Could Republicans Take Back Illinois?

by A. J. Kritikos
Bruce Rauner could unseat Pat Quinn as governor, and lead a GOP surge in Congress too.

Don’t look now, but Republicans are poised to take over President Obama’s home state of Illinois in November.

To start, the state’s governor’s race is probably the best chance the GOP has for a gubernatorial pick-up this fall: Recent polls show incumbent Democrat Pat Quinn, who took the reins after Rod Blagojevich was hauled off to jail, with an approval rating languishing in the low 30s. Meanwhile, there’s some reason to believe that the strong GOP gubernatorial candidate, Bruce Rauner, could lead a wider wave of Republican pick ups in Illinois, even flipping the state’s congressional delegation.

Quinn’s pathetic ratings mirror the results from a Gallup poll at the end of last year that had Illinois ranked dead last in trust in government, with only 28 percent of the sample saying they trusted the state government (the next lowest state was at 40 percent).

Quinn shouldn’t be underestimated: He was unpopular in 2010 and managed to survive, although he beat his Republican opponent by just 32,000 votes out of 3.5 million cast.

But 2014 should be different than 2010. First, Quinn’s numbers now are worse than in 2010, and the distrust Illinoisans have for their public officials suggests there’ll be an anti-incumbent fever even stronger than there was in 2010. Bruce Rauner, the Republican gubernatorial nominee, is uniquely situated to take advantage of this situation. Rauner, for instance, has never run for public office before this race, unlike the Republican candidate in 2010 who had spent 15 years in the Illinois legislature.

Rather, Rauner has spent his entire life in the private sector, primarily with the private equity firm GTCR where he was lead partner until he stepped down in 2012. Drawing upon his private-sector experience, Rauner is looking to model Illinois after states that have successfully turned around their governments. One state, and indeed one former governor, in particular has become a model for Rauner: Indiana’s Mitch Daniels. “Mitch Daniels is my role model,” he told the editors of Crain’s Chicago Business, something he’s repeated often.

At the same time, Republicans in blue states can look to Rauner as a model for how to make an election competitive. He’s been disciplined and focused like a laser beam on the issues where he could win support — jobs, spending, and education reform — while totally avoiding divisive social issues.

For example, Rauner has been running ads decrying the 67 percent income tax hike that Quinn championed after the 2010 election. The tax hike was supposed to be temporary, but, to no one’s surprise, Quinn is now calling for it to be permanent.

But it’s not only Rauner’s private-sector background that has the public trusting him over Quinn. He’s also championed a state constitutional amendment via ballot initiative to set term limits on Illinois legislators. The most influential political figure in Illinois is the state-house speaker, Michael Madigan, who has held the post since 1983 (except for two years when Republicans had control of the body). In the face of such entrenched incumbency, the term-limits amendment was easily able to garner over 330,000 valid signatures. Because of a quirk in the Illinois constitution and a few Illinois upreme-court cases, however, the amendment might not be on the ballot in November — a lower-court judge struck it from the ballot, though it’s being appealed — but it nevertheless shows that Rauner won’t be a business-as-usual public official.

But Rauner likely won’t be the only new Republican representing Illinois. After the 2010 midterm elections, Illinois had eleven Republicans and eight Democrats in its delegation, and Republican Mark Kirk was elected to the Senate. As a result of some of the worst gerrymandering in recent memory and having President Obama on the top of the ticket, 2012 saw the GOP lose four congressional seats.

Illinois lost a congressional seat due to slower population growth than other states (why might that be?), and Democrats rewrote the map to force five Republican incumbents into districts where they would have to run against fellow Republican incumbents. Three freshmen congressmen and one veteran congresswoman were defeated by Democrats. Now, two of the freshmen that lost in 2012 are back for a rematch in a more favorable cycle. In total, there are five congressional races in Illinois that should be pick–up opportunities for Republicans. Just one Republican incumbent faces a competitive race. In other words, the chances of returning Illinois’s congressional delegation to Republican control look good.

In the most recent poll Bruce Rauner is up 13 points on Pat Quinn. With Rauner thus leading the way at the top of the ticket and setting the tone for Republicans in the state, candidates like Robert Dold, Darlene Senger, Bobby Schilling, Mike Bost, and Larry Kaifish are joining in the Republican revolution of Illinois this year.

— A. J. Kritikos is a recent Harvard Law graduate and lives in Illinois.

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