The campaign was vicious, with $100 million in spending that shattered records and with a projected paper-thin differential that drew top politicians, from the president on down, to stump in Illinois.
To the end, polls had the governor’s contest neck and neck.
Then reality unfolded.
On Nov. 4, Gov. Pat Quinn’s re-election campaign staff felt confident, but they still braced for a nail-biter of an election night.
Private internal numbers for Republican Bruce Rauner showed him leading, but the army he had built up from 83 field offices around the state was deployed all the same, and many of those workers had phone apps telling them exactly which doors to knock on.
In the end, Rauner’s victory was anything but paper-thin. He finished over Quinn by 5 full percentage points statewide. He swept every county but Cook, and his numbers there were greater than what U.S. Sen. Mark Kirk, R-Ill., had in 2010.
Exit polls showed Rauner did it in a year that had more Democrats and liberals at voting booths than in previous gubernatorial elections.
So just how did Rauner make a blue state vote red for a day?
For starters, Quinn grossly underperformed. Quinn needed the city to turn out big and boost numbers from 2010. But turnout was down from 2010 — a major miscalculation that didn’t factor into any of Quinn’s field models, stunning the organization. At least some of that can be blamed on snafus, intended and unintended, that triggered unseemly lines at city polling booths, likely depressing votes from those who attempted to turn out.
One aspect of the Rauner campaign was his work in African-American communities, partnering with popular pastors. While his numbers showed little gains in those areas, Rauner’s camp believes it was time well-spent. They think it helped block Democrats from demonizing him to minority groups, making them less motivated to go to the polls. It also helped make Rauner appealing to more moderate voters statewide, they say.
“This was the biggest Republican win for governor or senator since Jim Edgar. We did it because we won all the moderates outright,” Rauner campaign manager Chip Englander said. “We won a higher percentage of Democrats while winning more Republicans and more conservatives than [Mark] Kirk or [Bill] Brady did.
“We had a ground game that nobody saw coming,” Englander said. “This was the biggest race in America. This race literally is one of the all-time greatest … I think we ran the best campaign in the country.”
Englander held up the victory as a model for not just future GOP candidates in Illinois but one for the nation.
That immediately brought naysayers.
“They think this is the new model? Are any of them of legal age? Are they old enough to vote? I say that sarcastically, but the only thing new about the model is this guy dumps in $27 million of his own dollars. That’s the only thing new,” said Charles N. Wheeler III, director of the public affairs reporting program at the University of Illinois at Springfield.
Wheeler said Rauner pulled from the same historical playbook used by previous Republican governors: social moderate, fiscal conservative. “That’s the exact way that Jim Thompson, Jim Edgar and Gov. Ryan won. That’s exactly how they’ve won statewide.”
Money and message
He outspent Quinn. The camp burned through some $60 million, including $27 million of Rauner’s own money, compared with roughly $35 million by Quinn.
Rauner’s camp contends they had a lot of building to do. They invested heavily into technology and data, what’s largely seen as a GOP weakness nationally and in Illinois. The operation ordered up more than 600 polls and pulled out data strands to narrow targets. Beyond Republicans, there were suburban women, far-right conservatives, disaffected Democrats and, above all, independents.
“We made a huge investment in modeling and data from the very beginning,” Englander said. “We landed on several different universes, suburban women, conservatives. We made all these buckets and that’s who we walked, called and mailed.”
Englander maintains his campaign was the most “disciplined” in the country, pointing to Rauner not wavering from his message, even when external polls showed him trailing.
There’s no question the campaign took on a scorched-earth mentality,including with the media,employing a massive opposition research operation and repeatedly going to the mat over even the most minute of issues.
Rauner heavily invested in the Republican Party in Illinois, essentially owning it. It gave him the ability to control various aspects of the state party, including messaging.
Early on, Rauner team members immersed themselves in aspects of state agencies as well as the state legislature, finding friendly Republicans with whom to privately partner.
His team helped churn out narratives unfavorable to Rauner opponents in the GOP primary and later, fingerprints of Rauner operatives could be seen fanning the flames on Quinn’s anti-violence program.
