Whenever a dramatic new element is introduced into a political campaign, it’s always instructive to watch how the targeted candidate responds. Did the candidate appear ready for the new turn of events, or was she or he caught flat-footed?

The JB Pritzker campaign appeared to pass that test last week when Gov. Bruce Rauner’s campaign unexpectedly (for some of us) launched a new TV attack ad against it.

OPINION

It turns out, the Pritzker campaign already had a response ad in the can, just waiting for whatever might come. So, when the Rauner campaign’s new TV ad featuring an FBI-wiretapped conversation between Pritzker and Rod Blagojevich was leaked online last week, the Pritzker folks unveiled their counter-assault within minutes.

“It’s no surprise Bruce Rauner is already on TV attacking me,” Pritzker says to the camera in his 30-second response ad. “He’d rather play politics in the Democratic primary than defend his own record.”

Another 60-second ad – which looks like it may have initially been intended only for online use because the quality wasn’t as high – featured TV news clips designed to whack Rauner over the ongoing problems at the Quincy veterans’ home, where 13 residents have died since 2015 after contracting Legionnaires’ disease. Rauner last week finally formed a task force in an attempt to prevent more deaths.

This is the first time in memory that a sitting Illinois governor has openly played in a rival’s opposing party primary campaign. We’ve seen this sort of thing in other states, but not here. Several Illinois unions did dump a bunch of money into the 2014 Republican primary to prevent Rauner’s nomination, so the governor can be forgiven for wanting a bit of payback against the unions’ candidate (Pritzker) this time around.

Is this new and, to my eyes, powerful Rauner TV ad designed to defeat Pritzker in the primary?

The Rauner folks have gone back and forth for months about which candidate they’d rather not face. Pritzker has unlimited money, but he has some opposition research issues (like Blagojevich, his ties to Speaker Madigan and his now-infamous decision to rip the toilets out of a vacant mansion to lower his property taxes). Chris Kennedy has had trouble raising money, but he does have a famous name, not many opposition research issues and is successfully positioning himself as an independent.

More likely, I think, somebody upstairs may have just decided that it was time to put the wood to Pritzker, who has been having a lot of fun attacking Rauner for months, and make sure that if he does emerge victorious from the primary, he doesn’t do so unscathed . And since other Democratic candidates like Kennedy and Sen. Daniel Biss don’t have the cash to do it, Rauner will. It’s also probably a useful distraction from the governor’s ongoing problems at the afore-mentioned Quincy veterans’ home.

And, as it turns out, the new ad’s timing couldn’t have been better. The governor has been running his ubiquitous “Thanks, Mike Madigan” ad since late October. The spot, which generated a ton of buzz, featured the governors of Wisconsin, Indiana and Missouri “thanking” our House Speaker for helping them create new jobs by making Illinois so inhospitable to business. As you may have heard, Missouri’s governor is now embroiled in a sex and blackmail scandal, rendering that ad no longer usable. It’s been pulled from distribution.

Even so, considering how much Rauner is despised by Democratic primary voters, playing so openly in a Democratic primary might wind up backfiring – although you have to look pretty closely at the very end of his ad to see that it is paid for by the Republican governor. Many Democrats will probably view any candidate “advice” from Rauner with suspicious eyes, to say the least. If Pritzker is going to be harshly attacked on TV during the Democratic primary, it’s probably better for him if the attack comes from a Republican.

That’s not to say the new Rauner ad won’t sting. It will. It’s just that, during a Democratic primary, the hit would likely be more effective if it came from another Democrat.

The Pritzker campaign’s current ad buy is substantially larger than Rauner’s, I’m told, and they’re willing to increase that amount if need be. They’re also reportedly readying some more response ads.

Rich Miller also publishes Capitol Fax, a daily political newsletter, and CapitolFax.com.

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