Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner raised eyebrows, then questions about whether he misspoke after he declared "I am not in charge" of the state.
Now it looks like the comment could haunt him all the way until Election Day.
The Republican, who's seeking his second term in 2018, made the unusual declaration last week, telling reporters he's "trying to get to be" in charge of Illinois but has been blocked by his political nemesis, longtime Democratic House Speaker Michael Madigan. Rauner stood by the remark the next day and added, "Everyone in this state knows what I'm talking about."
Rauner's words have reverberated across Illinois, drawing criticism from Democrats, GOP primary challenger Rep. Jeanne Ives and even some of Rauner's biggest supporters.
Billionaire businessman J.B. Pritzker, one of seven people seeking the Democratic nomination for governor, released a video that features a clip of a wide-eyed Rauner making the forceful comments, interspersed with negative news coverage about problems in state agencies.
Democratic Senate President John Cullerton called on Rauner to "take charge" of drafting a new state budget, adding: "It's hard to run a state without a governor."
Even newspaper editorial boards that endorsed Rauner in 2014 and have consistently supported his pro-business agenda chastised him. "Stop griping," the Chicago Tribune wrote.
Rauner's sentiment regarding Madigan wasn't new. For years, the wealthy former private equity investor has blamed Illinois' many problems — financial and otherwise — on Madigan, who leads the state Democratic Party and is widely considered the most powerful politician in Illinois.
The governor pushed things a bit further last week, saying Madigan has gotten rich off his position and "rigged" the Democratic primary for governor, a statement Madigan's spokesman called "incoherent."
Rauner also said the Democratic-controlled General Assembly has blocked many of his legislative priorities but that he is doing an "incredible" job on things he controls, such as reforming the criminal justice system. Madigan says Democrats have rejected Rauner's agenda because it would harm the middle class.
Asked how long he plans to blame Madigan, Rauner replied: "Until he's gone." The response drew applause from onlookers attending an Illinois Farm Bureau meeting.
Christopher Mooney, a political science professor at the University of Illinois at Springfield, said the "Madigan argument" may work for Rauner among people who closely follow state government.
But the typical voter expects the chief executive — whether president or governor — to be running the show. He noted Rauner assured voters during the 2014 campaign that he's been successful at everything he's done.
"If anything, it's going to make the average person nervous," Mooney said. "They may say, 'I don't know much about how state government works, but I sure hope someone is in charge.'"
Rauner's comments came after a cover story in the conservative magazine National Review called him "The Worst Republican Governor in America" and the same day that Ives, a strong fiscal and social conservative, filed petitions to challenge him in the March 20 primary.
The governor dismissed the article as "a political hit piece" and suggested Ives is a "fringe" candidate.
He also said he has the best chance of anyone in the state to win the November 2018 election and that if Democrats take the office, they'll impose a graduated income tax — in which higher earners pay a higher tax rate — that will "destroy Illinois."
"I will win the general election," Rauner said. "I will win."