You may have heard about a recent Paul Simon Public Policy Institute poll which found that Gov. Bruce Rauner's job disapproval ratings have almost doubled in the past two years, from 31 percent in March of 2015 to 58 percent this month. According to the poll, Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan's current disapproval rating is 61 percent, about the same as his 63 percent disapproval rating last October. Rauner's disapproval rating last October was 55 percent.
During this long governmental impasse, Madigan has championed the cause of unions and working people against the
governor's attempts to take rights and benefits away from them. But the Democrat is actually underwater with union members. According to the Simon poll, 55 percent of respondents who said they belong to a union disapprove of Madigan's job performance, including 38 percent who strongly disapprove. Just 34 percent of union members approve of his job performance, while only 12 percent strongly approve. All this pain and they still don't like him.
But union members dislike the governor far more. The poll found that 72 percent of union members disapprove of Rauner's job performance, and half of union members strongly disapprove. Only 24 percent approve. On Rauner, anyway, the union message has gotten out.
At the very beginning of this impasse almost two years ago, a top Madigan operative told me the plan was to drag Rauner down to the same polling levels as the House Speaker. They're very nearly there.
Rauner is polling horribly everywhere. 58 percent of suburbanites and 56 percent of Downstaters disapprove of his job performance. Another 62 percent of moderates, 60 percent of independents, 47 percent of born-again Christians, 55 percent of men, 61 percent of women, 56 percent of seniors (66+), 54 percent of whites, 56 percent of those making over $100,000 a year and 55 percent of non-union members all disapprove of his job performance.
The same day J.B. Pritzker announced he was forming an exploratory committee to run for governor, the Illinois Republican Party made a wildly unsubstantiated claim that the Democrat was "at the center of Blagojevich's criminal scheme to sell Illinois' Senate seat." Like it or not, this is our future.
Barring a dramatic turnaround in his approval ratings, Rauner's only sure path to re-election is to make his opponent look even uglier than he does — and he looks pretty darned ugly right now. But he's also got a very expensive ugly stick with which he can bludgeon the other side. He's already deposited $50 million into his campaign bank account and there's plenty more cash where that came from. So, 2018 will not only likely be the most expensive gubernatorial race in history, it'll be the meanest, because now that the governor has opened the door to these sorts of crazy attacks, the other side will undoubtedly respond in kind.
Rauner has spent tens of millions of dollars muddying up Madigan's image and he'll definitely use this "issue" against whoever his opponent will be. Campaigns are usually referendums on the incumbent, so Rauner will attempt to make Madigan and whoever his alleged puppet gubernatorial candidate is the incumbents while positioning himself as the outsider trying to change things for the better. For the past two years, the whole plan has been to equate "Democrat" with "Madigan" in voters' minds. And it's had some success.
"When is a Democrat going to run a campaign for that 61 percent?" a Democratic operative asked me last week, referring to the obvious opportunity to capitalize on Madigan's 61 percent disapproval rating. To the operative, this is a no-brainer. Run a campaign that criticizes both Rauner and Madigan. After all, even more Democrats disapprove of Madigan's job performance (47 percent) than approve (40 percent), while 27 percent of Democrats strongly disapprove and only a tiny 9 percent strongly approve.
So far, announced Democratic candidate Chris Kennedy has seemed to go out of his way to avoid directly criticizing Madigan. Even Ameya Pawar, the progressive Democratic candidate, hasn't really launched on the guy. Pritzker hasn't granted any serious interviews and hasn't issued any substantive policy statements, so we don't know yet where he'll stand.
Meanwhile, the Democratic Party has not done much of anything to equate "Republican" with "Rauner" in voters' minds. Rauner's numbers were almost as bad last October as they are now, but the Democrats barely mentioned him in their campaigns. It's probably time to start thinking about that.
Crain's contributor Rich Miller publishes CapitolFax.com.