican has a much better chance to win than what you would guess based on the party history in the state,” says David Merriman, a political scientist at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

Rauner is hostile to public sector unions, which he says are overpaid and burdening the state’s finances. He wants to end tenure for public school teachers and would like to overhaul the state’s recent public pension reform that Quinn signed into law last year. Rauner says it did not go far enough.

Much of his rhetoric sound familiar: “Rauner is much more in tune with someone like Walker,” says Professor Merriman. “He’s got a lot of evidence on his side that the economy is doing poorly. Like Illinois, Wisconsin is a state that [leans] Democratic, so it is a sign that [Rauner] could use that kind of model to win Illinois.

Where Quinn is also vulnerable is the 67 percent income-tax hike pushed to close the state deficit. While Rauner has criticized the increased tax burden, he has not yet revealed how he would plug the yawning budget hole.

In that way, Rauner is also similar to Walker who, during his 2010 campaign, did not present a fiscal plan. Instead, he unveiled it when he got into office, proposing legislation that ended collective bargaining of public sector workers, except police and firefighters, and cut benefits.

Unions, however, have not been friendly to Quinn. They remain angry at him for the pension reform he pushed through late last year. Rauner could use that apathy “by not being so full-throated about pension reform,” says Professor Civettini.

“That may sound counterintuitive with his theme of fiscal responsibility, but if he’s vague about what he’s going to do to solve it, in that way, he would be similar to Walker,” Civettini says. “As long as he stays away from specifics, that might work.”

Also on Rauner’s side is the fact that Democrats are not enthused by Quinn. Because of the union issue, among others, none of the big party Democrats, such as Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, came out to support the governor. There was even discussion about putting up a candidate of their own to push Quinn out of office.

The party division works to Rauner’s favor, Civettini says, and it also suggests he may receive financial backing from “Gold Coast Democrats,” representing the wealthiest quarters of the state, where Rauner has strong ties.

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