Opinion: How Emanuel Can Regain Momentum

After running a disciplined, strategic and well-funded campaign, the nation’s most powerful mayor is heading into a surprise runoff election

EDITOR'S NOTE: Ward Room author Brooke Anderson has a unique perspective on Chicago and Illinois politics. She worked as the director of communications for former Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn, who lost a re-election bid to current Gov. Bruce Rauner. Prior to that position, she worked on the 2011 mayoral campaign for Gery Chico, who ran against Rahm Emanuel. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of NBC News.

Let’s be real: Mayor Rahm Emanuel didn’t get knocked into a runoff Tuesday because challenger Jesus "Chuy" Garcia ran such a great campaign.

Garcia and his fellow challengers didn’t have the money to execute a first-rate effort. And beyond the "I’m not Rahm" message, none of the challengers made a clear case for themselves.

Yet after running a disciplined, strategic and extraordinarily well-funded campaign, the nation’s most powerful mayor begins his runoff Wednesday.

So how does Emanuel turn this thing around and reclaim the momentum?

First, he needs to change the narrative immediately. To win decisively on April 7, Emanuel must make this race about a choice between two candidates – not a referendum on his last four years.

This runoff allows both candidates to appeal to the broader electorate. There will be more debates, more substance, and more scrutiny as to who is better prepared to lead the city for the next four years.

Making this election about a choice also means that we should expect the Emanuel campaign to aggressively amp up their efforts to define Garcia. (I’ll be surprised if they don't have new attack ads up before the weekend.)

Second, eating some humble pie right now could do the mayor some good.

Fairly or not, there’s a perception out there -- advocated by his critics -- that the mayor doesn’t listen to the concerns of everyday people. Those flames get fanned when his supporters bankroll a Super PAC to snuff out any opposition to his agenda or when he blows off media questions in the days leading up to the election (Opinion leaders and many in the media energetically rooted for a run-off).

It’s human nature to want to see someone who appears to always know better and be in constant and total control get knocked off their high horse. And that’s what happened Tuesday.

But the good news for Emanuel is that he can turn this table and change the campaign dynamic. He could send a message of accessibility and score some points with the media by taking every question at his next press conference.

He could warm up his appeal to voters by acknowledging, at the right moment in the weeks ahead, that he hasn’t done everything right. And while his supporters say he’s been making tough choices to move the city forward, sending some smoke signals that he will take a more inclusive approach to governing in his second term would probably go a long way.

Imperfection resonates. It’s human. Some off-message sincerity -- even vulnerability -- could be just what the mayor needs.

Of course, there are other things he’ll need to do, like stopping Garcia from forming the progressive coalition that Mayor Harold Washington once built.

But the most important thing he can do is make some strides in the "who you’d like to have a beer with" category and show some heart.

Emanuel's most formidable opponent right now is himself.

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