ProPublica Illinois reporter Mick Dumke looks at the state’s political issues and personalities in this occasional column.
The official slogan of the state of Illinois remains “Land of Lincoln,” and lots of Republicans still live here. But it’s no longer the land of his political party. The GOP isn’t winning many elections, which is generally considered the purpose of a political party.
And that brings us to the bluebath that happened this week, when Illinois Democrats seized two congressional seats that for decades had been held by Republicans, ousted one-term Gov. Bruce Rauner, easily held onto every other statewide office, solidified control of the General Assembly and toppled the Cook County commissioner who chairs the state GOP.
In short, it wasn’t a great night here for the Republicans.
“The land of Lincoln and Barack Obama,” J.B. Pritzker called the state during his speech after beating Rauner. He didn’t need to point out that Obama is a fellow Democrat.
Here are a few observations and thoughts on what happened and what might happen next:
Rauner didn’t lose all his friends — but he certainly didn’t make enough new ones.
Four years ago, voters were weary of state leaders’ lack of fiscal discipline — high taxes and billions of dollars of debt will do that — and Gov. Pat Quinn didn’t inspire confidence. Rauner, a millionaire businessman, promised to fix the government and stand up to Michael Madigan, the state House speaker, Democratic Party chair and most powerful figure in state government.
Rauner received about 1.8 million votes to 1.7 million for Quinn, who didn’t concede until the day after the election.
After four years of bitter feuding with Madigan, including a two-year budget impasse, Rauner still received more than 1.7 million votes Tuesday. Unfortunately for him, about 2.4 million people voted for Pritzker.
Emblematic was DuPage County, a GOP stronghold. In 2014, Rauner cleaned up there with 61 percent of the vote. This time, though he received close to the same number of actual votes, he lost the county to Pritzker.
Pritzker gave out more goodies than Rauner.
In 2014, Rauner didn’t just win his party’s nomination — he all but purchased it, just as he’d bought and sold businesses when he was leading a private equity firm. In the two years leading to his election as governor, Rauner poured about $28 million of his personal wealth into his campaign fund, records show. At the same time, Rauner, his campaign, and his wife, Diana, gave more than $9 million to other GOP candidates and committees across Illinois.
As he moved toward his re-election bid, Rauner was even more generous, putting $50 million into his campaign fund and distributing almost $16 million to other Republicans.
The strategy, and the money, were so convincing that Pritzker decided to do the same thing, but on a scale that made Rauner’s giving look chintzy by comparison. Pritzker pumped more than $171 million of his own money into his campaign fund, and he handed out about $24 million to other Democratic committees and candidates, including the DuPage County Democratic Central Committee.
Now Democrats won’t have Rauner to kick around any more.
As the state budget crisis stretched more than two years, Democrats blamed Rauner, and much of the public sided with them. Rauner conceded defeat Tuesday less than an hour after the polls closed, ending the contentious, expensive campaign so suddenly that some of the governor’s critics seemed unprepared to talk about what they’ll do once he’s out of the way.
Thirty minutes after the race was called, state Comptroller Susana Mendoza took the stage at Pritzker’s election night gathering and introduced herself as “your truth-telling fiscal watchdog who was not afraid to stand up to the biggest bully in this state, Bruce Rauner!” Mendoza, who is weighing a run for mayor of Chicago, then celebrated Rauner’s defeat by shouting, “You’re fired!” — a line long associated with Donald Trump’s days on the reality show “The Apprentice.”
The Democrats still weren’t done ripping on Rauner. An hour after he conceded, Sen. Richard Durbin ridiculed the governor for riding his motorcycle around the state while wearing a leather vest. Downstaters, he said, “can spot a phony a mile away.”
Then, on Wednesday, Madigan took a shot at Rauner in a press release, which was especially striking because he rarely issues statements or otherwise communicates with the public. “Last night’s election results definitively proved that the Rauner Republican playbook of attempting to make the entire 2018 election a referendum on Speaker Madigan, to distract from Republicans’ record, is a failure,” the release said.
Instead, the Democrats managed to turn the elections into a referendum on Rauner and Trump. Voters now hope the Democrats will be half as good at addressing the state’s budget and debt problems as they were at mocking the governor.
Now Republicans won’t have Rauner to kick around any more.
Democrats disliked Rauner from the beginning, but for many conservative Republicans it took a couple of years. After he signed legislation expanding access to abortion and protections for undocumented immigrants, the right wing of the party launched its own attacks. To critics like state Rep. Jeanne Ives, Rauner had abandoned the party’s base, proving once again that the Democrats will always win if Republicans “surrender” and move to the center.
Still, Ives came up short when she challenged Rauner in the GOP primary. So have most of the conservative candidates backed by her allies and funders. For example, of the top 20 candidates supported this election cycle by the Liberty Principles political action committee, run by Ives ally Dan Proft, 16 lost. Among them: state Rep. Peter Breen, the GOP floor leader in the state House, who represents a district in DuPage County.
The election is over. The next elections have begun.
Now in power, Democrats will work to move the state to the left.
“Are you ready to fight for Illinois?” Pritzker said during his victory speech, and his supporters shouted that they were.
But as the GOP regroups, Ives and her allies are funded by their own really rich guys, and they’re eager to keep pushing the party and the land of Lincoln to the right.
Meanwhile, in Chicago, Mayor Rahm Emanuel isn’t running for re-election in February, and 17 would-be successors, give or take a few, are hoping to get on the ballot. All 50 seats in the City Council are also up for election. Voters were tuned in even before the ballots were counted Tuesday.
“They’re glad about the mayor’s race,” said Barbara Kendricks, who was talking with voters and handing out flyers Tuesday outside a polling place in the South Side Kenwood neighborhood. “The mayor, we want him out.”