On the campaign trail, Rauner was criticized for being different things to different people and for failing to lay out what issues he really stood behind. In the face of a massive budget hole, Rauner made lofty promises to lower the state income tax from 5 to 3 percent and pay for it by rooting out corruption, “growing the economy” and imposing a tax on some services in Illinois. Rauner also vowed to increase school funding while freezing property taxes — something governors have no control over.
In the primary, he assailed “government union bosses” and talked about lowering the minimum wage and vetoing the same-sex marriage bill.
Such rhetoric softened in the general election. In Chicago, but not Downstate, Rauner ran pro-same sex marriage ads as well as TV spots where his wife, Diana, identified herself as a Democrat and vouched for her husband having no social agenda.
In 2010, the more conservative leaning state Sen. Bill Brady lost the vote by suburban women when the pro-choice Personal PAC came in with a negative attack the weekend before the election. Brady lost to Quinn by 32,000 votes statewide.
Personal PAC did the same to Rauner, but his campaign was prepared with a rebuttal ad.
Wider GOP margins
Even without his embracing abortion opponents in his party, the campaign says Rauner managed to win by larger margins of Republicans, conservatives and a higher percentage Downstate voters than Brady did in 2010. They say Rauner appealed to those groups with his support for guns, term limits and his mantra to root out corruption in Springfield and “bring back Illinois.”
Beyond that, Rauner campaigned heavily in central and southern Illinois. Englander said the campaign had 10,000 volunteers statewide, and in the final three days of the campaign, they knocked on more doors than in all of the 2010 campaign.
Rauner’s operation rejects that its win was part of the Republican wave that swept the country, pointing to the Democratic stranglehold on both chambers of the Illinois General Assembly. Democrats kept their supermajorities, not ceding even one seat to a Republican in the Illinois House, though in some of the same districts where the GOP state candidate lost, Rauner won. However, nationally, turnout was down in urban centers.
In an interview, former Gov. Jim Thompson noted that it wasn’t long ago when it was considered historic to have a Democrat in the governor’s mansion.
“We had a Republican governor for 26 years, the longest stretch in the nation,” he said.
Thompson credited Rauner for his investment in social media and technology, in running smart ads and for hustling around the state. “You could find him anywhere in the state.”
As for Rauner’s campaigning in African-American communities, well, that was nothing new to Thompson.
“No, I did that. I preached in more churches than I can think of. I had one pastor say: ‘Don’t be competin’ with me boy.’ No, that’s not new,” Thompson said.
Thompson did credit Rauner with his outreach Downstate. “It shows they will respond to an appeal to them,” Thompson said.
Rauner recognized that Downstate voters shouldn’t be characterized as a monolithic conservative group, Thompson said. “That’s where you start, that’s not where you finish.”
Still seeing blue
Wheeler, from U of I-Springfield, made more parallels between Rauner and Thompson when it came to deal-making.
“Bruce Rauner doesn’t appear to have any core. You really don’t know, is there anything there? Is there any core set of principles out there that he stands for?” he said.
“He’s in a position where he really has made no commitments on these issues to anybody. He’s very flexible. … There’s nothing to suggest he has detailed philosophical objections to anything,” Wheeler said. “In that sense, he’s more like a Jim Thompson. They’re willing to compromise, they’re willing to settle for half a loaf.”
Kent Redfield, professor emeritus from the University of Illinois at Springfield, said Rauner’s campaign offers a clear map for Republicans to be more competitive in Illinois by honing in on the economy.
“We look bluer than we probably are, but we continue to be a blue state,” Redfield said. “You don’t want to push it too far. You don’t want to read into this election that somehow we made this lurch in the other direction.”
Redfield said some facts are simple in the Rauner-Quinn race, including that it’s no shock voters went with a new, unknown candidate over a flawed Democratic incumbent who is coming out of an incredible budget mess.
Yet some of Rauner’s strategy reminded Redfield of another governor.
“In the primary, he was able to ignore the social issues and throw out the red meat on union busting. Then in the general it was about shaking up Springfield,” Redfield said. “Really, it was reminiscent of the Rod Blagojevich ‘reform and renewal’ campaign. I certainly hope that’s where the similarities end.”