CHICAGO – Even though he's a target of Republican attack ads, faces an outspoken though little-known primary challenger and could see a tough road to November, Gov. Pat Quinn's re-election campaign has been barely visible.
For weeks the Chicago Democrat has largely kept out of the public eye as four Republicans square off for the chance to unseat him in the fall. He's not spending or debating. His lieutenant governor running mate didn't move back to Illinois until this month. In the governor's first official public event in more than a week, he appeared with actor Martin Sheen Thursday at a Chicago church to advocate raising the minimum wage.
"People know my record," Quinn said, citing newly signed laws overhauling pensions and legalizing same-sex marriage. "Those are the kind of things that people that want ... That's the best way to go to the electorate."
Experts agree a low-key campaign is probably Quinn's best approach, particularly with an incumbent's advantage allowing him to actually do the job as Republicans fight for it.
Quinn no longer faces a serious nomination threat since former White House chief of staff Bill Daley and Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan ultimately decided not to challenge him. Tio Hardiman, the one Democrat still running against him, has little statewide name recognition or money and has been dogged by personal issues.
Still, if Quinn doesn't have a strong showing at the polls it could signify trouble in November.
Things could have been much different.
When Daley and Madigan were angling to mount challenges, voters got a glimpse of what that Quinn campaign would have been. He'd tack digs about Daley wearing expensively tailored suits onto the end of news conferences, while Daley would regularly blast Quinn on Illinois' high unemployment and a lack of leadership.
But these days Quinn refrains from talking about the election much at all. While GOP candidates picked at each other over allegations of corruption and clout, Quinn traveled to California for an environmental task force, spoke in Washington, D.C., about disaster recovery and visited Illinois' tornado-damaged areas.
The Republicans — businessman Bruce Rauner, state Treasurer Dan Rutherford and state Sens. Kirk Dillard and Bill Brady — largely have let him lay low, too. They haven't seized upon Quinn's 2010 anti-violence neighborhood program that state auditors blasted. And when Quinn went to Los Angeles last week for a fundraiser with celebrities, there's was little mention in Illinois.
"The Republicans are beating each other up and that helps him out," said Christopher Mooney, a University of Illinois at Springfield political science professor. "He's saving his money for the fall. He's going to need it."
Quinn has previewed campaign themes, including the minimum wage. He also has alluded to a "clash of values" with big money entering the race, a veiled reference to wealthy venture capitalist Rauner, who's leading in polls and fundraising.
But for now, Quinn and running mate former Chicago Public Schools CEO Paul Vallas, have virtually ignored Hardiman.
The anti-violence activist has protested outside Quinn's home and campaign headquarters to demand debates with no response.
"He's a coward," Hardiman said recently while handing out glossy campaign cards downtown. "Quinn does not want to debate me because he cannot defend his failed record."
But Hardiman has his own troubles.
The former head of Chicago anti-violence group CeaseFire was charged with domestic battery last year after allegedly hurting his wife. The charges were dropped and Hardiman denied wrongdoing, but he lost his job. He also is not raising much, aside from lending his campaign money. Records shows Hardiman had about $550 cash on hand at 2013's end compared with Quinn's $4.5 million.
Hardiman insists money doesn't matter, saying he and running mate attorney Brunell Donald have seen tough times and it makes them relatable.
Political experts say there's potential for Hardiman to draw frustrated Democrats who want a Quinn alternative, something his GOP challenger could seize upon. Quinn has had low approval ratings and a new pension overhaul that cuts benefits for state workers and retirees has angered unions, which have traditionally supported Quinn.
"There is the possibility of the hidden protest vote," said Jonathan Jackson at Southern Illinois University's Paul Simon Public Policy Institute. Though, he added, it's unlikely to affect Tuesday's outcome.
Quinn's campaign did recently ramp up, hiring a strategist who managed New York Mayor Bill de Blasio's campaign and establishing a Springfield office and phone banks.
"The governor has been focusing on governing in the past couple of months," said campaign spokeswoman Izabela Miltko. "The governor is taking the campaign very seriously."