For a while, it looked like it was a new day in Illinois politics.
For a while, it looked like we had something we’d not seen in a long time in this state: a well-funded Republican candidate for governor with a clear and compelling message that just might win him the governor’s seat.
The message? Bruce Rauner was a political outsider, committed to a new way of conducting politics in Illinois, sent from nowhere to shake things up in Springfield.
Rauner said current Democratic governor Pat Quinn and his friends, such as House Speaker Mike Madigan, were interested only in looking out for themselves in a culture of corruption born out of the old way of doing business.
What was needed, he argued, was someone who didn't have ties to any political establishment, didn’t care about identity politics or social issues, and only wanted to focus on making Illinois more competitive, tax-friendly and creating more jobs.
Backing up that message was a flood of folksy TV ads with Rauner driving a used truck, wearing an $18 watch and trotting out his once-Democratic wife who looked sincerely into the camera to announce she was now backing her husband.
And for months, it worked. Rauner was leading in the polls, Quinn was reeling from a series of well-placed attacks and the argument looked like genius. Maybe Illinois did need a fresh new voice dedicated to getting things done and who avoided the old, worn-out school of personal politics.
And then came an unexpected reversal of fortune in Rauner’s polling numbers, and all that went away in one fell swoop.
The proof? It seems when its back is up against the wall, the Rauner campaign is more than happy to revert to the one of the oldest political tricks in the book: stoking racial fears about crime.
After being pummeled with stories about Rauner’s old investment firm, GTCR, potentially playing a role in skirting responsibility for deaths at a nursing home chain the firm once owned and news 12 other firms linked to Rauner had also gone bankrupt, the polls started showing a shift that allowed Quinn to effectively close the gap between the two candidates.
As a result, the Rauner campaign earlier this week released a TV ad blaming Gov. Quinn for putting sex offenders, wife beaters and murderers back in the street as part of a 2009 early prison release program.
The basis of the accusations involves two convicted criminals who were granted early release as part of an early release program designed to save the state money. One, Edjuan Payne, is charged with murder in Peoria after being released. The other, Derrick Allmon, is charged with shooting 9 year-old Antonio Smith in Chicago last month.
The ad is part of a long line of tried-and-true political attacks, most often used by Republicans against Democrats, that goes all the way back to the 1988 George Bush presidential campaign against Democrat Michael Dukakis.
Then, Bush campaign manager, the late Lee Atwater, created an entire campaign strategy around tying Horton, a convicted felon who committed assault, armed robbery and rape while on a weekend furlough program in Massachusetts in 1986 to Dukakis being soft on crime.
As part of the strategy, Atwater was quoted as saying "By the time we're finished, they're going to wonder whether Willie Horton is Dukakis' running mate."
Rauner may not be going that far, but his decision to pivot away from a campaign of being an outsider to attacking Quinn for being soft on crime calls into question his sincerity in practicing a new brand of politics in Illinois.
The tactic is tried-and-true because it often works. Plastering Horton’s face, who was black, across the nation’s airwaves associating race with crime helped propel Bush past Dukakis handily. The 2014 Alaska Senate race was roiled when Democratic incumbent Mark Begich's campaign released a brutal new TV ad tying Republican challenger Dan Sullivan to a horrific Anchorage murder case.
And it almost worked for Democratic incumbent Toni Berrios in her reelection race for 39th House district in Illinois against Will Guzzardi.
Of course, it’s yet to be seen if this latest line of attack will do the same for Rauner. But one thing is certain:
From the perspective of the Rauner campaign, the race is no longer about presenting the candidate as a fresh-faced outsider riding into town simply to shake things up.
It's about doing whatever it takes to win. Just like any other politician running for office.