Illinois Democrat Pat Quinn, the least popular governor in America. Photo by Chris Eaves via Flickr
Pat Quinn, the Democratic governor of Illinois, is fighting for his political life in the final weeks of a reelection campaign against Republican Bruce Rauner, a previously unknown outsider candidate whose biggest claim to fame is a $150,000 membership to an exclusive Napa Valley wine club.
Over the past year, Quinn has done little to nothing to fix his image, and at 31 percent, Quinn’s job approval numbers trail only Rhode Island chief executive Lincoln Chafee among governors, making him the least-liked incumbent governor facing reelection this fall. Unfulfilled income tax promises, a crippling credit rating and an ongoing pension crisis have marred Quinn’s administration for the past six years. Even those who don’t blame solely him for the state’s financial woes criticize his lack of leadership to make a change in the state. It’s a massive hill to climb for Quinn, and it’s showing.
“The reason this is a tight election—besides the general Republican surge around the country—is because of the lower approval ratings,” said Dick Simpson, a political science professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago. “If [Quinn] had a higher approval rating, he’d be even further ahead of Rauner.”
Quinn’s campaign has worked hard to cast his opponent as a liar and a vindictive businessman who ruled over his investment firm with an iron fist. The story of the wealthy GOP corporate capitalist has been an effective trope for Democrats, one that brought the likes of Mitt Romney to his knees in the 2012 presidential race. In Illinois, this narrative seemed to be a viable strategy for Quinn, especially as reports surfaced regarding Rauner’s business practices, including the story of an ugly corporate divorce between the candidate and the CEO of a company that he had once backed. (Note for future gubernatorial candidates: Saying “If you go legal on us, we’ll hurt you and your family,” to a former work colleague is not going to help your campaign.)
“The only thing the [Quinn campaign] can do is try to beat up Bruce Rauner—make him as unattractive as possible,” said Illinois political strategist Patrick Brady, a former chairman of the Illinois Republican Party who has been described as a Rauner supporter. “You haven’t seen any ads on what Pat Quinn is going to do in the next four years... All you’ve seen is ‘Bruce Rauner has horns.’ That’s their whole campaign strategy. They will literally spend tens of millions of dollars trying to convince Illinois voters that Bruce Rauner is evil.”
But since taking a 13-point lead over Quinn in August, Rauner’s advantage has evaporated, and he now trails the incumbent by two points, according to the latest statewide poll. So for now, at least, it seems that Quinn is mounting a comeback that could lead him to victory on November 4. But in a state imbued with post–Rod Blagojevich skepticism and fiscal disarray, Quinn might still be screwed.
Despite gaining the lead in the race, polls also show that voters don’t trust Quinn. And perhaps with good reason. After promising to veto any bill that proposed an income tax increase during his 2010 gubernatorial campaign, Quinn signed a law that raised the income tax to 5 percent, incurring a 66 percent increase for individual income taxes. During his tenure, the state’s credit rating dropped to the lowest in the country, thanks to ballooning pension liabilities. The fiscal situation is in such egregious shambles that it has inspired the phrase “Illinois effect” to describe bond-issuing entities that are forced to pay insanely high interest rates. Basically, Illinois is so deep in debt that the state is forced to pay enormous interest rates any time it needs funding for projects like highway improvements. The problem is largely attributed to the state government’s failure to make payments on public employee retirement funds, which has resulted in a huge pension shortfall and a lack of confidence among investors that Illinois will be able to make good on its debts. According to a recent report from the Civic Federation of Chicago, the state will owe over $6 billion in unpaid bills and other liabilities by the end of fiscal year 2015.
“He’s just not a good governor,” said Brady. “Being governor requires a lot of things. And he just hasn’t shown it. We pay for it and we’re really at a tipping point right now. If we don’t get our fiscal house in order, we are not going to be in a place where we can attract good jobs to keep people here.”
Despite his proclivity for extravagance, Rauner has crafted a campaign that promises much-needed changes on pensions, taxes, and government spending. But like many campaign promises, Rauner’s reforms are non-committal, and will likely be almost impossible to accomplish. And Quinn, along with his prominent cadre of high-profile supporters, including President Barack Obama, is hoping that a national Democratic push in the final weeks of the campaign will convince voters to choose the enemy they know instead of the one that they don’t.