CHICAGO – It has been a rough time to be a Republican in Illinois.
For more than a decade, Democrats have ruled the governor’s office and both chambers of the Legislature. After the 2010 elections, they drew new legislative maps favoring Democratic candidates – making it highly difficult for Republicans to win back the state House or Senate for nearly a decade more.
That left Illinois Republicans eyeing the 2014 governor’s race as their best opportunity to restore some balance of power in Springfield and ensure the party will remain relevant. They say they particularly like their chances against Gov. Pat Quinn, a Chicago Democrat on whom they’ll pin responsibility for Illinois’ high unemployment, worst-in-the-nation state credit rating, increased taxes and billions in unpaid bills.
“Our greatest chance is to take back the governorship,” said Jack Dorgan, chairman of the Illinois GOP. “Illinois is in an economic death spiral .... We’re hoping 2014 is the year Illinois voters stand back and really take a look at what’s going on in this state.”
But as the campaign season picks up this week, there’s less agreement on which of the four candidates vying for the party’s nomination is best suited for the job or what changes – if any – Republicans must make to win in a state where voters increasingly are leaning left. While Republicans may say what they will about Quinn’s ability to govern, political experts caution he’s tireless on the campaign trail and is coming off some major legislative victories – including passage of a landmark bill to address the state’s $100 billion pension crisis.
“Never underestimate Pat Quinn as a campaigner,” said Paul Green, a professor and director of the Institute for Politics at Roosevelt University. “It’s going to be another one of those nail-biters, whoever is going to win [the GOP nomination].”
In the weeks before the March 18 Republican primary, the four candidates – state Sens. Bill Brady and Kirk Dillard, businessman Bruce Rauner and state Treasurer Dan Rutherford – will try to persuade voters they can win in November.
Brady, who came within about 30,000 votes of beating Quinn in 2010, says he’s the best choice because he has been there before. The Bloomington businessman sees Quinn as more vulnerable than four years ago, and said his previous bid gave him the name recognition needed to win statewide against an incumbent with a “kitchen table name.”
“People have to get to know you,” Brady said. “Especially in a big state, it’s a hard mountain to climb in a short amount of time.”
Rutherford, of Chenoa, says he’s the only candidate who has won statewide in Illinois – having received almost 2 million votes in his election for state treasurer – and knows how to do so again. He also stresses his service in the Illinois House and Senate and work as an executive for ServiceMaster as the kind of leadership needed to turn the state around.
Dillard touts his track record serving as chief of staff under Republican Gov. Jim Edgar and says that was the last time the state had a chief executive “people could respect and count on.” The Hinsdale lawmaker also argues that because he is from the Chicago suburbs and his running mate, Rep. Jil Tracy, is from Quincy and grew up in southern Illinois, they would bring geographic balance to a state government currently run by Chicago Democrats. Dillard also says his DuPage County roots will help him attract the independent suburban voters who often decide statewide elections.
Rauner is the only political newcomer in the group, an attribute he says makes him the optimal choice for voters looking to turn the page on years of mismanagement and corruption. A wealthy venture capitalist who has raised about $7 million for his campaign – including more than $1 million of his own money – he says he’s the only candidate who can compete with Quinn in fundraising. The Winnetka native says he differs from other candidates by pushing for term limits and highlighting how GOP economic strategies also would help ensure the state has money to support social service agencies and help the poor.
Dorgan said the Republican National Committee is working closely with the state party on field operations, hoping to reverse the widespread losses seen in Illinois and nationally in 2012. He says he has stressed to the four candidates the importance of focusing their criticism on Quinn rather than one other so as to avoid sullying the potential nominee’s reputation.
Green said it also will be important that whoever emerges from the primary be immediately ready to move into general election mode.
“The only way they compete politically in this state is if they win the governorship,” he said. “This is it.”