Illinois is a red state with a big blue city disproportionately influencing its politics.
If Illinois were any other state, or the Chicago metro was any smaller, Bruce Rauner's Republican primary victory would have assured him a landslide win in the general election against an incumbent governor who has terrible approval ratings.
However, this is Illinois, a state where incompetent, corrupt officials from both parties are elected and re-elected regularly. So how does Rauner achieve a win that slipped away from Bill Brady, Judy Baar Topinka and Jim Ryan?
First, it is important to study the results of the primary for clues on areas Rauner needs to work on. While the Winnetka venture capitalist ended up winning the primary by approximately 3 percent, or roughly 23,000 votes, his county-by-county performance was not impressive. It should not be a surprise that he won all 11 counties in the Chicago television market. Rauner's campaign saturated the Chicago airwaves with anti-Quinn, pro-Rauner messaging for months ahead of the vote. His name recognition and personal approval ratings went from zero to a majority. Meanwhile, none of Rauner's primary opponents got on TV in Chicago until the final days.
Rauner comfortably won Chicago, suburban Cook County and Kirk Dillard's home turf, DuPage County, and had impressive margins in Lake and Will counties.
Downstate was another story. While Rauner squeaked out a win in Winnebago County (home to Rockford) and did fine in the eastern suburbs of St. Louis as well as the Quad Cities area, he was trounced around Springfield and Peoria. His numbers in central Illinois were always expected to be lower due to the presence of local favorites Bill Brady and Dan Rutherford, but Rauner's share of the vote in Bloomington-Normal and Campaign show room for improvement.
Perhaps the most telling statistic is that Rauner won the primary despite winning only 33 of Illinois's 102 counties.
Democrats have been getting elected statewide in Illinois for decades by winning just Cook County and a couple of others near St. Louis or at the southern tip of the state. Republicans can't pull that off. They need broad support from across the state to win.
One other note from the Democratic primary is that Tio Hardiman (the ultimate "also ran" who had virtually no campaign) picked up more than 20% of the vote in Cook County and more in the suburbs of Chicago. He actually won about a dozen downstate counties. Pat Quinn's base is not solid.
So, what does all of this mean for Mr. Rauner's general election campaign? Here are the 5 keys to a Rauner victory:
1) Shore up the base
Quinn's unpopularity will mean that Rauner gets most of the downstate vote, including in places where he lost in the primary. However, his low numbers in Peoria, Springfield, Bloomington-Normal and Campaign are a little concerning. Kirk Dillard and Bill Brady have serious pull on voters in all of these cities. After giving the state senators some time to decompress and mourn their losses, the Rauner camp needs to re-engage Dillard and Brady to bring their voices into the campaign. While Rauner has staked his campaign on railing against career politicians, the truth is those career politicos have earned a loyal following that makes up the base of the party in central and southern Illinois. It won't be enough for Rauner to win in places like Moline or Rockford, he needs to run up the score with blow out wins in every county outside Cook. Only a motivated, unified Illinois GOP base vote can make that happen.
Hopefully, Rauner spends some personal time with his former primary foes and is able to make multiple personal visits to central and western Illinois to ask voters for their support and their volunteer hours in the fall.
2) Knock out Quinn early
When the first serious opinion polls are release on the Quinn v. Rauner race, I anticipate seeing the Republican with an early advantage. He needs to grab an early lead and grow it quickly. Early ad buys have helped Rauner paint Quinn as a loser while enhancing his own image as a credible alternative. More early advertising will be required to drive the point home.
Rauner is going to put millions more into his campaign and will raise far more. Quinn has a giant stockpile and there is union money being put to work already trying to smear Rauner's image. However, out-of-state money will be critical to Quinn's fall operation. National Democratic donors have a lot of ground to defend in November so they will have to be selective about where they spend their money. In addition to numerous U.S. House and Senate seats to defend, Democrats are hoping to tip the scale in close races for Governor in Florida, Arizona, Pennsylvania, Arkansas, Wisconsin, Michigan and Ohio.
It would be hard to imagine national Democrats giving up on the Illinois governors race; however, if Rauner grabs a double digit lead at any point during the summer and holds onto it while other Governor and Senate races tighten up, donors will have to seriously consider dumping Quinn so they can focus resources in more competitive races. If Rauner can sustain any lead, it should at least limit the dollar amounts of donations to Quinn as donors hedge their bets.
3) We are all in this together
Gov. Quinn has tipped his hand for his general election strategy: class warfare. Quinn will attempt to paint Rauner as an out-of-touch elite, who has no compassion for the poor, teachers, middle class families or the elderly. He will try to pit the state residents against each other for his political advantage.
Rauner needs to have the complete opposite message. To avoid the entire class warfare argument, Rauner needs an "all for one" campaign theme. "Shake up Springfield. Bring Back Illinois" is a good start, and a memorable slogan. To take it to the next step, Rauner will need to talk about how we do that. Illinois residents need to come together to push reforms through the legislature and combine our individual efforts to resurrect our local economies. We can celebrate the diversity of Illinois while highlighting our common goals. If Rauner can articulate Illinois pride through a "we-are-all-in-this-together" speech, he could win a landslide.
4) A brand new day
In addition to working together, Rauner needs to inspire Illinoisans to believe that their lives can be better here without moving away. What does an Illinois 2.0 look like? How many new companies can be started here? How many new jobs should we strive for? How high can student achievement be? How quickly can we repair our bond ratings? What should our tax structure look like?
Articulating a vision for a better state can be tough in a cynical environment, littered with broken promises from charismatic politicians of the past. If done properly, such optimism can be infectious and lead the staunchest Democrat to crossover for one race, one time.
In the end, elections are truly determined by those who show up to vote.
All the marketing, branding, speeches, debates, op-eds, editorials and state fair appearances don't mean anything if your supporters don't check the box next to your name on Election Day.
The Democrats have a turnout machine that has overcome nearly impossible odds in the past. Their voters aren't usually enthusiastic, but they are reliable as they dutifully cast votes for the "chosen' Democratic candidates year in and year out. State Republicans lack a sophisticated get-out-the-vote operation. In recent years, the state party has worked with the national GOP to update voter contact info and refine call lists. If those operations have been fruitful, Rauner's camp will know where their voters live and can reach them many different ways. If those lists are unreliable, the GOTV efforts will have a lot to overcome.
We have more than 6 months of campaigning still to go. A lot can happen and a lot can change.
One thing is certain: If Bruce Rauner solidifies his base, takes a strong early lead in the polls, inspires voters with an optimistic message of unity, articulates what future prosperity looks like, and turns out his voters, he will cruise to an easy victory in November and become Illinois's 42nd Governor next January.
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