Working past Rauner’s minimum wage flap

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If there’s one thing to take away from Bruce Rauner’s minimum-wage fiasco last week, it’s that it revealed most people had made an assumption at that point: Rauner was the front-runner in the four-way Republican primary.

But now what? Does this derail his campaign?

The short answer is no. 

The longer answer: It could quickly go south if it becomes a pattern.

Let’s break it down.

More than a few people in Rauner’s camp must have had their hair on fire dealing with the fallout after the public learned the multimillionaire candidate, who made $53 million last year, had supported a $1-an-hour cut to the minimum wage. 

So how can Rauner move beyond this? And I mean besides just buying up all the air time between now and the March 18 primary.

One thing Rauner’s team did right was pounce on the topic fairly quickly. Rauner did a round of interviews and tried to tamp down the flames. He was somewhat conciliatory. He said he was “flippant.” He then changed his position, offering qualified support for a minimum wage increase.

Had he not come out the next day, and had he not changed his position, this issue would dog him for weeks and serve as a daily distraction.

The problem, however, were his explanations, including his op-ed piece in the Chicago Tribune. His statements lacked clarity and raised more questions. Was he really being flippant if he was given the questions ahead of time? And if it turned out, as the Sun-Times’ Dave McKinney reported Thursday, that Rauner made the same dollar-slashing pronouncement at another forum?

“The way he walked it back didn’t match up 100 percent with how he got into it in the first place,” Kent Redfield, professor of political science at the University of Illinois at Springfield, said of Rauner’s explanations. 

The substance of his remarks in September that he was “adamantly, adamantly” opposed to a minimum wage hike hurts Rauner more in a possible general election because his primary opponents — State Sen. Bill Brady, R-Bloomington, state Sen. Kirk Dillard, R-Hinsdale, and Illinois Treasurer Dan Rutherford — have voting records or have made statements that are all over the place.

A general election would mean a contest against the populist Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn, who would lap up a chance to go up against a wealthy venture capitalist thumbing his nose at low-wage earners. 

In a primary, it’s the flip-flopping that makes the Republican electorate jittery. 

“If it becomes part of a pattern, then people start to become nervous in the Republican primary and [with] Republican voters,” Redfield said. He added that Republicans don’t want to get behind someone if they’re doubting his credibility or his competence. “It raises issues about ‘is this person ready for prime time?’ ”

In a round of talks with GOP insiders, I was reminded of a flap that threatened Republican Mark Kirk when he was in a heated contest for the U.S. Senate. Kirk was assailed for “embellishments” on his military record. It rocked his campaign. It was national news. Even Kirk loyalists worried he wouldn’t survive. 

Kirk didn’t come out in front of the issue at first, letting it linger. The hits kept coming. 

Then Kirk finally came out and offered his mea culpa, no longer appearing as if he were dodging reporters. Former Illinois Republican Chairman Pat Brady, who now heads Next Generation Public Affairs, said he remembers watching the press conference. 

“He answered every last question,” Brady said.

Rauner hasn’t come close to sitting through that kind of media assault, instead answering to media interviews in time-restrained, one-on-one sessions with reporters. Rauner hasn’t held a news conference within reach of the Chicago media since announcing his running mate last year.

Rauner’s much-touted bus tour last week focused on Downstate cities, arriving in Chicago on a Saturday.

So will we see more of Rauner or less of Rauner now? Will his campaign shield him further from impromptu questioning?

“You gotta stay out. You can’t hide. You can’t go away for three days. Get out,” Brady advised. “This shows no one’s right all the time, no one’s wrong all the time. Behave like a leader. That’s what [N.J. Gov.] Chris Christie did. Stand up and take it.”

More stuff is sure to head Rauner’s way, particularly with a new anti-Rauner group poised and ready to pounce.

He could derail those efforts by getting out in front of his weaknesses that are well-known to his team. He could offer clarity on how his daughter was clouted into an elite Chicago high school. He could offer clarity on his ties with convicted serial con man Stuart Levine.

Or he could hide.

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