Can Bruce Rauner bounce back from a terrible summer?
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It’s no secret Gov. Bruce Rauner has endured a very bad summer.
From a first round of staff firings and resignations in July — aimed at some of the most loyal members of his inner circle — to the latest exodus of general counsel Dennis Murashko and lingering questions about his tenure, the Republican governor has been in the spotlight of controversy for weeks.
There were also embarrassing gaffes, like the racially insensitive “as a white male” statement that went out without the governor’s consent, and math flubs for a school education veto the governor at some points didn’t seem to understand himself. Those mistakes were magnified not only by Democratic gubernatorial candidates but by the Democratic Governors Association, which claims the governor’s entire term has been a “disaster,” exemplified by a budget mess voters won’t forget about.
But Rauner may have time on his side. While nine Democrats are vying in a March primary, he currently faces no serious Republican challengers — and still has millions and counting on hand in his campaign war chest.
But the governor, deemed “vulnerable” in several polls, will also have to survive the constant drip of leaks.
Will voters remember the many flubs of the summer of 2017? Or will they focus on the fact that he has railed against a popular state target, Mike Madigan, the longest-serving state House speaker in U.S. history?
“It’s unlikely that we’ve seen the end of the turmoil. It does appear now that the daily bloodletting has subsided, and I think he was able to do that by firing the majority of the [Illinois Policy Institute] staff and moving their political people out,” said a source with close knowledge of the administration.
Many believe the conservative think tank’s chief executive, John Tillman, had a role in the staff takeover and continues to have an influential role with Rauner with members of the group being hired into key administration posts in policy and communications. But two communications staffers were ousted last month. And Matthew Besler of the Illinois Opportunity Project — a tax-exempt Rauner-aligned group co-founded by radio host Dan Proft — is out as Rauner’s chief political strategist after just a month on the job.
“The real question is what is the public not seeing behind the scenes? How much turmoil still exists there?” the source said, adding that internal tension can become a big factor when the governor has to deal with important issues, like whether he’ll sign HB40, a measure removing a “trigger provision” that would make abortions illegal in Illinois should Roe v. Wade be overturned.
While sources say some of the new staffers urged the governor to veto the Illinois Trust Act, the governor didn’t abide. “What that means is that he understands that the advice and counsel and strategy that the team he fired had offered always served him best, and he has retreated to the very same advice and counsel of those that he fired,” the source said.
The law is designed to protect Illinois’ half-million undocumented immigrants from deportation, but it’s at odds with President Donald Trump and many of his supporters in Illinois.
But the “fundamentals of Illinois and his re-election prospects” remain the same, the source said.
“He now has a period of stability ahead of him. He can use it to propose cuts that are much easier to justify in the next budget. He’s in a position to propose tax relief,” the source said. “That is achievable. And he can still rail against an unpopular speaker and blame Madigan and the legislators for overriding his veto and for continuing to perpetuate the problem.”
State Rep. David McSweeney, R-Barrington Hills, said the governor must be more transparent about what he stands for to have a shot at re-election.
“There’s a lot of accusations that staff and messaging are the problem but the governor just has to answer questions clearly,” McSweeney said. “He needs to tell people where he stands. It’s been a bad summer. There’s no doubt it was a major loss on the tax hike.”
And after a monthslong campaign railing against it and dubbing it a “Chicago bailout,” Rauner ended up signing an education bill that gave more money to CPS than the original measure.
“There’s absolute confusion of where things stand,” McSweeney said. “There’s a question about Dennis Murashko, his general counsel. Tell us what’s going on. Tell us exactly where you stand on taxes, where exactly he stands on the education formula, exactly where he stands on staff issues there may be. I think if he just answers the questions clearly, that’s his best shot at re-election.”
Meanwhile, Rauner’s campaign has boasted some new hires, including campaign manager Betsy Ankney, who helped Wisconsin U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson win in an upset in 2016. And on Saturday, Rauner left for an eight-day visit to Japan and China — a nice break from the daily political grind and a chance “to focus on creating opportunities for Illinois businesses,” his administration said.
Campaign spokeswoman Kirsten Kukowski said he’s leaving “with a fresh foundation and a historic achievement on education reform.”
“While the budget impasse dominated headlines for over a year, voters will now have the chance to learn about Bruce’s groundbreaking efforts on issues like criminal justice reform and clean energy jobs in addition to the state’s record-breaking investment in education,” Kukowski said in a statement. “Most importantly, it will be clear that the choice next November will be between a governor who will keep fighting for better schools, property tax relief, term limits and to rollback the Madigan tax hike, or an opponent who will protect the status quo and keep taxes high.”
Asked whether Rauner can bounce back from a bad summer, the Republican Governors Association said voters are more focused on his reform efforts.
“Governor Rauner is taking action and instituting the necessary reform to move Illinois forward, and that’s what voters care about,” RGA spokesman Jon Thompson said.