In the mid-term struggle over control of Congress and state governments, Illinois is not supposed to be a battleground.
It is one of the country’s most solidly blue states, a place where a sitting Democratic governor should coast to re-election.
But these are not ordinary times in Illinois.
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Gov. Pat Quinn, who first took office in 2009 as an automatic replacement for the disgraced Rod Blagojevich and narrowly won election the following year, is hanging on by the slimmest of margins.
Quinn is one of America’s least popular governors, weighted down by a terrible state economy and a fiscally challenged government that can’t pay its bills. An income-tax hike did little to help. His attempts to rein in the country’s worst pension deficit have sparked a revolt by public-employees unions, necessary allies for a Democrat. He started the year with about $4.5 million in his campaign account, but his likely opponent is a wealthy Republican venture capitalist who can easily match him.
If conditions were different, Quinn would likely be rolling on the greased wheels of incumbency.
But the man can’t win for losing.
“Nobody is saying that this is a well-governed state right now,” said Christopher Mooney, a professor of political science at the University of Illinois at Springfield.
Public opinion polls indicate that about a third of voters approve of Quinn’s performance, and about six in 10 do not. Washington handicappers have rated the race a tossup — saying, essentially, that Quinn’s five years in office grant him no advantage.
“Can he win re-election? Yeah. He’s not a dead man walking,” said Jennifer Duffy, senior editor at The Cook Political Report. “But he’s going to have to run a really strong race.”
The campaign, like any gubernatorial contest, is local. But it is also part of a much larger battle playing out across the national political landscape.
If Congressional races are the main event, then the undercards are the 36 governor’s races to be decided this fall, several of which are considered up for grabs. While control of statehouses won’t swing the balance of power in Washington, they are sites for proxy wars over many key policy and ideological issues: the Affordable Care Act, minimum wage, pension reform, taxes, education spending, the role government should play in the economic recovery. With public confidence in Congress minuscule, the next president could very well turn out to be a current governor.
Most attention is focused on the Republican governors who came to power in largely blue states in the tumultuous Tea Party-driven mid-term year of 2010. The GOP is fiercely defending seats in Wisconsin, Ohio, Florida, Pennsylvania, Michigan and Maine.
But Democrats, who stand to lose most in the mid-terms, are anxious, too.
Quinn is the biggest example. To Republicans, beating him would be a major embarrassment for the president’s home state.
“If he loses, it won’t have a tangible effect on the rest of the country, but it could be a national story,” said Nathan Gonzales, deputy editor of The Rothenberg Political Report.
Quinn himself has said he considers his re-election campaign a “battle for the soul of Illinois.”
There are two prevailing characterizations of Quinn: that he is lucky, and that he is a survivor. The truth lies somewhere in the middle.
When Blagojevich was impeached and removed from office, Quinn, as lieutenant governor, took power. He narrowly won the Democratic primary in 2010, and faced off against a conservative Republican state senator in the general election. Quinn won by just a few thousand votes, which even then was considered an upset.
His first term sagged under Illinois’ economic troubles, but Quinn managed to pass an income tax hike and an overhaul of the way the state funds its pensions. He signed a bill legalizing gay marriage, and another legalizing medical marijuana.
He was never very popular, but his numbers didn’t improve much. Nevertheless, he’s faced no serious challengers from within his own party. Bill Daley, brother and son to two former Chicago mayors and a former chief of staff to President Obama, dropped out of the race last summer. So did Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan. Both could have feasibly beat Quinn.
“Any time I think about counting Quinn out, I think about the times he has survived,” Gonzales said.
The next test could be his toughest. The Republican primary, to be held March 18, will decide his general election opponent. In all likelihood, it will be venture capitalist Bruce Rauner, a moderate Republican who can afford to blanket airwaves with ads.
Quinn seems likely to focus on many of the same social and economic issues that President Obama and many other Democrats around the country are talking about: income inequality, raising the minimum wage, early childhood education. He has hired Bill Hyers, who ran New York Mayor Bill de Blasio’s 2013 darkhorse victory by stressing those populist issues, to try to do the same in Illinois.
“Quinn’s game plan will likely be to try to convince voters in Illinois that the state is back on the right track, and contrast himself with a very wealthy Republican nominee,” Gonzales said.
He added: “If it’s just a referendum on “Do you like Quinn?’…then the governor probably loses that race.”
In the end, Quinn is still an incumbent Democrat in a dependably blue state, and the likely beneficiary of Chicago’s get-out-the-vote machinery, which propelled him to his narrow 2010 victory.
That alone is more than any Republican can boast.
What’s missing, Duffy noted, is enthusiasm.
“Given that it’s Illinois, I think it’s probably going to be a really close race.”