Gov. Bruce Rauner has hired a new campaign manager as he gears up to run for a second term, according to multiple sources.
Political consultant Betsy Ankney will head Rauner’s team, sources said Saturday, though the Republican governor has yet to formally announce his re-election campaign.
Ankney most recently managed U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson’s 2016 campaign in Wisconsin, pulling off an upset victory in the critical swing state.
In multiple interviews, Ankney has credited Johnson’s success in part to the data operation inherited from Scott Walker’s 2014 campaign, which helped position the campaign to better understand the electorate, despite lagging poll numbers throughout the race.
In many ways, Rauner’s upcoming re-election bid mirrors Johnson’s – a wealthy businessman-turned-politician running as a vulnerable first-term Republican incumbent in a typically blue state, painting himself as an outsider and looking to capitalize on voters’ frustrations with dysfunction in the Capitol.
Stalemates in Springfield have certainly taken their toll, as recent internal Dem polling showed Rauner – who presided over Illinois’ two-yearlong budget impasse and remains locked in yet another battle over school funding – has a disapproval rating hovering around 63 percent.
Rauner has used longtime House Speaker Mike Madigan as a foil since entering the political arena, using a "Bring Back Illinois" message that shows no signs of slowing and bears similarities to Johnson’s portrayal of opponent Russ Feingold as a career politician.
Though Ankney will likely continue to employ similar strategies in Rauner’s race, key differences remain.
Perhaps most importantly, Ankney has called the Republican Party of Wisconsin "one of the very best" state parties in the country, saying that the organization worked with the governor and entire congressional delegation to run a "first-rate operation" that helped put Johnson over the top – and has maintained majorities in the Wisconsin Senate and Assembly.
That’s not quite the case in Illinois, where Democrats control the legislature and the Illinois Republican Party has more-or-less become a de facto arm of Rauner, who’s been far and away its biggest financial supporter.
Rauner has poured more than $30 million into the party’s coffers through his own committee, to which he is also the largest donor – giving his campaign more than $95 million of his own money thus far.
As a result, Ankney will be managing far more than the $20 million budget she had in Wisconsin, according to her biography on the American Association of Political Consultants’ website, as Rauner had more than $67 million in his campaign fund at the end of the most recent reporting period on June 30.
Another potentially stark contrast between Rauner and Johnson’s bids for re-election lies in the question that keeps political strategists awake at night: What will the 2018 electorate look like?
Ankney told Roll Call that Johnson’s 2016 campaign succeeded because they chose not to operate with the assumption that voters would behave as they did in 2012.
"The biggest thing that nobody understood was what a likely voter was. That has been completely upended," Ankney said.
In Wisconsin, Ankney said she constructed Johnson’s operation from the ground up over the course of three years.
Now, she’ll join Rauner’s campaign with less than half that time and at the tail end of an already rather tumultuous rebuild.
A major shake-up in July saw the termination or resignation of 20 staffers in both Rauner’s political and government offices – with several of the positions filled by employees of the Illinois Policy Institute, a conservative think tank.
One of the most high-profile departures was that of Mike Zolnierowicz, who was Rauner’s deputy campaign manager in 2014, then his chief of staff through June 2016 before he turned to consulting and served as chief strategic advisor for Rauner and Republicans statewide.
Zolnierowicz was reportedly among those concerned by Rauner’s staff changes, which signaled in part a pivot to the right in an apparent effort to regain lost ground with his GOP base.
Rauner has not had an official campaign manager since Chip Englander led his 2014 operation.
An Ohio native, Ankney began her career in politics with the Republican National Committee and has also been involved in Chris Christie’s bid for New Jersey governor, as well as Scott Brown’s Senate campaign in Massachusetts.
Rauner’s campaign did not immediately respond to request for comment.