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David Axelrod predicts Preckwinkle-Daley runoff — maybe

Toni Preckwinkle and Bill Daley are likely combatants in a “very brutal runoff,” but don’t be surprised if Preckwinkle’s runoff opponent is still unknown, even after election night.

The biggest surprise — in a good way — of “the most unfathomable race for Chicago mayor” in 63 years has been Gery Chico. But it’s come at the expense of Susana Mendoza.

Welcome to a handicapping of the Chicago mayoral sweepstakes, Part II, courtesy of David Axelrod.

For the second time in two months, the former Obama presidential adviser now serving as the director and co-founder of the University of Chicago’s Institute of Politics sat down with the Chicago Sun-Times to discuss the wide-open race to replace Mayor Rahm Emanuel.

The first time around, Axelrod predicted Preckwinkle’s runoff opponent would be Mendoza, provided she could survive a petition challenge.

Now, he believes Preckwinkle’s opponent will be Bill Daley, whose runaway lead in the fundraising sweepstakes “could be decisive.”

That’s particularly true because Daley was “less touched than others” by the City Hall corruption scandal that threatens to bring down Ald. Edward Burke (14th).

David Axelrod talks with Sun-Times reporter Fran Spielman Friday, February 15, 2019. | Rich Hein/Sun-Times

“Preckwinkle and Mendoza were engaged in back-and-forth for many, many weeks. And no one was taking shots at Bill Daley. He has benefited from this large field and run a pretty smart campaign,” Axelrod said.

Last month, Mendoza purged herself of $141,550 in campaign contributions received over the years from Ald. Danny Solis (25th) and from a debt collection firm founded by Solis’ sister and an attorney with close ties to Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan.

Mendoza’s quick about-face came one day after the Sun-Times reported that Solis, retiring former chairman of the City Council’s Zoning Committee, has spent the last two years wired up to help federal investigators build their corruption case against Burke.

susana mendoza mayoral candidate 2019 election rich hein

Susana Mendoza | Rich Hein/Sun-Times file

On Friday, Axelrod called Mendoza one of the biggest disappointments of the mayoral campaign — and not simply because her political allies have been implicated in the burgeoning scandal.

“Part of it is Gery Chico. Gery Chico has run a stronger campaign than people anticipated. He’s raised money and he’s run some very effective ads. He is, to some degree, carving into her base,” he said.

Axelrod said Mendoza remains “in the hunt” after being “fairly effective in these debates and forums.”

Mayoral candidate Gery Chico is interviewed by reporter Fran Spielman in the Sun-Times newsroom Friday, February 8, 2019.

Mayoral candidate Gery Chico is interviewed by reporter Fran Spielman  | Rich Hein/Sun-Times

But he questioned her media strategy.

“I wonder sometimes if in her advertising how she comes across in the ads suggests executive….The ads were mostly about personality and projecting her as an energetic, new generation candidate. And it could be that they over-shot the runway….They’re not substantive enough,” he said.

“For whatever reason, they haven’t connected in the way that Chico’s ads have connected. He came from low single-digits to become a contender. Those ads have been more effective.”

Axelrod served as political strategist for six of Richard M. Daley’s mayoral campaigns. He “likes and respects” Bill Daley and considers him a longtime friend.

“When I saw you last time, I said that the Daley name was a blessing and a burden. I’m sure that there are some voters who will gravitate to him because the Daley name represents a certain solidity in their minds. With older voters, it’ll be a big advantage,” Axelrod said Friday.

If Daley makes it to the runoff, he will be much harder pressed to convince Chicago voters that his administration would be a break from the corruption scandals, contract cronyism and financial mismanagement that plagued his brother’s administration, Axelrod said.

Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, left, and former Commerce Secretary Bill Daley, right. Sun-Times file photos Ashlee Rezin and Rich Hein.

Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, left, and former Commerce Secretary Bill Daley, right. Sun-Times file photos Ashlee Rezin and Rich Hein.

Same goes for Preckwinkle. She will be hammered for the ill-fated tax on sweetened beverages, the $116,000 she raised at Burke’s house, the promotion she gave to Burke’s son and for her ties to former Cook County Assessor Joe Berrios.

“When you have fourteen candidates, no one gets the scrutiny that they deserve. And when you get down to two, it gets much more difficult,” Axelrod said.

But there’s also the nightmare scenario that nobody wants to entertain.

What if Preckwinkle manages to secure a spot in the runoff, but the race for second place is so close, we don’t know who her opponent is until 56,000 mail-in ballots are counted days after the election?

Mail-in ballots can be counted later, so long as they are postmarked on Feb. 26 or even the following day, if they were mailed on Election Day.

“If you have a few thousand votes separating the top four or five candidates, then we’re gonna have to wait,” Axelrod said.

“It is not a remote possibility that we won’t know…for some time who is in the runoff.”