After a series of vicious non-debate debates, Democratic Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn and his Republican opponent Bruce Rauner will re-convene in Peoria for their first official debate-debate on Thursday night.
The event is being hosted by the League of Women Voters and a handful of public TV and radio stations.
This is going to get ugly.
Quinn, fighting for his political future amid heavy competition from Rauner, is an attack dog in sheep's clothing. The secretly wily veteran politician exudes a grandfatherly gentleness on the surface but when push comes to shove, he'll not think twice to deploy an arsenal of toxic verbal grenades at the enemy. Quinn's experience on the campaign pulpit—he knows exactly what to say to mobilize the base—should serve him well as he mounts a last-stage comeback ahead of Nov. 4's election.
But Rauner is more than prepared to fight back. The wealthy Winnetka investor gives off airs of reason, substance and competence, a swagger perhaps honed from years of leading boardroom meetings as managing partner at the Chicago private equity firm GTCR. He looks more like a governor than the governor. Rauner's corporate professionalism will help sell his agenda to "Shake Up Springfield" and run the state capitol like a business.
Since Rauner won the GOP primary in March, these two mortal enemies have been embroiled in an increasingly competitive, expensive and nasty battle that gained national attention with Republicans eyeing an opportunity to turn Illinois from blue to red.
Both men, especially Rauner, have poured big bucks into media campaigns to smear one another.
Both men have baggage ... and then some.
The venture capitalist-turned-political candidate had the edge in late spring and throughout the summer up until September, when Quinn seized upon a string of public gaffes by Rauner that included his admission to previously pitching the idea to eliminate the minimum wage entirely. Team Quinn, leveraging the income inequality issue that's gaining traction across the nation as the wealth gap widens, moved to cast Rauner as too out of touch with the average Illinoisan to lead Illinois. Now the incumbent has surged forward in polling.
As the multi-millionaire businessman struggles to regain his footing in the race, he will doubtless use his time in the spotlight tonight to address a state lawmaker panel's unfolding investigation into Quinn's disastrous Neighborhood Recovery Initiative, an anti-violence program launched four years ago and later shuttered amid reports of managerial incompetence and financial wrongdoing. The NRI, also under federal investigation, is ready-made fodder for Team Rauner as well as allegations of patronage hiring inside the Illinois Department of Transportation under Quinn's watch.
The opponents will likely square off on a range of issues ranging from the state budget to the minimum wage to pension reform to inevitable bickering over who's less corrupt.
Working in Quinn's favor: The audience. The League of Women Voters, a nonpartisan political organization, might be more welcoming toward Quinn than Rauner. The governor tracks better with women, whose votes are eagerly courted with each new election cycle, and recently won the endorsement of feminist icon Gloria Steinem. Michelle Obama and Hillary Clinton flew into Chicago this week to rally Democrats on his behalf.
Rauner, who polls better with men, has tried to appeal to women through starring in light-hearted campaign ads with his wife, Diana, a Democrat. He chose Evelyn Sanguinetti, an attorney from Wheaton, as his running mate and recently launched the group Women for Rauner.