SPRINGFIELD — The race for Illinois governor is entering the final countdown — and every corner of the state is in play.

Monday officially marks one year from Election Day for what’s widely predicted to be one of the most expensive statewide races in American history, a battle featuring a handful of well-funded candidates focused on leading the fifth most populated state in the nation.

In most marathon election cycles, 12 months is seen as an eternity. But this isn’t a typical state. And this isn’t a typical election cycle.

Instead, GOP Gov. Bruce Rauner, elected on a no-nonsense outsider-reform platform, faces a near revolt from within his own party over his handling of the past four years, a likely challenger in state Rep. Jeanne Ives, of Wheaton, and a crowded Democratic slate that includes one of the richest men on earth.

The past term, full of protracted budget battles, $14.6 billion in unpaid bills and bruising clashes with the Democratic-led Legislature, have not been kind to Rauner. Such baggage is a lot to overcome, said former Republican Gov. Jim Edgar, who held the office from 1991 to 1999. A moderate conservative, Edgar has distinguished himself as a visible intra-party critic of Rauner’s handling of spending issues, especially pensions.

“The last 2½ years have been a disaster without a budget and all the problems it caused,” Edgar said. “I think most people would like to see government function, and he’s the governor, so he’s kind of the one responsible.”

Rauner has repeatedly said he won’t be deterred by critics and is making progress in his reform agenda that includes property tax relief, term limits and responsible budgeting.

“We can throw in the towel, walk away and leave our future to the same corrupt career politicians,” he said in a video message last month announcing his candidacy. “Or we can fight. I choose to fight.”

For political observers like Jak Tichenor, it’s time to grab some popcorn and watch how things unfold.

“Illinois politics never fails to disappoint when it comes to volatility,” said Tichenor, the interim director of the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale. “It’s like a (Steven) Spielberg action movie. You just have to suspend your disbelief to follow the plotline.”

Rauner’s unique predicament

The winner will earn not only a leadership role in the financially broken state, but also a chance to play a role in drawing the district lines that will help shape Illinois politics for the 2020s. On the Democratic side, the primary field includes Daniel Biss, a state senator and math professor; Bob Daiber, Madison County regional schools superintendent; Tio Hardiman, a Chicago community organizer; Chris Kennedy, a businessman and nephew of President John F. Kennedy; Alexander Paterakis, a suburban engineer and small business owner; and J.B. Pritzker, an entrepreneur and heir to Hyatt hotels.

A natural advantage for any political incumbent is the ability to tout progress and showcase specific accomplishments while in office. Those who have watched Illinois politics for decades like Tichenor said the governor enters the election cycle in an almost unparalleled situation.

The closest example he could think of was Dan Walker, a Democrat governor from 1973 to 1977. Walker ran his successful campaign by attacking machine politics, the face of which was Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley. The result was a “man without a party,” since neither Republicans nor Daley’s Democrats had any allegiance to him.

Tichenor stressed that it’s not a perfect analogy because Walker deliberately went against a large portion of his party’s power. Rauner, meanwhile, has continued to stress his conservative pedigree with his “turnaround agenda,” featuring such issues as a property tax freeze, changes to the state’s workers' compensation system and term limits on elected officials. But he has also signed legislation that would allow state health insurance and Medicaid coverage for abortions, as well as a bill that prohibits police from detaining or arresting a person based on their immigration status.

A poll released last week by the market research company Morning Consult had Rauner’s approval rating at 30 percent, making him one of the least popular governors in the country. The same poll showed his disapproval rating at 55 percent, with another 15 percent undecided.

Ives has a reputation as a sharp-tongued ideologue willing to go after those who disagree with her, said Kent Redfield, an emeritus professor of political science at the University of Illinois Springfield. The support from those Rauner has alienated will strengthen her ability to “beat up” on the governor throughout the primary, he said.

“She’s going to be talking about his lack of accomplishments, calling him a failed governor,” he said. “You can see the Democrats picking up those themes in the general election.”

Millionaire vs. billionaire?

Pritzker, the billionaire venture capitalist and heir to the Hyatt hotels fortune, has spent $21 million through the end of September to build his ground game and flood media with television and radio ads.

So far, his aggressive push has seemed to work.

Pritzker was the clear winner of an October Capitol Fax/We Ask America poll, winning support from 39 percent of the 1,154 likely Democratic primary voters surveyed. Kennedy was a distant second with 15 percent of the vote, followed by Biss with 6 percent. Hardiman and Daiber each polled at just 1 percent. Another 36 percent were undecided in the poll, which was conducted Oct. 17-18.

Along with spending millions of his personal wealth, estimated at $3.4 billion, Pritzker has collected significant endorsements that include Comptroller Susana Mendoza, Illinois Secretary of State Jesse White, Congresswoman Cheri Bustos, the AFL-CIO and the Illinois Democratic Chairmen’s Association.

“He doesn’t need the money, but when he gets those endorsements, he freezes out the other candidates from possible fundraising sources,” Redfield said.

The second-place fundraiser, Biss, trails far behind with $3.5 million, an eighth of what Pritzker has raised and a sixth of what Pritzker has spent so far.

Kennedy, whose entrance to the race in February generated national interest because of his family history, has raised just $2.8 million. To stand out, Kennedy needs to establish his identity and create a “wow” moment for voters, Redfield said.

“What does he have outside the magic of the Kennedy name that someone my age might remember?” he said. “For someone younger, the name doesn’t mean as much.”

For Biss, Daiber, Hardiman and Paterakis to move ahead, political observers said other candidates would need to drop out. They would also need strong, charismatic performances at debates and in appearances on “free media,” like television news and newspapers, to establish themselves as alternatives.

General election uncertainty

Recent elections have shown Illinois to be a left-leaning state, Edgar said, and the party that does not hold the White House typically draws more people to the polls. Top that with Rauner’s low approval numbers and discontent among his base, and it looks as though the incumbent is about to enter a fight for his life.

It comes down to each candidates’ resume and name recognition, he said, and with a year to go until the general election, all the candidates will have an opportunity to make their case to the voters.

Tichenor stressed that “many political lifetimes” can occur between now and the primary election, let alone the general election. A single past controversy or flub could turn a onetime favorite into an also-ran.

“Illinois politics has a peculiar property to turning on a dime,” Tichenor said. “You never know what’s going to happen one day from the next.”


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