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MEMO: Rauner’s Embarrassing Victory Underscores His Vulnerability

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In December of 2017, Bruce Rauner brushed off a primary challenge from state Representative Jeanne Ives as a “process” – “You get some fringe elements or whatever coming in.” In March of 2018, Rauner beat Ives by a meager 4% margin. A candidate who was once dismissed as “fringe” nearly knocked off a sitting governor. Rauner’s near-loss signals serious trouble for November.
Rauner’s nail-bitter victory underscores how dramatically he underperformed expectations, just as he has as governor. Greg Hinz of Crain’s Chicago wrote that anything less than a 10-point victory would be an “embarrassment for an incumbent governor and raise questions about his ability to unite the party in November.” Chris Kaergard of the Peoria Journal Star said that Ives clearing 30% “could mean lights out for Rauner in the fall.”
These primary results show that it’s not just Democrats and Independents who think Bruce Rauner is a lousy governor – Republicans do too. That will force him to perform a difficult high-wire act of catering to the GOP base, while trying to win over Independents and Democrats who despise him. Ask Ed Gillespie how that high-wire act worked in the Trump era.
Tonight’s results make 3 things clear:

  1. Bruce Rauner is extremely unpopular with Democrats, Independents and even Republicans;
  2. Democrats are enthusiastic to vote – in both the primary and November
  3. Rauner’s biggest problem is the man in the mirror: He still has no answers for his failed record of making Illinois worse

The Ives revolt laid bare just how vulnerable an incumbent Bruce Rauner really is.  And it’s only going to get worse for him as he goes up against a strong Democratic candidate in a Democratic-leaning state.

  1. Rauner Downer: Rauner’s Unpopularity Stretches Across Party Lines

Governor Bruce Rauner managed to bring all Illinoisans together – in disliking Bruce Rauner. Rauner is one of the most unpopular politicians in the nation, and as tonight showed, his unpopularity is spread across all party lines. For the better part a year, Rauner’s job approval rating has been stuck in the 30’s, and his disapproval ratings are in the 60’s with all voters.

Polling Firm Date Rauner Approval Rauner Disapproval
Normington Petts (DGA) 1/5/17 36 58
SIU 3/15/17 36 58
Normington Petts (DGA) 7/20/17 34 63
PPP (Biss) 2/6/18 26 63
SIU 2/25/18 32 63

Tonight, hundreds of thousands of hardcore Republicans joined the ranks of those who believe Rauner’s failed as a leader. And those Republicans may not come home – the Republican primary devolved into a bitter, scorched earth fight. Ives called Rauner a “pathological liar” on the final day of the primary, and conservative commentators have denounced Rauner’s untruthful portrayals of Ives.
Rauner professes that only he can defeat Democrats in the fall. But by “meddling” in the Democratic primary, Rauner proved the opposite. He unleashed a constant barrage of attacks against JB Pritzker, but still trails Pritzker by similar, or worse, margins than where he stood against a generic Democrat in 2017.

Polling Firm Date Rauner GD/JB JB or Generic D?
Normington Petts (DGA) 1/5/17 35 45 Generic D
Anzalone Liszt Grove 2/20/17 32 47 Generic D
Normington Petts (DGA) 7/20/17 37 49 Generic D
PPP (Biss) 2/6/18 35 48 JB
SIU 2/25/18 35 50 JB

Voters have simply made up their mind about Rauner – they don’t like him. And all Rauner has proven he can do is make their antagonism towards him worse.

  1. A Democratic Surge: Democrats Are Motivated To Vote in Illinois

Democrats are motivated to vote. Period.
Already well over 1 million Democrats have voted and estimates put tonight’s Democratic turnout at triple the amount of 2014. In fact, tonight’s turnout is expected to rival the recent vote record of 2002. In what has to be a worrying sign for Rauner, approximately double the amount of Democrats have voted compared to Republicans, who are estimated to have deflated totals from 2014 despite what turned out to be an extremely competitive primary election.
High Democratic primary turnout already led to electoral success this cycle in New Jersey and Virginia. Democratic primary voters turned out in record numbers, outpacing their Republican counterparts. In Virginia’s open primary, more than 542,000 Democrats turned out to vote, compared to just 366,000 Republicans. Meanwhile, in New Jersey, 498,000 Dems voted – more than double the 240,000 Republicans who turned out. Democrats would win both governorships by impressive margins and record turnout.
The momentum continues – Democrat Connor Lamb recently won a congressional seat that went Trump by nearly 20 points. As Rauner put it a few weeks it, Trump “unfortunately” lost Illinois by 17%.
Illinois Democrats are motivated to vote to send a clear message to Bruce Rauner and Donald Trump. That showed up today and will again in November.

  1. The Central Problem Hasn’t Changed – Rauner’s Still (Not) In Charge

The fundamental problem with any Bruce Rauner campaign is that it will always be hampered by Bruce Rauner’s failed governance. Incumbents have to run on their records, whether by choice or by force. A two-year budget crisis devastated the state’s economy and social service net – state debt soared, the credit rating dropped, and jobs and people are still leaving the state. Rauner refuses to hold himself accountable for the state’s condition, like claiming “I’m not in charge” or giving himself an “A” grade “on things that we can control.” Bruce Rauner has failed to turn the state around, and Illinois voters have clearly soured on his constant dodging of responsibility for his failures.
Rauner’s reluctance to engage President Trump will be just as big of a problem with Democrats as it has been with Ives supporters. Time and again, Rauner refused to protect Illinois families from Trump’s policy agenda. While other Republican governors like John Kasich were leading, Rauner sat quietly and enabled Trump todismantle the Affordable Care Act, strip immigrants of their protections, and roll back environmental protections.
Governor Bruce Rauner’s desperate attempt to hold onto the Republican nomination shows just how feeble his failing re-election is. His approval ratings are stuck in the mud. He’s fought a draining, months-long battle with his own party that only leaves him weaker than how he started. And he still has to figure out how to run on his record of failed leadership. Rauner pyrrhic victory tonight should be viewed as an embarrassment for an incumbent governor, and a warning sign for the future.
Bruce Rauner started the day as the nation’s most vulnerable incumbent, and somehow, he ended it in even worse shape.