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Rauner shifts into debate overdrive now that he’s the underdog

Republican Bruce Rauner, left, answers questions during a debate in Naperville in 2014. | Jessica Koscielniak Sun-Times; Democrat J.B. Pritzker, right, speaks at a forum in October. | Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

Gov. Bruce Rauner (left) is hammering his general election opponent, J.B. Pritzker, on his stance that Illinois must explore new ways to pay for infrastructure repairs. | Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

Gov. Bruce Rauner limited his conservative primary challenger state Rep. Jeanne Ives to just one debate this year.

But now, the Republican governor wants to do more, way more, than the three already scheduled face-to-face debates with Democratic challenger J.B. Pritzker.

How many?

The governor’s campaign is pushing for 12.

What has changed?

Rauner is considered one of the most vulnerable governors in the country. A damning poll just found him 16 points behind.


“The only way he can go into these debates is up,” said Republican consultant Collin Corbett. “Between all the negative press over the last few years, the public has a worse impression of him than they get when they see him in person.”

Squabbling over debates is common in campaign land. And this race isn’t any different. The two campaigns did some sparring when Pritzker in May announced three debates — two in Chicago and one in Quincy, where 13 residents of a veterans home died after repeated outbreaks of Legionnaires’ disease.

The Rauner campaign said then that the Pritzker camp hadn’t notified them of their participation. Now, the Republican has agreed to participate in those.

But the Rauner campaign tells the Sun-Times the Pritzker campaign declined participation in three other debates: one sponsored by Politico/WBEZ, another in southern Illinois’ Metro East area and a third before the Daily Herald’s editorial board. The Rauner campaign also said the Pritzker campaign has been unresponsive or hasn’t yet discussed a date for six other proposed debates.

“Pritzker is depriving Illinois voters across the state to ask meaningful questions because he knows he will not be able to answer them,” Rauner spokesman Alex Browning said.

Browning said the Rauner campaign has agreed to more than 10 debates in markets across the state, and he’s “willing to face questions from Illinoisans on all range of topics.”

But Pritzker’s camp says they’re just following Rauner’s own rules. The Republican participated in three debates when he ran for governor in 2014.

“Now, after months of complete silence about debates from Bruce Rauner and his campaign and after he refused to even debate Jeanne Ives once during their primary, there is some irony in the governor wanting to have this conversation,” spokeswoman Galia Slayen said.

Pritzker is looking forward to “laying out the failures of Rauner’s time as governor, and JB’s big ideas to put Illinois back on track.”

Rauner did face Ives, his primary challenger, once during an editorial board meeting with the Chicago Tribune. He did not appear in any public debates with the Wheaton lawmaker, whom he defeated by just three points.

Gov. Bruce Rauner and state Rep. Jeanne Ives square off before the Tribune Editorial Board.

Corbett, a consultant with Cor Strategies, said the strategy is driven by the polls and typically, the candidate who is trailing will push for as many debates as possible. In Rauner’s case, Corbett says the governor “plays better in person than he has” in countless ads and in negative press.

“It doesn’t really matter whether you’re an incumbent or a challenger. All that matters is where you are in the polls. And the leader of the polls always wants fewer debates because the only thing you’re going to do walking out of a debate as a leader is lose support,” Corbett said.

Corbett, too, said Pritzker chose locations with the “friendliest audience and the friendliest crowd.”

“At the end of the day, Pritzker has all the leverage because he doesn’t need to do debates and Rauner does,” Corbett said. “It really comes down to how this plays out publicly and what kind of pressure the public and the media put on the Pritzker camp to actually hold these debates.”

Illinois Democratic gubernatorial candidates, from left, Robert Marshall, Bob Daiber, J.B. Pritzker, Daniel Biss, Chris Kennedy and Tio Hardiman participated in a forum Jan. 17, 2018, with the Chicago Sun-Times Editorial Board in Chicago.

Illinois Democratic gubernatorial candidates, from left, Robert Marshall, Bob Daiber, J.B. Pritzker, Daniel Biss, Chris Kennedy and Tio Hardiman participated in a forum Jan. 17, 2018, with the Chicago Sun-Times Editorial Board in Chicago. | Rich Hein/Sun-Times

Democrats say Rauner knows he’s in trouble. A poll commissioned by NBC News and the Marist Institute for Public Opinion found Pritzker with 46 percent compared to Rauner’s 30 percent when 734 registered voters were asked who they’d vote for.

“It’s fascinating to me that Rauner is wanting to do any debates because you know normally the challenger wants to debate because the incumbent is ahead,” veteran Democratic consultant Kitty Kurth said. “I think this is a clear indication that even Rauner knows he is not ahead.”

Kurth said the three debates Pritzker has agreed to is a “really clear strategy for the Pritzker campaign.”

“Rauner is damned if he does and damned if he doesn’t as far as Quincy goes and as far as Chicago, because you can’t reach suburban collar county media without doing something in Chicago,” Kurth said.

Pritzker and Rauner will participate in the following debates:  Sept. 20 in Chicago, sponsored by NBC 5, Telemundo, Union League of Chicago and Chicago Urban League; Oct. 3 in Chicago, sponsored by ABC 7, Univision, and League of Women Voters, and Oct. 11 in Quincy, sponsored by WGEM and the Illinois Broadcasters Association.